Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lessons From Horror Films: Why People Do Stupid Things In Horror Films

The mask of Michael Myers, the villain of Halloween. Why is this an effective villain? We should start with a "formal analysis," that is, stating everything we see, then deducing WHY those characteristics were chosen. First, the mask is white; secondly, there are large gashes/scars. The eyes are "hollowed out." The eyebrows are either bleached or painted over and the lips are noticeably pale also. What do we make of it? We know that white, the color of the skin, positively symbolizes the virtues of faith, innocence, purity; contrariwise, white symbolizes the ABSENCE of these virtues because, when a person dies, the corpse turns white, so white illustrates for us, in this case, a SOUL that has died (because symbols illustrate for us what we can't see with our eyes, in this case, the state of the soul) and Michael Myers' soul has died because faith, purity and innocence have died within him. How did this happen? The scars on his face might give a good indication, as well as the pale lips. We know the mouth symbolizes the appetites, and the mouth is white--so his appetites are dead as well (there are good appetites to have, because that's how God leads us, but this indicates that the appetites have led him; for example, sex is good when it is within the context of marriage, but not when it's practiced outside marriage; Mike has failed to see this). The hollowed out eyes reveal to us his empty, dark soul and how "darkness" is a good metaphor for evil because the Light of Christ does not dwell there. So Mike Myers is the exact opposite of what God is, and knowing what the devil is, and that the devil is going to create us in his own image with sin, should prompt us to choosing God instead, but that doesn't always happen, does it? Ultimately, the violence that takes place in a horror film reflects how the evil destroys identity.
Sometimes, the most ridiculous questions to ask are actually the most pertinent to understanding human behavior, so let's start by asking, "Why do Americans traditionally watch 'scary' movies during the month of October?" Because Halloween is October 31, which is the Eve of All the Hallowed, or all those who have lived before us who have been recognized or not recognized by the Catholic Church as being saints, i.e., they lived the Life of Christ on earth and exemplary behavior and heroic virtue were witnessed by others to be a living example of the Temple Of God this side of Heaven. Really, this IS important. November 1 is the feast of All Saints while November 2 is the Feast of All Souls, or at least, all the souls who have made it into Purgatory/Heaven, i.e., the rest of us who are not saints. So, how does this answer our question?
Watching someone else get mutilated isn't the purpose of horror films, but it has a horrifying element and that question is, "Why?" Why does it bother us to see someone we have no relationship with (a fictional character) get completely destroyed? Because we DO have a relationship with them on at least some level, even if it's in the sins we share with them, or the hope of escape and redemption. Ultimately, the lesson of every horror film is the same: if you don't want to end up like the people in this story, don't do the types of things they did.  
There are at least two things which makes a horror film scary: the viewer's being removed from the action taking place, and the terror the villain inspires in the viewer. A good villain--that is, an effective villain--is, basically an accurate reflection of the devil; the action of a horror film reflects in some realistic or at least some believable manner in which the devil actually tempts us in our daily lives (this has changed over the decades, because, like all films and art in general, each generation makes their own art). What's important is, ONE DOESN'T HAVE TO BELIEVE IN THE DEVIL to interact with a horror film (even though more people report believing in the devil than in God). This is why scary films "precede" the feast day of All the Hallowed: so we will see the devil for who he really is, and what he wants to do to us, and resolve to at least fight for our eternal souls against the devil because imperfect contrition is better than no contrition at all for our sins.  
A hotel makes a great setting for a horror film (like in The Shining) because, as we will discuss below, the house is a symbol for the soul, and since a hotel is just a temporary house, it puts us in the situation of a soul that is in flux, or in-between where it should be. In The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, Clary has to go to the Death Hotel which is a vampire lair, in order to find her friend Simon, and they end up being confronted by vampires in the banquet hall. It's not just that the house/hotel is important as an overall symbol, but the exact location within the structure that will convey even more information about what exactly the film makers want to communicate to the audience.  

This summer, before the release of the highly anticipated box office hit The Conjuring, Yahoo! gave us this summary article on Lessons From Scary Movies and learning what NOT to do if you find yourself in a horror film. Now, it's perfectly reasonable that we should assume that scary movies teach us lessons; it might seem ridiculous, however, to find yourself in a scary movie and then act as if there are things you can do or not do so you are still alive at the end of the film. But, quite frankly, that's life, we are all in a scary movie with the ultimate villain, the devil, out to catch us at every temptation he can get. I am quite aware of the mockery I will receive in the comments section from those liberated, intellectually superior and insufferable atheists who will be unable to find words sufficient for expressing their hopes that my nightmares are plagued with Freddy Kreugers or worse, but the real question for them to answer is, why do they watch horror films? October is the month for self-examination, when we really look at how we have failed in not only avoiding sin, but have failed to make acts of virtue and love, which builds us up and strengthens us. The people in horror films are almost universally people who are in moral danger because they have failed in these exact regards; what differs is what film makers determine to be the ills of society and what people must be warned about. So who are the heroes?
Scream really is a great horror film, not only because it starts out by validating the lessons we are to learn from horror films, but because it utilizes the very motifs it tries to debunk. This isn't an official poster for the film, but it's an effective one. One of the devices in a horror film is the "ringing phone" and in any film, when we hear the ringing phone, it's the "call" in life that character is supposed to answer, the call of destiny. Either we have answered God's calling in our life to be virtuous and life the Life of Christ, or we have answered the "call of the wild" and lived as we have wanted to, getting further and further from God every day. Windows symbolize self-reflection, and that this window is broken refers to the characters who didn't learn the lessons they were supposed to have learned because they didn't reflect on their lives, or they didn't reflect soon enough for it to do them any good. For more on scary films lessons and horror film devices in general, please see Decoding the Decoding: Scream fore more. 
We generally feel sorry for the hero: they are enough like the viewer that we are generally going to identify with them, at least as long as the plot allows. There are only three types of characters in a horror film: there is the villain, there are all those who are going to die because they don't believe the villain exists, or they are so bogged down by sin they never had a chance, or they can't quite make enough virtuous acts to make it to the end of the film, and the third kind of character is a hero, the one or ones who can and will make it alive to the end of the film. There are various devices, which the story above referenced, which allows us to know exactly why a character dies--which is important: horror films have the most rigid and conservative moral codes of any other film; so what are these codes?
In the article, Shonuff @ 5oodaysofautumn says: "jason, michael myers and leatherface are all long distance runners, so sign up for a long distance training class." The villains are "long-distance runners" but signing up for a running class won't help unless that is a Bible study. There are two types of time: eternal time and temporal time. Temporal time is when Jesus was hung upon the Cross at noon, and died at about 3, that happened on the earth and the time span could be measured by a watch. Eternal time deals with prophecy, so when the Bible gives prophetic details, and names a certain number of years, for example, that isn't calendar years, that is a symbolic reference to God's time in eternity. Like God, the devil is eternal because he is one of God's created angels, so the characters representing the devil have the devil's "fortitude" in that they don't get weary the way we temporal beings get exhausted from running up a hill in the rain after seeing the body of our best friend mutilated. When we see the devil, as the female does in the image of Jason above, of course she can run for her life because she is scared to death of Death, however, as we discuss, that is not sufficient to help her outrun Death because she is burdened by the weight of all her sins.
The first lesson which horror fans want viewers to learn from scary movies is: DON'T TRIP OVER THINGS. Why are people always tripping in horror films? You can't see someone running in a horror film and legitimately expect them to make it to their intended destination without falling at least once. Now, everything we discuss hereafter holds true to this idea: the makers of horror films are fully aware about the devices other horror movies have used, and that they keep using them--like tripping in every film--is intended to convey a message to us, a message we have all ready seen and, in some way or another, understand unconsciously. The reason characters are always tripping in horror films is first because they are not morally/virtuously strong enough to "run the race" as St. Paul encourages us to do in 2 Timothy 4:7 and the second reason is, something in their life--an attachment to some one or some thing--has gotten in their way to getting to the destined safety.
"They're coming to get you, Barbara!" from one of my favorite horror films of all time, the original, Night Of the Living Dead. In the scene above, the first zombie has just appeared, but they don't realize it's a zombie; Barbara's brother Johnnie will die in his struggle with the zombie--because Johnnie is all ready dead--and Barbara will be killed by Johnnie's zombie self towards the end. But what happens next is a classic horror film because Barbara runs and falls, loosing her shoe. An even better way of describing why characters in horror films fall is because of "The Fall" of original sin: we are all inherently weak, we have a tendency towards sin, which is why we have to constantly be going to church and living the virtuous life so we will be fortified in Grace (God's own Life force He gives to us to strengthen us). When Barbara gets to the safety of the farmhouse in Night Of the Living Dead, she sees a dead corpse at the top of the stairs. Stairs symbolize a higher intellectual level, something to which we are called to ascend, and for Barbara, because she had started to pray a Rosary earlier, she knows this is the Life Of Christ she has been called to, but the corpse she sees is how she sees the Christian life, a life of death with no Life in it, all sacrifice and nothing in return, which is why she can't be converted and saved: she refuses to be saved. Please see My Favorite Zombie: Night Of the Living Dead for more.
Now another Tweet contributing to the Lessons From Scary Movies article, makes the key observation of "not looking back" as you are running because that's going to cause you to trip. That's an excellent point; why? Because who else "looked back?" The wife of Lot who looked back at the destruction of Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. Why such a horrible death for her curiosity? It wasn't "curiosity," rather, the punishment fit the crime: Christ commands us to be the salt of the earth, because salt preserves food, it is essential, and we are to preserve the teachings of Christ in our own life; Lot's wife (and the fact that she doesn't have a name is a definite bad judgment upon her character) in looking back at her old home of Sodom was preserving the bad things, the worldly and earthly sins she had picked up in the damned city Lot's wife, and any character in a horror film who dies from falling and looking back, do so because they have preserved the worldly things rather than those spiritual things which would have kept them out of the horror film to begin with, which leads us to the next point,... 
We know, from Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho, that Marion was planning on giving the money back and paying back what she owed, so she is in a state of repentance,.. isn't she? How can she die, if I am correct, and Norman is basically the devil, because she's sorry for her sins? Let's look at it this way: let's say you were going to get into the shower, but there was a huge blob of black oil and mud you had no intention of washing off from your body, even though you were going to wash off the dirt and some oil? That's what Marion is doing, because she's sorry for taking the money, but she hasn't repented of her adulterous affair with Sam which opens the show. The moral lesson isn't, "Don't bother to repent because it won't do you any good," the point is, "If you want to save yourself, don't save any of your sins" because they will kill you. It's not that cleanliness in a scary film will get you killed, it's thinking you have cleansed yourself when you really haven't that will get you killed. Please note, this is a hotel, and the bedroom is adjacent to the hotel; the film opened in a hotel bedroom where Marion had met Sam for her "lunch break."
According to the article, cleanliness is a bad thing in horror films: Brad Rhoden @BradRhoden1 sums it up well, posting, "when taking a shower smack the curtain open and jump back every time bc you never know when a killer will be there." And HockeyIsLife @Leafs_Fan_Chick offers: "Always lock the door when you're in the shower." But this is really missing the point. We know that water is more than just "cleansing" the body, it's also cleansing the soul, it's a symbol of grace, it's a symbol of  repentance (and if it rains, it can also symbolize that God is helping that person to overcome the situation, then again, it can also be the rains of destruction which caused the Flood Noah had to flee from, so you have to pay attention to the rain motif). So, if a person dies in a shower, it's because they were NOT in a state of repentance, instead of repenting and being cleansed of their sins, they were getting ready to commit more sins or will still inclined to commit sins (please see caption above and below for additional commentary upon this). So what else do we not do in a horror film? 
The Evil Dead is just a great, classic horror film and several important scenes take place in the bathroom. Mia takes a scalding shower AFTER she has become possessed because she's an extremist: she went "cold turkey" from heroine at the start of the film, then she scalds herself in the shower in hopes of cleansing herself from a contagion that has all ready entered, in other words, Mia hasn't found the balance to really be truthful with herself. Neither does she have perfect contrition (which is what the shower is supposed to symbolize): contrition is sorrow for one's sins; "perfect contrition" is when a person confesses the sin they have committed and recognizes that they are sorry because their sin has separated their self from the Goodness and Greatness of God and His Love; imperfect contrition is when a person confesses because they are afraid of going to hell; imperfect contrition is still contrition, but the person advancing in the ways of holiness will realize they have weakened the Light within them. In the scenes above, which take place in the bathroom, Olivia and Eric have both had some sense of contrition--Eric admits that he should not have opened the book, and I have never seen such an imperfect character survive so long in a horror film as Eric--but the film makers clearly demonstrate their sins and why they have to die and which sins they are "paying for" in the various scenes. Please see Cutting Your Face With Glass: Evil Dead fore more.
It's ridiculous to politely yell out, "Hello? Is there anyone there?" because the killer will not answer back and politely let you know he is there. Why not? Because this is the prayer of one who hasn't prayed. We tend to pray when things get really bad, like when we are in a bad situation and "darkness" symbolizes that well in a horror film. For a character to politely call out, "Hello?" is like them thinking it's a good time to start praying and--because they haven't prayed in a long time (maybe never) they don't know that God IS there listening to them but someone else is there, TOO, the devil. Calling out to the killer isn't calling out to the killer, it's a failed attempt at calling out to God, but it doesn't fail because God isn't going to answer their prayer, it fails because this person hasn't sufficiently prayed in the past to be able to pray in the present so they will be delivered from the evil that is coming. 
Halloween's Mike Myers; why is this an effective image? Because it's the exact opposite of what we want to see. If you were in this horror film, wouldn't you rather see Jesus standing in the doorway, rather than Mike with a knife to carve you up? Revelations 3:20: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock," Jesus says, and anyone who hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in with them and sup with them, and them with me. Yea, it would really suck to see Mike there instead. Remember, "Mike" stands for "Michael" which in Hebrew means, "Who can compare to God?" because the archangel casting Satan out of heaven said that as he defended heaven and God's Glory, so "Mike" showing up is like a telegram that says, if you had praised God instead, you wouldn't be seeing me right now. Instead of the pearly gates of heaven, Mike shows you the doors of hell and the sad thing is, this is by free will, every single choice the characters made (those who will die) they made by abusing the greatest gift God could give us, freedom to love Him or reject Him and accept the consequences. Horror films, by showing us our fate with the devil if we persist in our sins, tries to convince us that engaging in immoral behavior--be whatever it is--is ultimately self-destructive. So why isn't everyone holy? We fail to see ourselves in the characters in the story. We fail to identify our own sins when we see them being enacted by someone else and that comes from a lack of self-knowledge and self-reflection. We can't become strong if we don't know what our weaknesses are so we can overcome them, and that's part of the value of horror films if we make that act of humility and dare to look into the dark abyss of our soul before it's too late.
Why do people stay in the haunted house? Haunted houses make great "characters" in films, they take on their own personality; why? Because the house IS that person, a house symbolizes a person's soul (just as a body houses the soul, so a home houses the body), so a house that is haunted reveals a person who is haunted by someone, by something: it could be someone they once had and lost, or it could be some lingering sin within that person, but ghosts from the past (be that whatever form they take) reflect for the audience some dark corner within that character, and either they will be able to overcome those ghosts and cleanse themselves, or the ghosts will win and that person is lost. Which leads us to another "stupid" thing people do in horror films: going into the cellar.
Poltergeist is, perhaps, the ultimate haunted house film because the "Beast" lurks in the closet; why? The mom, Diane, got pregnant with their first child when she was just a kid in high school, and Carrie Ann could be headed down the same path of sexual promiscuity her older sister Dana is all ready on if Diane doesn't "clean out her closet" and be active in helping Carrie Ann avoid the pitfalls of becoming a loose woman so heavily advertised on television and popular culture (The Family Graveyard: Poltergeist).
 You hear something in the dark cellar and, of course, there are no lights, so you go down into the cellar to investigate what made that noise. Why? The character can't help but go down into the basement because that is their own inner, deepest-most self that has made that noise, their own repressed feelings, struggles, disappointments, fears, inhibitions, etc., and they have to "go to their self" and discover who they really are. The problem is, again, the character is rarely strong enough to be able to withstand the shock of seeing themselves as they truly are, seeing their sins and the toll they have taken upon that person and survive. Which leads us to what people DO look like in horror films and how that determines whether or not you are going to make it out alive.
Carolyn Perron looking into the dark cellar in The Conjuring. She will end up down there, when she's possessed, so the feeble match, all the "light of faith" she is capable of summoning up, isn't enough to enlighten her of where she is going in the film (the road of possession) and how her own characteristics are the vehicle for the witch to use against Carolyn. The Conjuring is a strongly pro-socialist film but, regardless of the politics, Carolyn looking into the dark cellar is basically what every character in a horror film does: they look into the darkness of their own soul. If the Light of Christ were brighter in the world, we could argue, there would be no darkness because we would all realize what is good for us and discipline ourselves to doing only what is genuinely good for ourselves and others, rather than being deceived by what is easiest to do or think is in our best interest, that's why some of the most important scenes take place in the kitchen, the place of the appetites (for food but, usually, for sex or money or material "possessions"). Please see The Devil's Hour: The Conjuring and Demonic Possessions for more discussion on this film.
According to some of the Tweets contributing to the article, being sexy or flirty is a definite no-no: "Never engage in sexual activity in the woods. You will die first," or, more bluntly, "don't be the hot white girl, you'll die first." Why? That's easy, actually. This isn't meant to be a stereotypically statement that horror films make, and the next item we review regarding fat people and black characters in scary films is the same, rather than making "politically incorrect" statements about people, these characters are teaching us about the types of faults these characters are apt to display and what can lead them to death. For a pretty girl, she probably likes depending upon her good looks to get boyfriends and doesn't consider the beauty of her soul, only what she can get by using her looks. So the contrast is made between the physically good-looking girl and whatever sin she is guilty of (usually sexual) and how gross that really makes her spiritually because she's allowing herself to be abused rather than having a genuine love for herself that would prevent her from becoming a slut through being loose.
If you doubt me about the devices used in horror films, you obviously haven't seen The Cabin In the Woods. Here we have Jules who is going to make out with the wolf stuffed on the wall. She pretends she's one of the three little pigs, and tells the wolf, "You don't have to huff and puff, I'll let you in," and that's a sexual reference without a doubt. As The Cabin in the Woods makes clear, the Control Room can't do anything that these people wouldn't do to abuse their free will on their own, so even though the Control Room was contributing--like the devil enhancing temptations to adapt them to our own individual weaknesses--Jules knew exactly what she was doing and what she wanted to do. The case in point is that the real heroine of this film is Patience: in her patience and virtue, she alone is morally strong enough to overcome the depravity of the Director (Sigrouney Weaver). For more, please see The Cabin In the Woods: Free Will, Husband Bulges and Jim Carrey
Why do black characters seem to always die in horror films (I personally can't think of any, but I have heard this cited before)? We have recently seen this in the Oscar-nominated film Beasts Of the Southern Wild and the character of Wink. Throughout the film, Wink commits random acts of "self-sabotage" that slowly destroys him and prevents him from having a healthier, happy future. Given that black children are least likely to grow up with a father in the household (72% of black children are with unwed mothers), abortion rates are highest among black children and--as of 2011--there were more black men in prison that in slavery in 1850; one article even suggested it's a rite of manhood for blacks to go to prison because it has become such an epidemic of self-sabotage and this self-destruction that sadly manifests itself in the black community has been a form of commentary in horror films, a warning that, if you don't want to end up like this guy, you better not do what this guy was doing. So, what about the fat guy? 
Sue Snell (Amy Irving) in the original Carrie who is my favorite heroine of any horror film because she is such a perfect example for all of us. She was just as terrible as anyone else for making fun of Carrie, but she took it to heart, and decided that she would pay off the debt she owed to Carrie with her own prom date. What happens to Sue is, being good becomes more desirable to her than doing bad, so even when it comes to sacrificing her own best friend so Carrie won't be humiliated at the prom, Sue doesn't hesitate to do the right thing, regardless of what it might cost her personally. That's why she's the only one to survive because each person, to some degree or another, even Carrie, has committed sins. We could say that a good depiction of hell is what that prom becomes.
Well, I can't think of any films where a fat guy dies, but it's pretty obvious that they have eaten of the goods of the world, but specifically failed to eat the Body and Blood of Christ, which is what happens in vampire films. "I do not drink,... wine" Dracula (Bela Lugosi) says, and it's true, he doesn't drink consecrated Wine that has been transubstantiated to become the Blood of Christ because Dracula is a demon, so he drinks the blood of humans to prevent them from being able to drink the Blood of Christ and be saved. Likewise, with an obese character, it emphasizes what they have NOT been eating, rather than what they have eaten. Which leads us to some pretty important points about the last issue: the villain never dies.
No matter how many times you stab, burn, shoot, put the blender on high and mail the slush to different corners of the world, the villain will come back. Why? No, it's not franchises, it's because that's how it actually happens. Evil is eternal, it doesn't die, and that these villains don't die validates us viewing them as incarnations of the devil. Whereas Christ died but was resurrected, and will never die again, the devil can die an infinite number of times, but is punished to be resurrected, never escaping from his self-imposed torment and trying to take as many people as possible with him. But once the devil has you, he has you, but as long as you are still alive, you are still fair play and he believes he has a chance to drag you into hell with him. Years and years ago, I was at a friend's who had South Park on, and it was the episode where Jesus had come and Jesus and the devil were going to have a boxing match; everyone in town bet that Jesus would lose the match, but one person bet that Jesus would win, and Jesus knocked out Satan and the whole town looked foolish for making the wrong bet, but it ended up that the winning bet was Satan, because the devil knows who the real King is and that the devil can never win.
It's not that an evil character will ever actually die, it's just that our understanding or our fear of evil changes and so, too, do the horror films to more accurately reflect that shift in our psychology and spirituality.
There are many more devices we could discuss, however, the next time another horror film comes out, don't be too quick to dismiss it as pulp fiction. But please don't also forget that many of these devices show up in other genres as well, and mastering the story-telling techniques of one type of film will increase our talents in watching other types of film. So, happy Halloween, tomorrow is a Holy Day of Obligation, when we pray and ask the Lord to strengthen us to "run the good race," keep our eyes on Him, and not trip as we run....
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner