False Scares

Usually what annoys us about a horror movie is the stupidity of the humans involved. A dreadful curiosity lures them to discover an Evil that paralyzes their reason and leads them into ill-advised, desperate, frenzied action. Many plots could be averted, and the story ended, if only they had left the thing, whatever it is, alone, and not given it any attention―except that, in most cases, Evil doesn’t leave them that option, but haunts, invades, seduces them into contact or imposes it. They climb the stairs looking for the source of that strange screeching noise, they cannot avert their gaze from the mirror that tricks them into killing themselves, they cannot leave unresearched the anomalous substance that threatens to invade them. Or they simply miss the clues, the discovery comes too late, and before they know it they are in Evil’s hands. We smack our foreheads with frustration as the character makes the exact wrong move and, as they should have been able to predict, gets their head sliced clean off.

Our annoyance is a way of asking, How could they be so stupid? They had it coming! But here one rightly objects that, were you faced with the real threat of a slashing, you too would probably not act so rationally. Suspension of disbelief will reach out to accept any monster, but we are not as patient with the monstrosity of human unreason. This shows to what extent we expect people faced with Evil to act as if the Evil did not affect them, as if its power ought to be bracketed and overcome through heroic action and the best strategic choice. Our concern as viewers is perhaps not even primarily that the character survive (it is perhaps rare that a horror movie genuinely endears us to them, though the best ones do; and then it becomes more of a psychological thriller), but that the characters fight for their survival in a convincing way and do nothing too irrational to jeopardize it. Whereas, when it comes to the Evil, we expect irrationality and do not begrudge it when it exploits human stupidity―although, admittedly, we are less impressed by an Evil whose task is made easy by humans than an Evil that overpowers even its greatest defenses.

The trouble is that, on the one hand, we want to discover the Evil and see it in action in all the gruesome detail, we want to see it express its power; on the other, we want humans to deal with Evil intelligently, even if ultimately it doesn’t make a difference. By this criterion, it should be no surprise that a professional is often introduced into the mix to supplement the dire scenario with a little hope. A psychologist, an exorcist, a detective, a paranormal export, or even a kind of militant―perhaps on a divine mission, perhaps not―who can pursue the Evil “from outside” or “from above,” i.e., rationally. In the capacity of expert or leader, they differ from the common person who is usually overwhelmed with fear and fails to handle the crisis adequately. This reflects our desire to see the Evil understood and conquered, even if in the most hopeless, fruitless and doomed manner. But above all, not to behave entirely stupidly.

The professional, part of the plagued party, is the one who can maintain an ideal of rational distance, unless it is spiritual (often modeled on the battle between Christ and demonic forces). This is a viewing distance that allows a gain in clarity, even if the action to follow requires improvisation, risk, life-endangerment, etc. The professional, as a narrative device, works so well because through the film it doubles, guides and mimics the action of the viewer (though we as observers from a different world maintain the “uppermost” position, the most rational and “unafraid”). Submitted to the horror scene but fighting for the minimal distance of an investigation―sometimes driven by an rather crazy curiosity, a type of obsessed determination―, they make decision about values, about what to save and leave behind, about why the Evil is worth confronting and what a meaningful response to it might be (if there are any).

Now, it doesn’t have to be a professional per se, but there is always a sort of becoming-investigator or becoming-scientist at play in a good character when he or she is confronted with an unimaginable horror. I believe this bears witness to a general human tendency, something probably to be admired no matter how haphazard and abortive its campaigns. Generally speaking, whenever this element of knowing is lacking, the story is limited to the hysteria of characters whose stakes are personal, familial, or perhaps even ‘humanitarian’, but chaotic because undirected and overly passional. These ‘pathological’ influences are what the professional is supposedly able, their heart racing, to suspend; and we know their investigatory stance is often tested directly by the Evil itself. Indeed, the one with a removed, sober perspective is often the one destined to get most caught up in the combat, or whose full entanglement with it is finally revealed to them as the cipher of their destiny. Those characters are weakest who show little more than “rage” and who fall quickly in their desperate attempts to fight Evil directly. This, incidentally, even leads us to doubt the strength, gravity, or believability of that particular Evil―as if any Evil that didn’t call for an increase in knowledge in its challenger wasn’t worth hearing about  (meaning it feels like a waste of time to watch that movie)

The terrible attraction of the great horror film is an Evil that we cannot not want to know about, even if it is in the end unstoppable, or stoppable only for a time. But that Evil be unstoppable is, also in the end, unacceptable for humanity. We can see in the horror genre a dynamic allegory for our condition as beings endowed with knowledge of good and evil who, nonetheless, do not do the good we want to do, and do do the evil we do not want to do. Barring the notion that we are innately evil at heart―to which there is much counter-evidence in religion, art, philosophy, and politics, and daily life―we know and over time have progressed in knowing that Evil forces, within and without, can be seen and overcome. But time has brought the fall of religion as our moral measuring stick. Its full replacement by juridical and governmental apparatuses, which ensure a minimum of “freedom” but fail on countless other levels, not answering the question of Evil but controlling Evil by force and punishing its occurrence, has unleashed an era of the conflicts of values, between every different class and sort of person. We have witnessed just to what degree humans can persecute and kill each other, beyond all imaginable boundaries or rules of engagement. Our times are characterized by the obligation to pass through evil in a raw, naked, horrifying way, not only collectively but personally―to stare into the abyss, as Nietzsche put it, and he warned us to be careful that an abyss does not stare back. Very often, an abyss does stare back; but perhaps this is the moment of selection, the moment of progress in knowledge. We understand now that the entire question is reflected in our inner mirror and plays out in the struggle of our soul.

Not only military and intelligence experts, politicians, priests and other leaders, but we too are called to be experts in the ways of handling Evil in our own confrontation with the world’s horrors and those buried deep in our minds and hearts. We too feel the pressure of the professional to stand back and appraise, investigate and put together, if only to stay sane and ward off hopelessness. So we invent countless strategies of interpreting, preventing, redirecting, and explaining Evil. And yet, with each murder or mass shooting or bombing, Evil confirms its overwhelming character, its apparent unstoppability. Often we are reduced to tears like a family caught in a broom closet while the villain lurks outside. And yet we do not give in. We fight our way out at risk of life and limb, sacrificing everything if it means the Evil will be understood and conquered. Even if our direct goal is to save those closest to us, the implications of our deeds is almost metaphysical. We prove the value of hope and knowledge, their participation and ours in the Good.

The horror movie perhaps reflects this struggle between fear and overcoming, giving us a jolting image to prompt our reflections and to take stock of the falsity or “artificiality,” as Rex Styzens puts it, of the special effects that produce terror. But I don’t want to give the impression that I mean all scares are false. My point is philosophical in nature, emphasizing the need to recognize the falsity and illusion of Evil where it would try to drown us in its confusion and paralyze us. Of course, however artificial the means and motives of fear, however base, misleading, and obdurate it is, in the real world it produces real violence, injury and death; and it perpetuates itself through thought-images like a virus, duplicating its wrath in new spheres. Perhaps horror movies teach us something here, perhaps not. Representation works for the cognitive response, but the affective runs into deeper spaces and complexities, harder to understand and express. While movies can conjure these elements of emotion as well, nothing compares to a real-life situation of horror. I share with Rex a “mute admiration” for those who survive it. I wish for them a life of recovery from their traumas and protection from the abreaction into evil behaviors themselves.

I won’t say more on these matters of Evil in society, except to voice a hunch: In the long run, the best way to address it is to assume the fullness of our confrontation with Evil in the deepest recesses of ourselves; to question our own habits and views down to the most granular detail; and to exorcise all the demons that possess us―the automatic reactions, narrow desires and minor violences that generate an atmosphere of combat, vengeance, jealousy and covetousness in society. The point is to see where we are doing violence and what we can do about it. My hope is only that we learn how to brave evil in our own spheres however we can, inside and out, to root it out―which is very difficult in itself, especially if we take the investigation sincerely into all our thoughts and habits.

Once it is accepted that each of us is called to become a professional in the matter of Evil (whether or not it is “supernatural”), it can no longer be a matter of a straightforward moral education or prescriptions. Nothing outside of us can guide us all the way here, for gaining lived knowledge is essential. Sometimes this means more than observing and reflecting. We feel and incarnate evil feelings in ourselves, feeling them fully so as to examine them and to stop acting upon them; in the process we gain compassion for those who do, since we see how we are complicit in their exercise. As we know, it is often by befriending the threatening source that we gain our understanding of it and are able to help it out of its confusion, liberate it from the suffering it so clearly has. This is the hopeful vision advanced by the courageous humanity sometimes displayed in horror movies. One wonders if it isn’t Evil that is most scared by the Evil in them; and perhaps they remain Evil because they cannot or refuse not to know anything about it, preferring to remain vicious, unfeeling, and brutal in spite of everything, ignoring feedback and the need to observe, reflect, and release. Whatever their situation, the horror movie shows that it is humans who are in the best position to enter that practice or profession.

Evil in the movies is obviously not always like a wound in need of healing. As in the real world, it is often portrayed as fundamentally senseless and chaotic, even if it exhibits a high strategic intelligence for attaining its rabid aims. But even here we notice how the Evil thing is subject to its own cravenness and insanity, the baseness of its drives and attacks. It is not clear, in many cases, how a knowing and careful influence is supposed to overcome the fear it generates. The possibility that we will die―by approaching it or just as a random victim―is never alleviated. But knowledge and perspective still helps us survive, even when these cannot penetrate the hard shell of brutality, idiocy and inconscience that shields Evil from its inevitable contact with the Other, with a beyond of division and mutual devourment. For it is always by a false understanding of our intimacy and intrication with the Other that we devolve into separateness and disconnection. What we do know is that this devolution leads to horror, which should be enough to accept the call.

Since I’m writing this on Halloween, let me close with a story. One year, probably 2009, I decided to wear for the occasion a hideous mask misshapen like an alien and bleeding from cuts like a slasher victim. I put something under the left shoulder of the woodsman flannel I wore to give the appearance of a hump. Though not elaborate in construction, I was able continually to jump-start any of my friends who looked my way not expecting to see this face. Even to wear it casually in the room unnerved. It quickly became an exciting, powerful game for me. That evening, after partying a bit, we decided to go out to the bars. What grabbed a hold of me then was strange and memorable. I could not step out into the street―the Ped Mall of Iowa Cit, where hundreds of other students in outfits gathered―without staggering and playing the part. But immediately the game escalated. I started lumbering hunched through the lines of crowds waiting to enter bars and bantering, growling in a very low voice and loudly, breathing with great disturbance. Through the eye holes in my mask, I could tell that many around me, especially some females, were made very uncomfortable at my presence. Looks and glares, some fascinated but many disapproving, met my menacing poses. I felt I had actually become suspicious and threatening in some of their eyes. But I kept on with it for at least an hour, until I found myself wandering alone in an alley, still committed to the Evil acting-out―until something snapped and I “woke up,” stood up straight, took off the mask, chuckled and started walking normally, inside very disturbed at how I had gotten there, how I could take the delusional image so far.

Perhaps Evil is a little like this. Worn like a costume for some purpose―and this can begin in innocent inconscience, however twisted it later becomes―it gives us a feeling of power and control. It brings us attention, however horrified and disgusted. And it is full of passionate abandon, a sort of trance-activity, unreflective, uninhibited, aggressive, free and pleasurable. But inside it is terrifying. Perhaps Halloween is about inhabiting the Evil figure from the inside, playing it out for a night to neutralize its attraction over us. Yet there are probably costumes we wear daily that could be discarded. These are the costumes of our own fear, false scares that hold us bound to scary images. No doubt it is not easy to snap out of the trance of violence, divisiveness and aggression, but there are certainly opportunities to try. The calmness of the expert is not at odds with a quick jump into courageous, decisive action. If anything is certain about them, it is that they have seen what Evil has in it and know what it takes to take it down or to transform it. Their fear need not be absolute; it doesn’t need to control the response, for it is only relative to a gap in our perspective, in our acknowledgement of what we know about Evil’s extent. This doesn’t make it any easier to handle, its vanquishing any quicker. Nothing guarantees success and the professional remains in the dark about much. But in seeking to overcome, dispelling ignorance with knowledge, we prove that the scare must be held false, and that Evil need not win when it is possible for humans to understand it.

―Halloween, 2016 and 17

Note related posts:
Unspeakable ― on the pain of the event, written during Sandy Hook
Boredom & Terror ― on the “wish for explosive pain”
The Law’s Curse ― on forgiveness
Thinking the Gift of Death ― review of Fernando’s The Suicide Bomber

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3 Responses to False Scares

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    Your perspicacious comments brought back old memories of my first visit to a haunted house at an amusement park. Riverview Park in Chicago in the 1930s was the equivalent for those days of Disneyland. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old with members of my family, who decided to walk through the house of horror. Half way through I pleaded to be let out of there and was exited through a back door to wait for everyone else to finish.
    Hollywood films of ghosts and witches followed with their long line of special effects to induce terror. I soon learned that one can distance oneself from imaginary spooks by taking stock of their artificiality. But sitting through them remained a badge of bravery.
    I have never been in combat and have a mute admiration for all I know who have survived it. I wonder if I’d be looking for the backdoor had I faced such real horror. Reality can be evil enough.

    • tmlavenz says:

      Thanks for sharing your memories and reflections here Rex. I’m still a bit tentative on what I want to say in this piece. I would hate to give the impression that all scares are somehow false. It is the more philosophical point—recognizing as you call it the artificiality of efforts to produce terror and paralysis. But however artificial the fear and its motives, it produces real injury and death; and it perpetuates itself through thought-images like a virus, duplicating its wrath in new spheres. Perhaps horror movies teach us something there, perhaps not. Representation works for cognitive response, but the affective runs into deeper spaces and complexities, harder to understand and express. I too, having never been in a horror situation per se, have a mute admiration for those who have survived it. My intention of course is to brave the evil however we can, inside and out in our in spheres, so as to root it out—very difficult in itself, especially if we take the investigation to all our thoughts and habits.

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