Friday, October 26, 2007

Horror Films and Kids

This article gives a very good explanation of the horror genre's merit and how it isn't just fodder for sadists to get their kicks. The writer's experiment to see whether he could get his son to feel the tension and fear in old horror films without the benefit of modern special effects or bloodshed was done with a mind to not scarring the child and enriching his film watching experience. In the end, he was correct. Good horror works much more psychologically than visually. Much like Stephen Spielberg inserting sick and/or dead children into his films to force a direct emotional response, those who make horror films that use gore as a crutch with nothing else to hold it up are cheap hacks, the movies they make worth little consideration. At this point, that kind of horror may be the norm, but there are exceptions even in this current climate of so-called "torture porn." Horror has had its gore-fests for forty years (arguably the first, the Herschel Gordon Lewis & David Friedman exploitation gem Blood Feast, was released in 1963) but horror has been around as long as film. The same methods that worked in 1920 are in use today, even if the circumstances and levels of sex and violence have changed with the times.

There is no doubt that horror works its magic best on children, and the writer has likely made a life-long horror fan out of his child, for better or for worse. The responses that different people have toward horror, which he accurately describes, are reactions developed from an early age. Particular types of horror can effect people differently based on the individual's life experiences. This kid was shown a series of atmospherically-driven horror and specifically not films like Halloween, no matter how good it is, to keep from harming him. Two of my earliest film memories are of The Shining and The Exorcist, and I'd have to guess that I was duly scarred by both of them. Both still hold a lot of power over me, though not near as much as they used to (I now have a lot of issues with The Exorcist, though The Shining's quality has held up well). It is the memory of the effect these movies had on me, now deeply seeded in my psyche, that has always had me coming back for more.

Never have I come out of a horror movie, though, and espoused its greatness based on gore. Never have I said, "That was awesome, it was so violent!" The genres aren't mutually exclusive, but I don't know a lot of honest horror fans who are also fans of Rambo, and those of its ilk. This is because good horror hangs its hat on other things than mere blood and guts. Horror is the only genre that uses real primal instincts and the fear of death, as devices. Comedy is not instinctual, what is funny is taught and learned through circumstances and develops into each individual's sense of humor. We are taught who our political enemies are, there is nothing instinctual in hating the Soviets, so how well can movie like Red Dawn come across now, scary as it may have seemed in 1984. The nuances of a masterful character study is brilliant, but only from the perspective of experience and understanding of the crafts; nothing about it holds instinctual truth. The instinct of survival is paramount in horror, and viewers of any age or maturity level can relate to a character fighting for his or her life. Gore doesn't make horror, fear does. The fear that this kid felt after watching The Lodger (which I have not seen) was built not by shocks and gore, but by atmosphere and psychology. It is these elements, not squirting blood, that will hook him on horror and give him the kind of thrill that no other type of film can deliver.