In honor of October and Halloween, I’ve started watching a lot of horror movies. “A lot” of horror movies for me is pretty relative, considering I watch them any time of year and, in my mind, the Halloween season started at least a month ago. I get really excited about fall.
For a while, I’ve been mulling over the question of whether there is some “ultimate” fear, some fundamental, primal trigger that unites us all in terror, and whether that ultimate fear is manifested in all horror films. Of course, “death” seems to be the obvious answer since it’s always a prominent feature of horror, either in the form of ghosts or actual corpses. But not all horror films rely on death (or threat of death) as the main source of tension; in some cases, characters are afraid of what they can or can’t see, afraid of living with a terrible guilt, or afraid of being permanently maimed. One could argue that all of those things connect back to death at some point, and I believe they do; but I also want to go one step further to argue that fear of death might actually represent an even greater, deeper fear.
To start with, let’s quickly go over what I see as the four most common fears represented across the many genres of horror. First, we have fear of the end of civilization (zombies, vampires, plague, apocalypse). Second, we have fear of pain and mutilation (torture porn, body horror, rape/revenge). Third, we have fear of people who are evil or crazy (slashers, possession, home invasion), which may overlap with fear numero dos considering that crazy/evil people are often responsible for a fair amount of mutilation. And fourth, we have fear of loss and uncertainty (ghosts, monsters, general supernatural).
For me, what all of these things have in common is loss of control. Nothing scares us more than feeling like we don’t have control over our own destinies, actions, desires, or physical agency. Helplessness.
Even worse, there are the situations where you do have control at the start, but a wrong choice suddenly takes the outcome out of your hands. The horror comes in knowing, on some level, what’s happening to you is your fault, that somewhere along the way you made a tiny mistake that set horrific events into motion.
Nothing is more terrifying than the moment you can’t take back. The left turn you made before realizing how close the oncoming traffic was. You can see your doom coming but it’s too late to stop it. Scream all you want, but it won’t make the seconds tick backward to undo what you’ve done.
Those are the twin fears that underlie all horror: powerlessness and regret. They don’t always co-exist, but stakes (and tension) are higher when they are found in combination.
In horror films, it goes like this: you say Bloody Mary three times into the mirror; you watch a video tape and wait seven days; you run up the stairs to escape a killer even though there’s nowhere to go but down; you ignored the warnings not to go into the woods; because you weren’t paying attention, a zombie bit you and now you’re infected.
Not only do you die, you know you’re dead before it even happens and there’s nothing you can do except watch yourself die. Live your final moments with the knowledge this could have been prevented.
If only you weren’t the way you are: too stubborn, too curious, too brash or arrogant or oblivious or skeptical.
Maybe horror films are our Greek tragedies, catharsis through pity and fear in situations created by a character’s fatal flaw. The horror and tragedy of Oedipus wasn’t that he killed his father or entered an incestuous marriage unknowingly; the horror was the realization that he was not in control of his destiny and that his actions, while predetermined, exposed the lie of free will and destroyed his life.
The people who make genuinely scary horror films understand the potent cocktail of helplessness and regret. All horror deals with the things we can’t fight.
When the end of humanity comes, the threat is too big; the infection spreads too quickly, the undead rise in numbers too great, the desperation of survivors turns everything to chaos. A character’s every decision becomes weighted with life or death significance.
When a character falls into a trap (which may or may not be of her own making), she is bound, hobbled, and mutilated. She is physically overpowered and intellectually outwitted. Assuming she makes it out alive, she is psychically wounded; she also has no control over the traumatic memories that haunt her in the aftermath.
When confronted with true evil or true insanity, the character fails because he has mistakenly believed all humans to be rational. He has prided himself on his empathy and ability to reason with other people. But evil resists. Crazy does not find him charming and does not care that he has a wife and three kids.
And lastly, when confronted with the supernatural, the character finds that, having released the vengeful spirit into the world, it’s simply not possible to fight a ghost. She can’t fight the unknowable and the unseen. The uncertainty. What she can never really comprehend is loss, absence, or grief. By the time it’s all over, she is afraid of being afraid.
So could the ultimate fear be powerlessness, mixed with regret? Sounds a lot like death, after all. Dying is scary because of those things, because it silences us and takes away our agency. No more body, no more mind.
It’s also possible that loss of power is my personal deepest fear, and thus influences the things I find scary or compelling in horror films. It would be potentially foolish for me to assume that my ultimate fear is something primal and universal to all of humanity. Fear is one of the most personal things in the world. I tried to explain to my mother once why The Ring got under my skin so much. I told her that the seven day window o’ death scared the hell out of me because I couldn’t stand the idea of knowing that something terrible was going to happen to me, and that I didn’t know what, and there was nothing I could do but just sit and wait for it to happen.
She just laughed at me and said, “Oh, Candice. You’re such a control freak.”