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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 3


I think we're about halfway through this little autopsy of what makes horror tick, so let's not dilly-dally about, and talk about...

NUMBER THREE: Isolation

This is related to vulnerability in that being alone is a type of weakness, but it bears special mention because of the place it holds in the human psyche.  Being alone is a fundamental fear of humanity.  That could be in the short term (you're walking down a dark road by yourself and it's creepy and you wish you had a buddy with you) or the long term (you live your life in complete solitude: no friends, no lovers, no family, and ultimately die, alone and forgotten).

Being alone is also directly tied to our animal instincts: at our core, we're still herd/pack animals.  We feel safest around others of our kind.  together, we are stronger than we would be alone.  And even if the scary monster can still kill a whole crowd of people with ease, it's possible to use the crowd of people as camouflage and slip away into another part of the herd.  If we're around other people, the police can be called, an ambulance can arrive, and all will be well.

But if we're alone...if we're cut off from civilization, or our pals, then we are well and truly screwed.

Time for a classic bit of motion picture horror: John Carpenter's Halloween.  Halloween is one of my favorite horror movies because it is basically horror boiled down to its essential elements (I'm talking about the original here, not the piece of shit Rob Zombie made.  You're an awesome musician Rob, but every movie you've made has sucked famously.  Know your strengths dude.) Despite being in the middle of suburbia, poor, poor Laurie Strode winds up alone and trapped by her psychotic brother, Michael Myers.

Good 'ol Mike knows that isolation is a fundamental fear, as he goes about methodically killing the people around Laurie until it's just her, and him.  Oh, and that cool-ass doctor who shoots him like, a hundred times.  But until he shows up, Laurie is basically on her own.  And worse, when she's not alone and knows Mike is coming for her, she has to spend precious seconds seeing to the safety of some little kids.  There's a lot of excellent work done with this idea, where Laurie runs out into the streets, screaming hysterically for help to no avail.  It's eerie seeing middle America so vacant, empty, and threatening.  That freaking piano track doesn't help things either.

When the day is saved by Dr. Loomis, and Michael mysteriously vanishes, we get to see cop cars, flashing blue and red lights, and Laurie being put in an ambulance.  Society and the herd has returned, and even if Michael out there somewhere, at least Laurie isn't alone anymore.  With people comes safety.

So there's that: the obvious physical isolation that Laurie goes through.  But what about mental isolation?  What does that mean?  In short, that means everybody thinks you are crazy when you say there is a monster after you, because they can't see it.  But you can.  you can see it getting closer, getting ready to bite your head off any second.  Nobody else acknowledges it though.  It's just you and it.

A good example of this is Richard Matheson's classic short story (and legendary Twilight Zone episode) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In the story, Bob, a salesman who has a previous history with mental breakdowns, is on a plane.  He looks out the window and sees some hideous creature screwing with the wing.  Bob tries to alert his fellow passengers to the danger, but whenever anybody else takes a look, the little gremlin ducks out of view.  Bob is on a plane full of people, and yet he is alone.

Nobody else believes there is a malevolent gremlin on the wing of the plane, trying to kill them all.  Bob's the only one who knows.  Despite frantically trying to alert his wife, the stewardess, and the captain, nobody believes Bob, and he's forced to handle the problem himself.  Bob saves the plane, but everybody still thinks he's crazy.

There's one more example I want to bring up.  It's a short story I read in a book of scary stories for kids, and I don't recall the name.  A kid and his parents are traveling Africa via one of those little personal airplanes (Dad is a pilot).  After filling up the plane with fuel, Dad asks Kid to check the fuel cap before they take off.  Kid is in a crappy mood so he ignores his dad and they fly away.  Mid-flight over the Sahara, they discover the plane is leaking fuel, and they crash.  Dad dies on impact.  mom's back is broken and she is unconscious.  Kid survives with a few scratches, but now he's in the desert.

He decides the best thing to do is go for help, so he takes a little water after forcing his unconscious  mother to drink some.  He walks for days, drinking the last of the water.  He's about to keel over from dehydration when he sees something on the horizon.  He runs toward it and then stops in horror.  It's the plane.  His plane.  He's gone in  one big circle.  His mother has died while he was out wandering around.  The boy collapses against the side of the plane in the meager shade, smelling his parents, alone for hundreds of miles.  It is strongly implied that the boy has already died, and this is Hell for him: an endless loop of guilt and isolation.

Let me reiterate that this was a kid's story.  I read this in the 5th grade after I bought it at one of those Scholastic book fairs.  Everything about that story (except the title and the name of the book it came from) has stuck with me for over fifteen years (by the way if you know the name of this book and/or story, please tell me because I would LOVE to find it again).

That image of a boy, alone in an empty landscape of sand and sun, wandering forever in a cycle of guilt and fear, scared the snot out of me.  Some folks say Hell is other people, but I'd say it's their absence.  Damn near anything is tolerable as long as you have somebody to share it with, to lean on when things get their darkest.  But if it's just you...then you're easy prey.

We're coming up on the end of the first segment of Genre talk next time, with The Unknown.

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