A great horror movie makes more of an impression on the psyche than any other kind of film. Hell, even a bad horror flick can scar you for life. There’s a phrase that every seasoned horror fan loves to hear: “Have you ever seen . . . ?” For the next 31 days, John E. Meredith will unearth some of his personal favorites that fell through the cracks, that are not so obvious, the kind that might even sneak up on you while you’re trying to sleep. On the screen, someone is about to die. A corpulent man in his underwear has been strapped to a filthy bed. His arms and legs have been positioned in such a way that massive levers will swing down and tear them off unless he presses the controls which have been attached to his hands. The controls operate separate hammers, one positioned above his left eye socket, the other above his right. A video plays on the television in his room, reliving a long history of voyeurism and molestation, with a message: “All you have to do to save your worthless life is to press the controls you hold in your hands.” The man on the bed is screaming, terrified to commit upon himself the horror which will certainly set him free. All of us who are witness to the violent images flashing in the darkened theater are tense, waiting for the carnage we know is about to happen. He presses one control and the hammer swings down into his face. We all cringe, a roar rising up from the audience. But it’s not over. There is still one more control to be pressed, else he will be ripped to pieces. The anticipation is almost palpable, the simultaneous wish both for his survival and for his grisly demise. As our surrogate self hesitates just a little too long on the screen, the levers slice through the air, sending bloody limbs flying in all directions. Someone yells at the screen, “Too slow, Joe!” I almost close my eyes, but not quite. Turning to look at my girlfriend, the same twist of disgust is upon her face. This is almost immediately followed by the kind of laughter that typically follows with almost every horror movie ever made. It’s the same kind of terrified and exhilarated laughter frequently heard right after the first big drop on a roller coaster. One might almost call it relief. In a few days, I won’t even recall any of the gruesome deaths that took place in SAW IV, a pretty forgettable horror flick that splashed across the big screen in 2007. I’ll have to ask Dana to remind me of them, as if the mind constantly needs a fresh supply of horrors. I would think that we are just a pair of bloodthirsty, sadistic freaks, but the theater was nearly full. Around us were couples of almost every age, young and old alike. All of us, experiencing horrific death communally. Not a single person was particularly bothered to see limbs severed, a woman’s hair torn from her skull, or entrails splattered across the screen in front of us. In fact, we were all quite thrilled by it. Meanwhile, in the small town of Plainwell (where this movie was showing), a local police officer had just shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself. Their two-year old daughter, who was there at the time, was left physically unharmed but orphaned and undoubtedly scarred. Though I could probably give release dates for most of the major upcoming horror movies, I had not heard about this real-life tragedy (only a few miles from where I live) until a few days after it occurred. Ironically, I rarely watch the news because all the violence and horror of reality is just too damn depressing. Dana and I went to the movies that night with Tabitha, her friend and neighbor. She knew the police officer, and was very disturbed by what happened. Tears in her eyes, she sat on the porch that very night, trying to understand how he could do such a thing. She asked why, and wondered aloud if the child was old enough to eventually remember how her parents died. It was Tabitha who suggested we all go see SAW IV. In my office, I have shelves lined with hundreds of books and movies, one of the few indulgences I’ve allowed myself through the years. As a writer, I consider these things inspiration. They’re a kind of homework, you might say. While many of the things I choose to write about are not explicitly horrific – and many of my favorite films and novels are not classified as such – there is more horror represented in my collection than any other genre. I don’t consider myself an overly violent person, but horror stories attract and enthrall me like nothing else does. There are wars going on in the world at almost any time. We’ve got powerful madmen with access to nuclear bombs, and less powerful ones who have nothing more than their bare hands. Every day there are rapes, racial killings, starvation, and idiots blowing up abortion clinics to supposedly save lives. Instead of turning from these things, the repulsive events in life around us seem only to create an ever greater array of “imaginary” horrors to choose from. This cannot be a coincidence. Most of us do not slow down to stare at bloody wreckage on the highway, but don’t feel strange about seeing it in our entertainment. Horror invites us to indulge, and we are quite willing to do just that. There are volumes of literature that attempt to explain why. Some might say that there’s just an inherent thirst for blood in our species, that our larger brains still have not elevated us beyond the animals we truly are. After a long period of prehistoric vulnerability, we finally made it to the top of the food chain and nothing is going to knock us back down. For all the other creatures who ever filled us with fear (including more than just a few of our brothers), it’s payback time. Our attraction to horror has been with us from the beginning. Among the numerous man-hunting-bison images engraved into cave walls, there are almost as many seemingly meant to do little more than record the bloody deaths of ancient human beings. On the innermost walls of a cave in Lascaux, France, a human figure is shown being devoured by a large spiked creature. Red ocher was used to depict the splatter of his skull, as well as an impressive trail of innards. In another, from Niaux, it is apparent that whoever went to view these pictures went to participate as well. The walls surrounding various scary beasts were long ago gouged and marked by the heads of spears, as if Grunk and Gronk were trying to kill fear itself before crawling out of the cave to tackle the real horned beasties. Granted, there’s a huge difference between experiencing something vicariously through art and facing its bloody cries in the reality of our world. The tradition of killing animals for pleasure didn’t begin with big-game hunters like Ted Nugent, but stretches back to at least our Roman predecessors. The slaughter was considered a form of entertainment for the masses, with citizens venturing out to hunt and bring back animals to be killed in primitive contests in the coliseums. The coliseum games continued for more than 400 years in over 70 amphitheaters, some of which occupied 50,000 people at a time. When animals grew scarce, or their deaths too passé, the Romans would start tossing Christians in to the hungry lions, or forcing slaves to fight each other to the death. Compared to that, a bunch of teenagers watching Jason Vorhees slash his way through Camp Crystal Lake doesn’t seem so bad. Some have said that the general population is less inclined toward the horrific in periods of greater real-life horror. This is not true. Few events within the last century could match the widespread shock that befell this nation when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Despite the overwhelming fear and sadness of that day, the horror film has since witnessed a resurgence in popularity that is unequalled by any other time. Many of the most violent films, such as HOSTEL and the SAW series, have been huge moneymakers for their respective studios in the past decade. This doesn’t suggest that anyone is looking away. Such a phenomenon is not unique to the twenty-first century. The Black Death and various other catastrophes that devastated much of the world in the 1300s had a profound effect on all aspects of society, including its art. The gruesome and the ghastly became a popular obsession for artists, sculptors, and poets. Death-head rings, for example, were on the fingers of prostitutes and priests alike, reflecting a generally morbid preoccupation with the miseries of the human condition. Horrific images were everywhere, from paintings to the theater, lurking in the background when it was not front and center. This was a period, not unlike the months following 9/11, when the mass populace had been witness to what it considered the ultimate confrontation with suffering and horror. In the late 1800s, French playwright Oscar Metenier purchased a small theater in Paris where he could produce his controversial plays. The THEATRE DU GRAND GUIGNOL, meaning literally “big puppet show”, came to be a legend in theatrical horror that would survive for over half a century. The Grand Guignol measured its nightly success by the number of people who fainted during its performances. Andre de Lorde, novelist and playwright, was dubbed “the Prince of Terror”, his works seeking to shock and awaken the deadened souls of the audience. It was brutally violent, and dismissed as being based on blood lust, sexual anxiety and conflict. One of the theater’s most renowned actresses was Paula Maxa, “the most assassinated woman in the world,” as she was subjected to a range of tortures unique in theatrical history: she was shot with a rifle and with a revolver, scalped, strangled, disemboweled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools and lancets, cut into eighty-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, stung by a scorpion, poisoned with arsenic, devoured by a puma, strangled by a pearl necklace, and whipped. But everyone was there, night after night, the high society patrons trying to hide their faces. While French culture was in an uproar, talk of revolution in the air, its people ran to the bloody solace of murder theater. It’s almost as if the human animal must internalize the things that horrify us, recreating them in another form that we are better prepared to deal with. This transformation of real horror into imaginary horror becomes a kind of practice in controlling our primary impulse, the impulse to flee. Maybe this is what Grunk and Gronk were doing with their spear-scarred images of monstrous creatures back in those caves. Horror speaks to us in ways that aren’t so violent too. THE MUTTER MUSEUM in Philadelphia was established by Thomas Dent Mutter, a 19th century surgeon and professor, as a research archive for medical students. It still serves its original purpose, but has come to be a popular tourist attraction for those in search of ghoulish thrills. There are rows of beautifully preserved skulls – over a hundred of them – lined up for scientific comparison, with cards beneath each one identifying their previous owners (“Veronica Huber, age 18, executed for the murder of her child”). There’s a glass case with three skeletons: a dwarf, a giant, and a normal-sized adult. There is a collection of strange objects removed from the throats of patients for several generations, including such items as dentures, safety pins, toys, and ammunition. The bloodstained collar that Abraham Lincoln wore to the theater on the night he was assassinated is on display. The most popular gallery, however, is the teratology display. Literally, “the study of monstrosities”, it deals with abnormal fetal development. Here patrons can view a cyclopean fetal skull with a horn above its single eye socket, or the victim of a condition called sirenomelus, where an infant’s legs are fused together to resemble a tiny mermaid. An autopsy was performed here on Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, and there is now a giant plaster cast of them for all to see. Most heartbreaking is the three-and-a-half foot tall skeleton of a pregnant dwarf found in North Virginia. According to the description below, doctors attempted to collapse the unborn infant’s skull in order to save the mother during childbirth. The attempt was in vain. Both mother and child, their tragedy now known to all the world, are together here forever. These are horrors not of man nor beast, but of nature. One might even say, of God. These things do not tell us that we are victims or that we are predators, but merely remind us of how fortunate we truly are. It’s hard to see such extraordinary sights and not think that things could be much worse, or at least have a strong sense of gratitude toward modern medicine, which can repair so many abnormalities now that it could not in the past. Horror shakes us out of our stupor with a gnarled hand drenched in blood. Zombies and vampires are not just horrors on a movie screen, but warnings. They are us. They reflect us and show us our failures. Frankenstein isn’t just about a monster, but about a monster’s search for understanding in a society that’s horrified by him. When strangers gather in a darkened theater to watch a girl be chased through the woods by some freak with a chainsaw, we are playing different roles. We are the victim. Witness to the endless horrors that lurk in the dark, struggling to get away, we are suddenly aware of how precious life is. We are also the killer, and we cheer each of them on with equal passion. There is power in horror. There is a kind of savage and startling beauty. There is a reminder that we are alive and able to survive the most loathsome atrocities. The language and imagery of horror is raw, wet, and rude. For our entertainment, I give you knives, axes, chainsaws, meat hooks, fangs, claws, parasites, plagues, and even the occasional killer tomato. Sometimes it takes extreme measures to get our attention. But we are watching. So dim the lights, cue the music, and bring on the horror of the Danse Macabre. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response 31 Days of Halloween 2015: Day 30 - Going to Pieces - Psycho Drive-In October 30, 2015 […] 31 Days of Halloween 2015: Day 29 – The Danse Macabre […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.