Monday 25 August 2014

Why I love horror

It's strange being a horror fan. Well, at least, a lot of other people seem to think so. It's one of the genres that some will just flat-out avoid.

"I'm a horror fan."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realise. Is it serious?"

Personally, I find horror to be a comforting genre, which is admittedly somewhat counter to the intention of most horror films and movies. A good, scary movie (or even a crap, scary movie) can be what a mug of hot chocolate and a blanket can be for a lot of other people.

I think my introduction to horror was probably the Usborne 'World of the Unknown' series, with the 'All About Ghosts" book. It was beautifully illustrated with images that still stick in my mind (a quick google image search for it brings multiple memories flooding to the surface).

If you read this as a kid, let the memories start flooding back...

I was also a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes from a young age, and my favourite was obviously The Hound of the Baskervilles. There was a richness to Conan Doyle's stories that was always comforting. They were scary, with their tales of poisoners, snakes, dancing men and murder, but there was also the basic notion that there was someone interested in justice at the end of it.

I read a story once where Peter Cushing described meeting a priest who was a huge fan of his work. He queried the appropriateness of horror as a priest's hobby, but the priest pointed out that 'good always wins'. And whether it's a dishevelled lieutenant, a borderline-sociopathic victorian or a SOMETHING ELSE, there's almost always something good to counteract the evil in horror stories (although they don't win as often as the priest made out). For me, horror stands as a natural housemate for crime - they tread on each other's toes, but they support each other well.

My parents took a fairly liberal and sensible approach to my evident interest in horror. They started me off on the classics. While I was far too young to watch modern horror movies, I could work my way up as I got older. So, along with Sherlock Holmes, I fell in love with Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde. And I began to watch Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films whenever I could, to go along with my Basil Rathbone adoration (an adoration that stays, by the way. It made my day when I visited the rather beautiful Odeon in Muswell Hill and found their small exhibition celebrating their opening night, which Basil Rathbone attended).

When I got a little older, I was allowed to start watching Hammer and Amicus films - again, the Sherlock Holmes connection made the link easier, with Peter Cushing's version of Hound of the Baskervilles. These were generally slightly gorier and slightly sexier, with lurid technicolour and lashings of bright red blood.

By the time I was deemed to be old enough to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, that was pretty much it - I could judge for myself what I was willing to watch or not. My tastes never particularly went to the gory, anyway. It's not something I Have an issue with, but it's not much of a selling point for me either - give me suspense any day.

So, what do I like about horror? What is it about it that makes me more likely to watch it?

I think it's partially that there's something safe about them. They allow you the thrills of being scared, but in a controlled environment. That can be really quite comforting - the sensation of allowing yourself to be in that position. It's a small endorphin boost that can be quite reassuring.

Also, as I've grown older, I've found something fascinating in the way that horror features women. I think there's a general perception that women in horror tend to only be victims, there only to show their breasts and get torn up. And in bad films, yes, that's often the case. But it tends to be quite the opposite in the better films. Because they're based around what scares the central character, and based around their vulnerabilities, there tends to be at least one fully-formed, fairly three-dimensional woman front-and-centre, who has the majority of the screen-time, in roles that aren't exploitative. And as time has gone on, that trend has usually increased if anything.

But mainly, I think I love horror because it's an immensely human thing. A primal thing. It's all about an entirely basic reaction, and it's exploring what scares us in interesting ways. It's also about what scares us on a cultural level - the horror of the '20s and '30s is totally different to that of the '40s and '50s. Even horror of the last few years has been very different to what came before. And then there's the opportunity to look at the history of other cultures and seeing what scared them.

I find horror, and our reactions to being scared, generally fascinating. I also find our reactions to horror itself interesting, especially taking into account the way it seems to make us so edgy, especially in the western world. Look at the attempts to ban horror comics in the 1950s or the video nasties controversy in the '80s. It's interesting how heavy-handed the reactions can get (especially considering how small-time and poor some of the films were - or how good some of the genuine classics were).

And that's another point in there - there's a point in regards to freedom that I like with horror. When we can react in that kind of way. They're stories that people want to tell - whether they're good, bad, terrible or great. They're easy to try to do, but difficult to do well.

When they're done well, there's an artistry to it that takes your breath away with more than just gasps. They confound your expectations and their own tropes. They take the things that you're comfortable with and scare you with them, or they take the things we all feel uncomfortable about and use them to scare us in ways we weren't expecting. They push boundaries and tell us things about ourselves that we didn't know.

I'm not saying that these are things that other genres can't do, but I find that horror explores these things in a way that I find works for me. It's something that, at best, challenges me, making me look at important concepts in a different way.

No, horror isn't for everyone. Some people are going to look at the parts that I love and see only a naked emperor. Some aren't going to be able to get past some of the worse aspects of the genre, and I can understand that. And some are going to find it impossible not to sympathise with the characters that can be cruelly killed off.

But for those that love it, there's a lot more to it than the gory bits.

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