“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
I was scared of a great many things as a small kid. Most were imagined, but that didn’t make them feel any less possible. The world was impossibly big and unfathomable, good and evil in a very concrete, black-and-white way that allowed for little negotiation. I was keenly aware of my smallness, my near total lack of agency. And that lack of control, that basic helplessness we all feel as small children dealing with an overwhelmingly large universe, is something that never entirely goes away. We learn to mask or repress it better as we grow up, but it’s still there, and it’s still terrifying. We try our best to marshal our well-worn defense mechanisms in service of avoiding potential triggers, but the world can still be a frightening place.
Fear is a funny thing. It can take many different forms and manifest in all sorts of ways. Anxiety, phobias, nightmares, dread—all of these are simply another way of saying that we are scared, that we have lost control (or realized how precious little of it we ever had to begin with), that there are forces out there larger and stranger than us, capable of reducing us to huddled masses, keeping us scared to turn off the lights at night.
What scares us most quite often makes the littlest sense, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to these ancient brains we all carry around, primed to detect threat above all else. It made sense once, thousands of years ago—when the notion of “fight or flight” was a necessary survival instinct, hard-wired into our circuitry so we’d live to see another day—but it serves us far less well today, in our modern context. There are no tigers left, not really. But still the alarm bells keep ringing.
But when we set out to create this month’s annual Halloween issue, we quickly realized we weren’t particularly interested in putting together a typical horror issue. No gore, no slasher films, no splatter-fests (other sites will be doing that all month long, and much better than we ever possibly could). While plenty of folks love films of that ilk, we’re much more interested in reflecting on a more existential kind of fear, in looking at why things scare us, rather than merely noting that they do.
So, while this is still very much an issue about haunted houses (The Uninvited), monsters (The Monster Squad), vampires (The Hunger, Only Lovers Left Alive), evil (Heavy Metal), and dread (Eraserhead, Return to Oz)—it’s also one interested a great deal in life, love, indifference, displacement, weirdness, memory, experience, authorship, childhood, and Catherine Deneuve.
Scary movies are rarely ever just scary movies. They’ve existed, and been successful, for nearly as long as cinema itself (George Melies made The Haunted Castle, a three minute short film widely considered to be the very first horror movie, way back in 1896). For nearly 120 years now we’ve gathered together in front of giant screens in the dark, laying down our hard-earned money in the hopes of having the wits scared out of us. The reason we keep returning to these types of films might seem rather obvious—they offer up terrifying narratives and spine-tingling chills, allowing us to watch horrors play out right in front of our eyes, safely removed but vicariously involved. They give us a chance to experience true fear and anxiety, without any of the actual danger; dress rehearsals for situations we hope to never face. We imagine ourselves into these stories as a way of figuring out how we would react, how we would cope with all the things that scare us most. And by doing so, we are perhaps briefly able to comfort ourselves, to make our own fears seem slightly more manageable, to wrestle a tiny sense of control back from a frightening and random universe. That way, we don’t have to feel quite so terrified about turning off the lights.