Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Horror is Other People

One of the pitfalls of enjoying older horror films is discovering whether or not they still hold up in the 21st century. Some are so inextricably tied to their time period, that they lose any possibility of timelessness. But even if the audience is fine with that, accepts it, even loves it, it could still lose them if it just isn't scary anymore. Sometimes the only thing left is the satisfaction and appreciation for a well-crafted, masterful horror film-- even if it's no longer that relevant to modern life or modern fear.

One of the films that I find still holds up really well is PSYCHO.

While re-watching the film recently, I was glad to still feel engaged, sympathetic to the characters, and best of all, nervous and freaked out. It's remarkable the effect that shower scene still has after all these years, after the glut of sexualized, gratuitous violence that has infected a good portion of modern horror. Brief tangent, I do worry about my own/society's desensitization to these things, which I believe is in horror's best interest to prevent, not one-up until nothing phases us anymore. But I digress. 

Marion's death is meant to be titillating, to be sure; the first half of the movie she's a constant object of the male gaze, whether specifically sexual or not. Her boss' client leers at her, her boss sees her in her car as she's leaving town, the cop spies on her while she's purchasing a new car, and of course, there is Norman Bates peeping at her while she's undressing. Even we are objectifying her via the film itself. 

But the shower scene is so perfectly sensual and scary without being exploitative. Part of that is the restrictions Hitchcock had to work with at the time, but he dealt with it in such a masterful way. The sexuality is an intricate part of the plot, the psychology of Norman Bates and why he does what he does. There's an element of taboo, inappropriate behavior both on Bates' part and ours, his fellow unwitting voyeurs. But even that isn't the only point of tension, it's also about vulnerability, a place of relative safety becoming dangerous. Perhaps it's because I am a woman, but that's a big part of what makes it so tense and frightening; that in a place where Marion expected to be safe and private, she was neither. She became a victim of both Norman's sexual gaze and his homicidal rage. Am I safe when I'm in an equally vulnerable position?-- That is the unspoken thought that fuels my fear in that moment.

Even beyond that point in the movie, there's still so much more to salivate over. The scene where Norman bursts in after Marion finds Mrs. Bates' remains is still so chilling; the brilliant lighting makes it that much worse. And of course, that last scene, where Norman/Mrs. Bates breaks the fourth wall and gazes back at us, acknowledging our participation in his/her actions, our role of accomplice. He/she even says, "I hope they are watching," referring to the police, but perhaps speaking of the viewer as well. It says something about Hitchcock's talent of course, not just anyone could have made this story so effective.

I suppose all of this has also been on my mind because of a recent all-day library training event, where we had several sessions about different genres of books. One was on Speculative Fiction, which included fantasy, sci-fi and horror. In the session, the person speaking suggested that the horror genre only included plots that were outside the realm of the possible-- and that horror fans were adamant about this. In other words, psychos and serial killers need not apply. I realize we were not talking about movies, but a story is a story is a story, and I would categorize visual stories the same way as verbal ones. That said, I totally disagree with the idea that true horror is fantastical, and think that stories like PSYCHO are the core, the foundation of horror. It's proof that sometimes the scariest things in this world are within the hearts and minds of ourselves, and our fellow human beings. It isn't supernatural, or magical, or some mythical idea of evil. It's your hometown homicidal maniac, the young sociopath that lives down the road, the creepy antisocial guy with a filthy past.

Even the monsters, demons, and ghosts boil down to metaphors for the real things we face and dread in life, if you take the time to analyze them. It's about the fear and paranoia of wondering what's really lurking in the minds of strangers, friends, family, ourselves. I love supernatural horror as much as the next genre fan, but the realistic plots are the ones that really scare the hell out of me. The ones with a bit of mystery to them, with a psychological bent. The ones where you think, "Shit, that could happen to anybody. That could happen to me."

Horror is all about fear, and nightmares aside, I'm not as afraid of vampires and zombies as I am of the darkest corners of the human mind.

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