The Philosophy of Horror: There’s Only 2 Possible Stories

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The Evolution of Horror

I’m going to begin this post with a little plug for a great movie. In 2009, Andrew Monument directed a fascinating documentary called Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. The film examines the history of the horror film, from the silent era to the new millenium. More specifically, Monument analyzes how the evolution of the horror movie is a direct reflection of the events of the twentieth century.

I’ve watched the film at least five times. There’s a good selection of directors that are interviewed in the film, including a few legends (George Romero and John Carpenter). I believe it’s available to watch for free on YouTube. If you have a few hours to spare, I highly recommend it.

The Essence of Horror

I found a few things that Carpenter said in the film to be particularly profound. He said that there are only two types of horror stories:

  • The “Campfire” story.
    • The evil is somewhere outside of the camp, in the dark. The evil is something or someone other than the campers.
  • The “I” story.
    • The evil is within us or within me. This isn’t referring to an Exorcist-style possession, which would just be a version of the “campfire” story where the other happens to be inside the protagonist’s body. Perhaps a more accurate way to characterize this story would be: I am the evil or We are the evil.

Carpenter said that the “campfire” story is a much easier story to tell than the “I” story. That observation started me down an enjoyable train of thought. Most mainstream horror films easily fall into the “campfire” classification. Friday the 13th, Paranormal Activity, The Shining, Wrong Turn, Hellraiser, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, Alien, Dawn of the Dead, The Conjuring, The Descent, Hostel, Inside and the list goes on and on.

“They’re coming to get you Barbara.”

The “campfire” story taps into our primal fear of physical danger: of being displaced, of an intruder, of being violated, of being robbed. Ultimately, these fears all boil down to the biological need for safety. Stereotyping and profiling are evolutionary adaptations to help detect danger and make contingency decisions quickly. Unfortunately, in the modern era, these adaptations often do more harm than good.

It’s no accident that the Trump administration has employed extensive use of xenophobic rhetoric to rally its blue collar base. Trump claims that, if harsh border control measures aren’t adopted (such as imprisoning children), hordes of sub-human immigrants will flood across the Mexican border. They’ll steal hardworking citizens’ jobs. The victims will be left destitute, without any way to make ends meet. Many of the immigrants are MS-13 members. A large number are drug dealers. They’ll bring crime. They’ll rape American women in Biblical numbers. They’re animals. They’re the others. We need to keep them out. That’s how Trump’s story goes.

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The fear of the other is as effective a political tool as it is a foundation of the horror story. When the other is threatening the protagonist(s), he or she must find some kind of physical means to resolve the situation. He might escape the monster. She might solve the puzzle and send the Cenobites back to Hell. The little boy might cover up his footprints in the hedge maze and evade his psychotic, axe-wielding father. Even if a supernatural element is used to defeat the other, the magic element is still affecting or changing the physical world. Once the other is physically neutralized, everyone can breathe easy…unless you’re Laurie Strode. You can’t look away until you’ve verfied that he doesn’t have a pulse. Very important.

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“Tonight, I just had to kill a lot of people!”

The “I” story targets a more mysterious dimension of the human psyche. Physical dangers don’t play a role here. There are moments in everyone’s lives when they question their own character and motives. That’s normal. What’s not normal is when someone realizes, or suspects, that they themselves are evil, that their moral framework is completely fucked. In the “I” story, the protagonist goes through life believing that they’re fighting evil, that they’re fighting the other. Then something happens that makes them realize that they were the monster all along. Often times, the protagonist in this story projects their own subconscious fear of themselves onto the other, a convenient scapegoat.

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The “I” story is, admittedly, more difficult to find examples of than its counterpart. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist falls into this category. Often times, these types of stories seem like they’re “campfire” stories on the surface, but closer examination shows that’s not the case.

The Babadook is another example of this dynamic. The monster’s harassment of the family blends together with the mother’s mounting hatred towards her child. Is the Babadook merely a metaphor for the widow’s fear of parenthood? It’s open to interpretation, but the movie seems to be about the mother’s internal struggle, after losing her husband and being forced to parent her son alone. The Babadook is the other and she is the monster.

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Another “I” story is American Psycho, but the narrative’s execution is different here. The novel by Bret Easton Ellis savagely satirized the decadent excesses of America under Reagan. The film does as well, and the audience experiences a first-person indictment of unrestrained capitalistic greed. Patrick Bateman seems to become more aware that he’s insane than that he’s evil. However, while watching, the audience is forced to consider the level of their own excesses. Patrick Bateman wasn’t a quasi-human freak like Leatherface. The American dream is based on materialism and consumption. Patrick Bateman simply had the most extreme interpretation of that dream, but it is still a point on the spectrum of greed. Each one of us falls somewhere on that spectrum, but where?

“Where’s Regan?”

“In here. With us.”

While all horror stories might fundamentally boil down to these two categories, there will never be a creative limit for the legion of artists that populate the world with their tales of terror. Horror is always evolving, always contorting itself into disturbing new positions, so that it can continue to show us our reflection it its macabre human mirror. Whether the evil is in the woods or in our souls, horror will help us find the true monster.

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