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The Rise of Horror Movies in the Age of Terror 11/3/2018

Recently the posts I have made on this site have been rather urgent.  After all, election day is coming up, and even if you don’t take this all that seriously, the amount of discussion and exposure this particular vote has received from every side of the political spectrum cannot help but make a person anxious.  It does not matter which side we take, or whichever viewpoint we uphold, there is in all of this a sense of helplessness, or perhaps a profound terror, that things are out of our control.  And this is not the hopelessness of years past when people muttered, “Why even vote?  What difference will it make?”  Nobody believes this anymore, and if they do it is out of a cynicism so profound that they have stopped hoping entirely.  We have all dug in our separate ideological platforms and we proselytize these views to the best of our abilities, or learn to crassly denounce the opposition as though they were actually our enemies.

 

This election is important, yes, but so is every election.  Those who only come out for the big ones–presidential and, occasionally, mid-term, are missing the bigger picture.  It is local elections that decide the fate of the nation.  Remember the cliche: all elections are local?  That is because whoever we choose to represent our neighborhood makes the decisions on how we will work as a unified nation.

 

But it is the weekend.  I had a wonderful day today with my son, giving him a day off from school (his first day missed–he is a straight ‘A’ student).  He wanted to get his hair dyed blue.  I said okay.  He wanted to eat out at a nice restaurant.  Sure, I said.  He wanted to go to the movies, said he wanted to see a horror show.  He is 13 years old.  Both of us immediately decided to see the new Halloween (which is the first good movie in the franchise since the original).

 

Now, before we get into this I am going to give an advertisement, and then promote some personal friends of mine because the work they do is remarkable.  I will promote myself too, of course, but that is half the point of these essays anyway.  Next week I have several narratives waiting to be written that will lead us into election day, and then another one on the day after, depending on the outcome.  If you choose to look over this website, and go back through my by now many posts, these coming pieces are more in line with the much more heavily developed and researched or on-going series concepts–the history of the Presidents, or The Impact of Lies Throughout World History.  The election day essays I have been planning and for quite some time.  There is obviously a lot to say on this subject.

 

But enough about me.  We are here to talk about horror.  And there is no better promotion I could make than my friend Hart D. Fisher’s Roku streaming channel (http://www.americanhorrors.com/), which shows uncut, sometimes truly graphic, occasionally very silly horror movies from our collective past.  Most of these are of the low budget, independent sort, and Hart’s generosity is manifest in his annual American Horrors film festival, which just finished last weekend.  He has knack for spotting unique and original programming to air on his channel or to promote and celebrate on his numerous media platforms.

Hart is quite a personality, hosting various live or recorded at horror convention commentaries and interviews, where he talks to creators, stars and fans about what truly scares them.  Hart is a charming guy, with a fascinating personal back story that he can tell better than anyone else   (http://www.americanhorrors.com/about/hart-d-fisher/ for just a brief example).

 

As a personal anecdote, I have known Hart for twenty-five years, although for twenty-two of them we went our separate ways and built our own lives.  We each saw our share of success and failure and tragedy (him definitely more of all three than my mostly hum-drum family man lifestyle), and yet when we got back in touch through the magic of Facebook, it was like hardly any time had passed, at least in our ability to communicate with one another.

 

Back in his mid-20s and my early 20s, Hart was the controversial and much reviled publisher of Boneyard Press, a comic book company out of Champaign, Illinois, which was most famous for producing an extremely graphic biographical comic book on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.  It offended so many people (especially relatives of the victims), that Hart was sued, repeatedly, and there developed a case that should be in text books on First Amendment history.  As a result of these actions, this 24 year old, heavily tattooed, long-haired, handsome and articulate self-promoter was given a national platform to defend Freedom of Speech, being a guest on television shows like Larry King Live and the Sally Jesse Raphael show.  He was able to crusade for his cause as only he knows how.  In 1994, in a comic book industry poll of the 100 most important people in the comic book industry, Hart was voted onto the list.  This also caused a bit of controversy, although controversy within the comic book industry is ultimately pretty laughable.

 

Where I came in was as a college student/writer looking to make a splash with my own talent at writing really disgusting things.  I submitted to him a mock Penthouse letter, those bullshit sex stories that usually begin “I can’t believe this was actually happening, but . . .”  Mine went about twelve steps farther into a necrophiliac massacre with a very gray sense of humor.  The day after he received it, Hart called me and told me he wanted me to write something for him (I remember, specifically, one that I never wrote and, as far as I know, he never produced.  This was his suggestion: “Butt-man and Bobbin,” a hardcore gay sex crime story about an obviously parodied caped crusader.  This was not just a porn version comedy that he wanted, but a bleak and urgent horror story with some solid anal fucking to lighten the tension.)

 

Anyway, I worked with Boneyard Press for about a year and a half, producing numerous stories, one comic book called Rough Trade, that he and I developed while drunk in a strip club after hours of the Philadelphia Comic Book Convention.  Whatever you might think something with this title might be, I promise you it is much, much worse.  I pitched a graphic novel idea to him, which he loved.  It was called I Wish I Were the Candyman and to this day remains one of the darkest things I have ever written.  It was meant to be 64-pages, but the artist quit because his wife was offended by the project after 35 pages.  This is all that was ever published, although I have since sent him the conclusion, modified after twenty-some years of stylistic development.

 

I go into all this personal background to give some insight into my worship of the horror genre.  In my fiction I do not write scary supernatural stories.  To me, everything is a horror story, these searching depictions of personal apocalypse, sometimes consuming the whole world, but usually just the study of someone’s life falling apart.  And so horror–the real and the true and the deepest sort of private horror, is something I am very familiar with.  I have given enough autobiography for this post, and so I will leave it there.  More to come, no doubt.  There is a very long and dark story to tell.

 

Anyway, after more than a thousand words I will get to the point of this article.  My son and I went to see the movie today (yesterday?) and it was much better than I ever expected.  I mean, it was actually scary, and it takes quite a bit to frighten a jaded person like me.  My son, who reminds me of myself at his age, was just gobbling it up, transfixed by the tension, stressed out over the characters’ fates.  He even laughed at a few of the lighter moments that are only there to prepare you for the next terrifying event.

 

But I got to thinking: is this now the golden age of horror movies?  I mean, this is a classic genre and one that has always been popular.  We can go back to the silent films of Lon Chaney and the creepiness of the German Nosferatu, and then as far as the 1930s with DraculaFreaksFrankenstein and its many sequels.  The popularity of these films gave birth to an increasingly exploitative genre, in those days the sex and violence more an implication than visceral reality.

 

Horror movies helped to alter culture, perhaps more than any other style of film.  Oh, sure, you have your social interest dramas and those are frequently individually the far superior movies, but the genre of horror has continued to be revolutionary, inspiring new movements and crusades, offering the public ideas on how to escape the awfulness of our lives.

 

Historically we can see a rise and fall of the horror genre right alongside the changes and developments of the world.  It was after World War One that movies finally began to come into their own, the war years providing not only important technological developments, but a far more memorable vision of what the end of the world might look like.

 

The best silent films were comedies and horror.  Perhaps this is because the most talented people were involved with their production, but I believe the silence lends itself more, particularly, to terror.  Shadowy figures creeping up while wandering in the candlelight.  A monster stumbling its way forward and hissing at the camera.  A zoom-in close-up of a victim screaming.  These are images that will have an impact.  These are nightmares that people will continue to relive.

 

The era of the Great Depression saw unhappiness and personal dissatisfaction–even self-loathing–begin to consume the public.  There was no work.  There was no money.  Crops were failing.  There was not enough food.  Everything was too damn crowded and everyone was looking out only for themselves.  What could be worse?

 

Monsters.  Zombies.  Vampires.  Demons.  Wild Animals.  Killers.  These were the things to fear as society grew increasingly desperate and radicalized.  As violence was growing in the streets and crime seemed the only profitable way to make a living, the world was a much scarier place.  And a jaded public, by now used to being terrified of their lives, would need something much more extreme (and more complicated narrative movement in order to tug at the heart-strings until they snap).  Horror had to get more severe.  It became psychological.  The Jekell/Hyde confusion of every person then living gave birth to the thought that maybe the demon is ourselves.

 

World War II was a perfect time for horror, but since the real world was in the grip of it, movies devolved into products to make people feel good, or to distract us from the desperation of their own lives.  And there is your reflection from this era: escapism.  The people on the home front desired three types of stories in this age: romance, heroes and the occasionally dark, profoundly American crime story where the bad guys get their’s in the end.  This represents the near hope for the future, after the bad guys are taken to justice and a new world can safely dawn.

 

World War Two changed the American character more significantly than any time since the end of the Civil War.  By the time the war had ended and the United States had replaced Great Britain as the most significant Western Power, there was a need for a new enemy.  Someone had to be the cause of the imperfection that still, somehow, was overtaking the world.  Thus: the Cold War.  Hitler was gone.  Tojo was gone.  Fascism was in decline.  There was one recognizable monster left to haunt the world.

 

Stalin.

 

Joseph Stalin killed many more people than Adolf Hitler did throughout his twenty-nine year reign.  In the Soviet Union, and all of its satellites with their puppet dictators, he formed the new religion that Communism became after the death of Lenin.  An atheistic faith, the gods of the past that had crumbled still needed to be replaced by someone.  And there was Stalin, the strongest of the strong man dictators.

 

Stalin had the statues of saints knocked down and replaced with statues of Joseph Stalin.  Churches were closed and replaced by commissar headquarters, or merely allowed to remain empty, falling apart in the harsh weather.  All the crosses were broken.  Every imagine of Jesus was defaced.  Only rats were left to worship the remains of God.

 

And so this new religion began to infiltrate the world.  It was gaining converts.  It was something new for the bored and exhausted every day people to consider.  And, as with every evangelical revival, the scared and paranoid saw within it an even scarier plot than what truly existed.  This led to Joseph McCarthy, and the new direction of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which put the entertainment industry in their sites.

 

It is a common misconception that Hollywood is filled with exclusively liberals, and this has never been the case.  Of course there are a number of mouthy celebrities who urgently press their politics onto their listeners, but this isn’t any different than some guy in a bar shouting right-wing, John Birch-style anti-Communist propaganda in 1952.  It is opinions being shouted and not discussed.  It is like preaching the gospel either to the like-minded or the skeptics.  And everyone listening is more interested in what they will say in response than in actually paying attention to what each other has to say.

 

And so Hollywood was under attack, as it always is, politicizing the entertainment industry and the entertainment industry waiting to respond.  One side pushed a blacklist, destroying the reputations of Hollywood insiders by exploiting a month in the distant past when the star was struggling, and they went with a friend to a few quasi-socialist/singles mixers, signing their name to a list.  It became easy to paint these unenthusiastic Communists as spies, playing off the fears that had already spread far more rapidly than Communism.  People were told that Hollywood was trying to influence the children with their red ideas.

 

Of course horror movies seemed to be ahead of the curve here again.  Look at the red scare parallels: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Children of the Damned, The Blob, The Day of the Triffids, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, War of the Worlds . . . and it goes on and on and on, each film, in similar ways, about the threat of something sinister that we cannot understand trying to destroy the world.  Children were warned that there were no longer monsters under their beds but, like Stalin replacing God, there might be a red tape-recorder or camera there.  They may even release gas to take over you mind and turn you into a loyal soldier.

 

This was a very real fear in America and other parts of the world.  In Communist nations the threat was inverted and the Westerners were coming to take their women and buy up all the food and property and vodka, so that everyone loyal to the party would starve and die in the bitter cold.

 

Of course this era also had the nuclear terror films–stories of mutation, of new and insane science that could turn people into the monsters that otherwise no longer existed, or alter their bodies so greatly that they became something entirely new.  Nuclear power could awaken hibernating monsters like Godzilla, or create gigantic ants that could easily take over the world in Them!  Horror movies, once again, reflected our fears in very precise ways, taking nervous paranoia and outright desperation, and turning it into shocking metaphors for what might happen if the world continues on its path toward self-destruction.

 

The 1960s came in hard, with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war taking over the conscience of the nation, the divisions becoming even more noticeable, as the red scare lost some steam and shifted into a right versus left movement, Barry Goldwater (a man who today would be denounced as a RINO by the right and could never be elected in a deep red state) came to symbolize a new philosophy of conservatism, while the death of JFK and the subsequent and immediate doubt about what happened (tripled by the vague answers the government was giving), galvanized us, for the first time, into a nation where the majority of people did not trust that the government had their best interests in mind.

 

Of course this view had always existed, but only as a fringe ideology, regardless of whichever side you found yourself on.  But by 1964, with LBJ’s countdown to nuclear annihilation campaign ad, people saw the world as in very real danger and believed that everything was constantly falling apart.

 

There were riots in the streets and the hippies were wandering around naked, using drugs openly, having sex in the streets with anyone available, male or female.  They sang their protest songs and got into people’s faces and screamed and laughed and did not believe in basic morality.  And many of them never washed.  Their stink was their fiercest protest.  There was no way that even the most righteous opposition could stay too long to argue.

 

Horror movies became about chaos.  There were stories of the world out of control, and of youth revolutions: Logan’s RunWestworld, Soylent Green, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead.  These films reflected the fear of social breakdown.  Of anarchy.  They told what might happen if all values and decency were lost and the simmering rage people felt over these concerns.

 

The 1970s was a fundamentally lost time, with Nixon openly corrupt, with terrorists worldwide seizing princesses and hijacking airplanes–there was a great deal to be afraid of.  There was no more purity, everything was stained, people were frustrated and angry and the economy was going to hell.

 

By the late 1970s, after the Iranian revolution, there was a new enemy it became easy to target.  And while the Soviets were still a problem, they were clearly in decline.  The United States was funding some of the Islamic radicals to destroy Russia’s hold on their oil supplies and to kill anything in their path.  America would spend whatever little money it had in this time of chaos with the lone intention of defeating Communism once and for all.

 

But this led to the birth of a new demon for the 1980s.  Not only were the old ideas being recycled with remakes and sequels and more interest in profit over art, but the fear was coming more and more from inside, both a fear of betrayal and a loathing of the self.  We had stopped trusting ourselves.  We could feel our own rage and corruption.  This was the golden age of Satanism and slasher films, of stories about powers beyond our control.  The world was much smaller than we’d ever imagined, and there were so many dangers–from politics, religion, economics, science, your neighbors.  Trust was a dying prospect.  The enemy was right next door.  As people grew more isolated and nervous, peering out the windows of their home after watching a horror movie on VHS, they started to see the demons swarming in the mist.  There was something hidden, something dark, and unlike the Communists, they wanted to devour every part of you, body and soul.

 

The 1980s was also a superficial age, and this led to superficial horror movies, tales of cheap thrills and comeuppance that, together with the exploding home movie industry, led to a fonder belief in movies as an escape instead of a reflection of the horrors we suppress.  And while the quality of the films usually rose and fell with the number placed behind it in the series, they were no longer even about scaring people.  They became marketing tools where the hero was often the mass murderer.  They were the favorite character.  People could buy action figures and movie posters and coffee cups with one of the monsters’ catch phrase written in blood.  In The Nightmare on Elm Street and all of its charismatic rip-offs, the killer would tell a joke as he was hacking you to pieces, mugging for the camera, giving the audience a wink.  It made the terribleness of what was happening somehow more acceptable: murder as entertainment, the true terror of roving serial killers being made almost into a sport, where people picked their favorites and made wagers on who had killed the most people as the trials of these monsters gave body-counts all over television, while in-the-moment TV movies were shot in about two weeks to take advantage of the momentary interest.

 

The movies continued to get more and more violent, the numb culture now used to these seasonal shocking blasts, the end-of-summer, around Halloween, maybe a higher profile sequel around Christmas, and the experimental efforts released early in the new year, one of them always catching on and being a hit.  Horror fans began to set their schedule by the time of year when they could reach out to the rarity of something worth seeing.

 

This, too, is very reflective of the culture in the increasingly angry society that became the 1990s.  The partisan divisions growing were not only about politics.  People would get into fights over which team to root for, or which monster was the best.  It is even true that someone killed another someone while screaming about who was better, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.  It was only after the crime that the killer remembered Texas Chainsaw Massacre as another possibility.

 

More extreme and darker, incredibly more violent, special effects laden and wonderful make-up artistry began taking over horror movies.  There was a growing nihilism, an indifference for human life that led to films with smirking, miserable endings where no one ever gets away.  One character might remain in case there is a sequel, but every bit as often the sequel was a recycle of the first, with a new group of people being tormented, and the ending even more horrible.

 

And then came 9/11.  Nothing as horrifying as this was then playing on screen.  The most revered horror movie to that time was the wonderful, Academy Award-winning, The Silence of the Lambs, an intellectualization of 80s and 90s serial killer folklore.  But after September 11, 2001, what made-up tale could possibly ever scare us again?

 

Movies–horror movies in particular–became increasingly hopeless in the post 9/11 years, and we are still trapped in this dungeon today.  Mass murderers are both more unstoppable and somehow more human.  Monsters are more grandiose and vindictive.  The crazy people, or the dangerous, or those possessed of super powers do not merely want to take over and rule the world.  They want to destroy it.  Horror movies today, more than ever before, allude to a coming catastrophe, no longer as a mythic entertainment, but as a warning.

 

If we choose to look it is very easy to trace the decline of hope in the world through this catalog of what has scared us through the ages.  Whether it is witches, or monsters, or demonic possession, or even the darkness itself, and the darkness inside every one of us, horror films expose the deep-rooted anxieties we as a society are experiencing.  The film makers and writers, regardless of what you personally may think of horror as a genre, have an acute awareness of what makes a culture tick, and what causes the most anxiety.  And they exploit these fears, the whole ‘what if’ idea of what if I were there, or what if this actually happened, or what if those people are not what they seem?  It delves into our starkest doubts, and forces us to confront what we might do should the worst things possible happen.

 

And most of us, as with the majority of characters in any horror film, most of us will never make it out either with an understanding of ourselves or even a life left to waste on the muddling truths we struggle with every single day of our lives.

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