Now, I like me some horror films. I like the silly creature features that prophesize giant insects to address human hubris. Sometimes they even scare me. I like the prurient slasher films, meeting our worst empty nest fears. I especially love supernatural and theological horror films, that fill you with true unease and dread about unseen forces that resonate within your cultural psyche, regardless of religious denomination. Give me catholic fear of The Exorcist and The Omen and I will quake.
Those films that tap into our deepest cultural and religious mythology really scare the hell out of me. And going deeper, they touch my perennial fears of the beyond. . . touch my ghost fears like Stir of Echoes or White Noise. They touch my existential dread of nightmares beyond our world. I eat them up as nice safe fears. Cathartic. Just as they were intended. Whether it is atomic ants in Them, or Norman Bates channeling his mother in Psycho, ghostly sailors in The Fog, a fear demon in the Boogey Man, or vengeful spirits in Mirrors, I like getting scared stupid, sitting in the dark in front of the magic shadows. And I usually thank the filmmakers afterwards for making me sweat.
Unfortunately, there are films that scare me far more. We have war movies that glorify the extension of empire, dramas that romanticize exploitive capitalism. Romantic comedies that project magic elixirs for relationships There really are no shortage of scary movies that aren’t the fun kind. The worst kind, are the ones that disguise themselves as nice genre escapes, the ones that pretend to alleviate our fears by indulging them.
Take the apocalypse film. It is usually so delectably fun. Mad Max, or Waterworld. Even A Boy And His Dog which had interesting gender commentary was still mostly an adolescent festival.
But I just watched one tonight, The Book of Eli. It turned my delicious dinner into a bad bout of sphincter clenching dashes to the bathroom.
These films look the same from the outside, but it’s what particular dreamy realities are being sold to us quietly that differentiates healthy pleasures from poisons. It’s all about the mythology. And it is all about the psychological hooks for the audience. Slasher films give us some sophomore morality plays about average behaviour—drugs, booze, sex—in the mythology its all capital punishment bad news, leading to an unstoppable killer coming to get you in unique cinematic ways. It reminds teens of the fears they have, as they begin the decision making part of their lives, and gives release to parental fears. Their crimes are not real, and neither are their punishments. It’s all about the fear.
And in so many theologic films, we’re given a blood freezing tale, that finally in the end gives us a rerun to order and justice in a world of powers beyond our reach. We are given to understand that there are force we cannot understand(whether political or supernatural), but we are also given to understand there are safeguards in place(in the case of theologic horror films they are usually hermetic priests and innocents, with the odd jaded sinner, and in reality, they are teams of scientists,journalists and activists).
All of these genre tropes were born in a wealthy culture riding the greatest tide of wealth and power that there ever was in history. The greatest wealth and power there ever will be. The greatest wealth and power that is now slipping away, inexorably, with nothing in human imagination to stop it or slow it down.
In the fifties, there was an atomic fear, which gave us all our glorious mutated bug movies. The thing is, it was an anxiety over a possibility, an outside chance that the technological optimism of the era might prove wrong, that the military guard dogs of empirical wealth might gamble poorly. It still may play out, but so far it has mostly been a fear. It is the parable of technology out of control.
The thing is now, people make glib comparisons of those anxieties to today’s, and there is an error. Atomic spiders were a symbol of unknown fears. Ghosts stealing children expressed anxiety of childhood disease—a possibility, but unlikely conclusion.
There is a huge difference between allegorical, or metaphorical expressions of emotional fear, and fantastic dreams about real issues.
A few years ago we were given The Day After Tomorrow, expressing our fears about global warming. But it projected a single defining event, and offered the panacea that an oppressed overpopulated country, weak on resources would welcome hundreds of millions of refugees and somehow be able to sustain them. Personally, I have an easier time believing in the giant Ants.
More recently we had 2012. A mystic prophecy foretells a random event, something in technobabble having to do with solar neutrinos, up there with Lucas’ midichlorians, that makes earth unfit for humans—but luckily “arcs” are built, saving the best and brightest, and the most tenacious. Well that's a yummy gene pool for a happy ending. All the worst of humanity weeded out, and a new earth for all our captains of industry and science, nicely wrapped up in a biblical bow. It’s not cathartic release. It’s opiates for real fears.
This is a trend. Most recently we are delivered The Book of Eli. The earth is devastated by who knows what. Nuclear war, shredded ozone, a blistered drought brought on by carbonized atmosphere. Who cares, the apocalypse has come and it is dusty and desperate, except that one man is on a mission carrying a bible. Yes, a bible, not a book of Eli, just a bible like you would find in any motel on the way to the apocalypse. God knows it didn’t help us over the last couple thousand years. It’s been prone to causing wars, secrecy, lynchings, witch hangings, empirical justification; damn, the whole thing is based on an extended torture followed by lynching for that matter. But somehow, instead of cathartic release from our fears, we are given saccharine succour that our tawdry religious remnants have it all in hand. It’s all part of the plan. That’s what is disgusting about these films. They don't make ridiculous, our fears. Nor do they validate them. The seek to neutralize them with pathetic justifications based on nihilism and fantasy.
The internet is full of journalists pleading for people to listen to the fact that some of our most powerful people believe the earth is worthless, and this life is transitory, and that all our warring efforts, poisons and industry are simply a step on the path to some heavenly purpose. And now, instead of even being given some catharsis for our fears, we are supposed to swallow some last ditch dust ridden god mission proving this so?
I had to stop the film, despite being a hardened fan of apocalypse films. I would rather have rooted for the sycophantic opportunistic mafia type leader of the burgeoning post-world communities who wants some consolidation of his leadership so things can be reorganized than a god driven shepherd bringing the holy bible wherever it needed to go.
I couldn’t finish watching the Hollywood maniac machinery deliver its tired version of a desired ending for apocalyptic christians. I didn’t give up too prematurely. But I realized we had Denzel as Adam, and his needy bride (from That Seventies Show), blazing the way, bleeding and stoic, to carry the word of god, and I just couldn’t take it. Or maybe they are both Moses. It doesn't matter. that frightening audience will take a mash up as long as they get the right signifiers. But, I just wasn't buying the ugliest ending of our world(too close to real possibility) being made relevant by the continuance of an ugly religion that paved the way for the destruction.
I had an easier time swallowing pagan gods assisting the salvation of Christian Word in The Secret of Kells. At least that was told in a beautiful myth that combined mythology and adventure with a digestible version of cultural succession in an ongoing world that we did not rule or pretend to rule.
A long fan of all forms of narrative, I am becoming wary of any use for it. I fear narrative no longer informs, but simply deludes. apocalypse with popcorn.