On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

by Daniel Johnson

  The Strangers  (2008)

The Strangers (2008)

The most common response I get when I tell people that I studied horror films for my undergraduate degree is, simply: “No you didn’t.”

It’s true and it’s not. My Horror Films Studies course was only one three-credit elective toward the completion of my Film minor. Sometimes I deliver that line as if my degree thesis was, say, an analysis of how the graphic reportage of the Vietnam War contributed to the terror surrounding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I do this, in part, because I’ll take any chance I can get to seem eccentric; it’s a fast-paced world out there, after all, full of people far more interesting than I am.

A fraction of the truth is that I’m particularly smitten by the genre because I associate the fear it elicits with the thrill of being young and dumb and in love. When I was in high school, such was the move: invite a girl to your place, share a blanket, and watch a scary flick on the couch in the basement, under the exposed guts of your house, pipes that would writhe and groan in uncanny rhythm with the silences in the movie. Lights off, obviously. Just she and I and the electric blue of the PG-13 hellscape on the old tube TV, a couple of Diet Cokes. This was my introduction into the realm of filmic terror.

It was also how I started seeing my first long-term girlfriend. Our initial dates were viewings of Disturbia and Cloverfield—two of those hedged, quasi-horror, quasi-thriller films that served to ease us into the genre before going full-on Rosemary’s Baby. We took it slow.

Those nights, beneath the blanket, we’d rub socked feet, lean into each other as cameras panned down dark hallways, excruciating and unhurried. If I was lucky, her shirt would have slid up during a jump-scare so that, when I put my hand back where it had been before we both reacted, it would be resting against the soft skin of her lower back. Some of my first exposure to intense, blue-balling sexual tension went just like that: my arousal, as well as the possibility of embracing its source, intensified at the same rate as manufactured fear.

With the same girlfriend, whenever we were at her place—a ranch home full of Catholic, conservative, God-fearing Italians—we’d have to play board games or watch rom-coms on the couch with her mother, who often chose the movie, and who could only handle leaving us alone for the duration of a bathroom break. We could hold hands. No blankets. She left the lamp on.

About halfway through Hitch or Just Friends, she’d feed us homemade, ultra-breaded marinara dishes made brick-heavy by all the cheese. My girlfriend and I would reluctantly eat on separate couch cushions while we watched the rest of the movie. We did this out of respect. My lap would grow warm from the heat of the food on the plate; I’d sweat in places I really didn’t want to be sweating.

I’m still convinced her mother was some sort of overprotective super villain. It was brilliant: she only made food that she knew would give us the meat/lactose sweats, so that whatever immediate attraction we felt for each other would be absolutely bludgeoned to death. The sexiest thing about those nights was the shit I would take when I got home that mercifully rid my body of maybe half the dairy I’d consumed for dinner.

To be clear, I wasn’t (and am not now) opposed to some good old fashioned family fun. I wasn’t (and am not now) a dog. But in that specific environment, under the shadow of my girlfriend’s mother, in the glow of a movie which likely had some ideologically rigid and self-righteous portrayal of love, trapped in home-cooked sweat, it all felt constricting. It felt like something that hadn’t yet taken shape was being viciously and unfairly molded by someone who had, all her life, suffered her various terrors. All her daughter and I wanted to do with each other was embrace terrors of our very own, twist ourselves in them. We wanted to use them to get weird with our unexplored, pubescent bodies.

Horror films were crucial to this sort of young, suburban passion. They were a superficial, straight-to-DVD rabbit-hole into the warped kingdom of my sexuality. At my house, what ended up happening beneath the blanket was always in stark contrast to the banality of the Diet Cokes, the buffalo-plaid couch, the artisanal, colonial décor of my suburban New England home. It was a netherworld made accessible by even the cheapest jump-scares.

She and I eventually moved on from the Cloverfields to more realist contemporary horror. Our staple was The Strangers: Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler alone together in house that wasn’t theirs, fucking on the table after Liv turned down Scott’s proposal for marriage. Three masked strangers with knives dog them through the night, mechanically breaking them down with horrifying foreplay: knocks on the window, record players mysteriously turned off in the other room, the front door left wide open. All of which led up to the slowest, gentlest, most terrifying stabbing sequence I’ve ever seen.

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The ‘suburban’ modifier to that passion is perhaps its most important quality. In the short length of a year following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centers, vacancy rates in Lower Manhattan more than doubled. Families fled to places like my hometown: good public school systems, vast green commons, neighborhoods labeled as "Estates." I remember the influx of people, the municipal scramble to develop more cul-de-sacs, more condos, all the DPW trucks with their hazard lights flashing, fleets of them parked on top of berms outside vacant lots.

Over the course of the next decade, the horror industry exploited the safety America projected onto the suburbs. For those of us who were already there, like myself, the walls had closed in on our world a little bit. We understood then that we might be in the suburbs for the rest of our lives. At the time, after the attacks, we didn’t know how long those, our lives, would even last. We had less of a possible escape than we did before, and there seemed to be a doomsday clock on our American existence.

An example of how the horror/terror genre was always a step ahead of us: a film like Cloverfield exacerbated our fear of faceless, monumental terrors sacking our metropolises and burning them to the ground. The logical escape from that is an exodus to the suburbs. That’s where films like Disturbia, The Strangers and It Follows come into play; there are serial killer neighbors hiding in plain sight, and whatever it is that’s chasing us won’t stop just because we moved to a cul-de-sac. So okay, we’ll stay inside. But then our houses are haunted in films like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and (my favorite campy-slogan example of this) When a Stranger Calls: “The call is coming from inside the house!”

And so what’s the final temple? What’s our last defense from horrible death? After we have left our homes, all that we’ve got are our bodies. Which is why, so often, possession films are the most terrifying of all: The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Conjuring. The reason we’ve seen such an oversaturation of these stories in recent years is because, within the last decade, the horror industry has exhausted all its precedent anxieties. We’ve reached the end of a cycle in which movies have systematically broken our sanctuaries down, violated them, reminded us we aren’t ever safe, the way masked sociopaths do to beautiful, nearly-married couples on vacation.

Perhaps that’s why it always felt like the awareness and discovery my ex-girlfriend and I experienced with regards to our bodies was a profound sort of transcendence. In beating the genre’s most unbeatable gambit, we came to appreciate it. I went on to study it.

This cycle is starting over. Earlier this month, Robert Eggers released his critically acclaimed directorial debut, The Witch. It calls itself a “New England Folktale,” in which a Puritan family is exiled from a settlement in 1630, only to move out to the banks of a forest, where they’re under siege from woodland witches. They struggle with their own fears of a fundamentalist God. We’re returning to the origins of American horror, to the forms it took when it secured its foothold in our country’s earliest people: when sexuality meant witchcraft, and believing in God meant believing that we were the devil.

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Another response I tend to get when I tell people I studied horror films for my undergrad degree: something to the effect of, “Why?”

Fair question. A lot of them are unadulterated garbage. As a genre, though, and as a complete corpus of filmic art, they’re not deserving of such a reductive dismissal. Sometimes the psychology behind them is painfully on-the-nose, but at least they offer an accessible window into some complex ideas. They start conversations. They deserve their place in academia. A lot of them are kind of hot.

And yet, over time, my visceral lust for the genre has leveled off. There’s still all that hormones-on-parade history that textures those films with a certain nostalgic ecstasy. But as I've grown up, I've carved spaces for horror in tamer traditions.

Every Halloween, now, I get together in my basement with most of my fantasy football league—some years as few as three of us, others as many as twelve men and women. After I shut the porch light off at 9:00, we bring whiskey and beer and the remaining trick-or-treat candy to the basement and watch three horror movies on Netflix that we’ve never seen before. Lights out, obviously. Sometimes blankets, a better TV than before. We revel in the tradition, in the terribly-delivered lines that become part of our shared vernacular. Occasionally, we’re all genuinely scared. Even when we're not, there’s always a palpable energy in the room, something alive and slightly dangerous.

It’s no surprise to me that the folks with whom I watch sports are exactly those who appreciate the subtle nuances of sharing a horror film together. In his short essay for The Paris Review Daily, “Nauseating, Violent, and Ours,” Chris Bachelder (The Throwback Special) writes this about sports as a shared experience:

“I’ve spent some time wondering why I still watch and care about sports, particularly football, and I grasp at the idea that an avid interest in sports might be connected to a desire to belong. We could debate whether this is a justifiable and edifying expression of this desire, but the desire itself seems vital and real. In caring about sports, we join others in caring deeply about something over which we have essentially no control, our lucky socks notwithstanding. The stakes are not genuinely high, but they feel high, and worthy of our passions. Our powerlessness as passive viewers is mitigated by our sense of belonging, as it is by the comfortingly orderly rites and rituals of seasons and spectatorship. We experience occasional joy and wonder, frequent disappointment, and, in some cases, anguish and horror. All of this we experience communally, even when we watch alone.”

Why horror films? Five years ago, I would’ve told you it’s because they make for great dates. I still believe they do. But these days, it’s all about exactly what Bachelder posits: like sports, being terrified is a shared experience. Emotions are wrenched out of us by the spectacular. And it doesn’t really matter what in particular we feel. It doesn't to me, at least. What matters is the experience of feeling something, together.