Documentaries are movies that are intended to teach us lessons about something real. In contrast, horror movies are about things that are clearly not real. Nevertheless, horror movies can teach us important lessons, if we are willing to learn. On the simplest level, horror movies allow us to experience fear in a safe setting so that we can observe our own fear and learn how to recognize and manage it. On a deeper level, horror movies teach us that reason is the way to deliver ourselves from needless fear. As the Spanish Enlightenment painter Francisco de Goya put it, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” If we are to battle monstrosity, our reason must be fully awake and engaged.
What Is a Horror Movie?
Not all scary movies are horror movies. Action-adventure movies and war movies can also be scary. However, horror movies deal with the supernatural: things that do not follow the normal laws of nature. When we allow ourselves to accept the premises of the horror movie, at least while watching the movie, we are allowing ourselves to experience superstition. Superstition is any false idea about cause and effect. All of us are prone to having false ideas about cause and effect, especially during childhood, while we are sleeping, and if we are suffering from some kinds of mental illness. The characters in a horror movie must struggle to figure out the laws of the universe that they have stumbled into. Likewise, all of us eventually find ourselves in situations where the old rules no longer apply. Watching horror movies helps to prepare us emotionally to adapt to those situations.
Childhood and Nightmares
Horror movies deal with the things that scared us when we were children and that still scare us while we are asleep. Young children have not yet developed the ability to reason. Adults lose their ability to reason while they are asleep. By developing our ability to reason while awake, we can become a lot less fearful in our waking lives as adults. The lack of reason breeds fear, but fear also undermines reason. Fear is the emotion that encourages us to fight, run away, or freeze in response to an immediate threat to life and limb. However, fear does not encourage us to think deep thoughts. Most of the scary problems that we deal with in modern life must be solved through careful thinking, not through running, fighting, or simply holding perfectly still. For this reason, learning to manage our fear is the first step in solving big problems.
Horror Movie Tropes
Tropes are recurring themes and images that storytellers use. A trope can be a person (e.g., an axe-wielding murderer), a place (e.g., a haunted house), a thing (e.g., a painting that keeps changing), or a situation (e.g., an invasion by space aliens). These things range from mildly creepy to downright terrifying because they do not follow the rules that normal people and things are supposed to follow. As a result, they can make you doubt your own sanity (which is scary enough) or they may represent an immediate threat to life and limb. Some horror movie tropes are inspired by truly scary things, while others can serve as metaphors for problems that people face in real life.
Spiders, Snakes, and Predators
Many horror tropes are based on spiders, snakes, or predators. Human beings may have instinctual fears of these things. Spiders and snakes can be venomous, and their bites can be deadly. Human beings can also fall prey to big scary predators, such as lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Many of these beasts are nocturnal, which is yet another reason to fear the dark. Some are ambush predators, which explains why even the slightest rustle in the underbrush can be terrifying in certain circumstances. Horror movies give us the opportunity to feel this kind of fear, and to observe ourselves feeling this kind of fear, in a completely safe setting.
Living and Nonliving
As children start to learn about the world, they start to notice patterns and rules. For example, they start dividing everything into categories, such as living versus nonliving things. We start dividing the living things into subcategories: people, animals, and plants. Living things can grow, albeit slowly, while nonliving things cannot grow. People and animals can move around under their own power, while plants cannot. Many horror movie tropes involve some violation of those rules. For example, in the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is delighted to see some apple trees with ripe fruit on them. But when she picks an apple, the tree slaps her hand and yells at her. Dorothy then tells the Scarecrow, “I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas.” In the “not-Kansas” world of a horror movie, the normal distinctions between people, animals, plants, and nonliving things break down. The normal rules no longer apply, and the characters must scramble to adjust to the new state of affairs.
The Dead and the Undead
Many horror tropes deal with the borderline between life and death. We are terrified of death because it is final, and we are also terrified that death may not be final. If we happen upon a corpse unexpectedly, it is natural to fear that whatever killed that person might kill us next. Although we miss our departed loved ones, we do not want to see their decaying remains. Also, we may continue to fear our enemies, even after they are dead. We may fear that the dead are angry with us and may want to punish us or take us with them into the grave. Thus, horror movies give us the chance to process our feelings about these things.
The Flexibility of Time
In the ordinary world, time marches in one direction at a steady pace and in a straight line. In horror movies, however, timelines may be flexible or even loopy. A character may get caught in a nightmare dimension where time moves more rapidly or more slowly than in the regular world. In an enchanted setting, processes of growth can be dramatically sped up. For example, a haunted house may become entwined with vines within a matter of minutes. Normal processes of aging and decay can also be sped up or slowed down. A timeline may even loop back on itself, so that the lives of the previous residents of a haunted house may be playing out while the new family is trying to live in the house. These loopy timeline tropes remind us of something important: the past cannot be changed, and it can create problems that persist to the present.
The characters in a horror movie are confronting confusing problems. Ghost stories often deal with the unfinished business of the dead. In some movies, the characters must solve the problem that was keeping the ghost from passing into the afterlife. In others, the characters must simply find a way to escape or to contain the threat posed by the unquiet dead. In short, the characters must find a way to solve a problem that cannot be solved by following the ordinary rules that apply in everyday life. Often, the problem can be solved only by finding an emotional solution to the problem. For example, a character might defeat a ghost by refusing to show fear.
The Scooby-Doo cartoons used horror movie tropes for an educational purpose. The Scooby-Doo cartoons are about a group of young people (and Scooby-Doo the dog) who operate a detective agency called Mystery Inc., which specializes in investigating hauntings and other supernatural phenomena. Every case turns out to be a hoax perpetrated by some villain, who is trying to create fear to manipulate people or to hide his crimes. At the end of each episode, the Mystery Inc. gang unmask the villain. The villain then typically complains that he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddlesome kids! Thus, the Scooby-Doo cartoons teach children that the supernatural is not real, that bad people often stir up fear of the supernatural for bad purposes, and that brave people ought to unmask these villains before they can do more harm.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Like the Scooby-Doo cartoons, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer features a group of young people (and one adult) who try to solve problems related to the supernatural. The supernatural phenomena in Scooby-Doo were hoaxes. However, the vampires and other demons that Buffy slays are real (at least in the Buffyverse). However, Buffy’s demons also serve as metaphors for the challenges of growing up. Series creator Joss Whedon asked his writers to use horror movie tropes as metaphors for the worst things that happened to them in high school, such as the boyfriend who turns evil as soon as you sleep with him. Fortunately, Buffy is not alone in her struggle. She gets guidance from her “watcher” (who is also the school librarian), as well as support from her friends (who call themselves the Scooby Gang, in homage to Scooby-Doo). Each of the members of the Scooby Gang represents one of the four aspects of a complete person: hand, head, heart, and spirit. One episode spelled out this metaphor explicitly, in a magic ritual that was intended to focus all four aspects on solving the same problem. By taking her watcher’s advice, Buffy is metaphorically relying on her own intellect.
Whenever my husband and I hear of something evil that an adult has done to a child, my husband says, “And we tell children that there is no such thing as monsters!” The supernatural phenomena in horror movies are not real, yet they can serve as metaphors for bad things that happen in real life. For example, demonic possession can serve as a metaphor for the kinds of personality changes that occur in seemingly normal human beings when they are in the grips of religious fanaticism and war fever. When a war breaks out, people and institutions stop following the rules that they normally follow. As a result, ordinary people find themselves in a hellscape where the old rules no longer apply. Like characters in an old-fashioned fairy tale or modern horror movie, the people in a war zone must discover and adapt to the new rules in order to survive. Francisco de Goya understood that fact. Through his artwork, Goya documented the horrors of war and of the Spanish Inquisition. Goya warned us that the sleep of reason breeds monsters. Our challenge today is to use reason to keep our own world from collapsing into a waking nightmare.