How Horror Movies Could Be Better

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A few days ago, I made the stupid mistake of watching a zombie movie. In my defense, I didn’t do it because of a misguided expectation that I would really enjoy said movie or because I had any interest in observing images of gory dead people. I watched it out of an intellectual curiosity about what it is in zombie movies that appeals to popular culture. As I mentioned in a blog post that I wrote about a month ago, the fear of zombies is basically an extrapolation of the fear of loss of intelligence. I could imagine the possibility of a very interesting, intellectual, and well-scripted zombie movie that plays off of this fear rather than being a series of disturbing images. Unfortunately, the particular movie that I watched barely acknowledged this aspect of zombies and instead relied upon creepy background music, gory special effects, and the characters’ extreme emotions to make the movie scary. I didn’t find the movie to be thought-provoking in any way, just disturbing on a very superficial level.

One specific way that I can elaborate on this is to point out that there were several instances in which a zombie’s hand would suddenly smash through a window and startle both the main character and me. This seemed to be the director’s strategy for evoking fear in the viewer. The feeling of being startled is, in my opinion, the least cognitive and most superficial kind of fear. An equally effective but much more tasteful way of eliciting the same response from the audience would perhaps be a scene in which the camera slowly pans across a room that at first appears to be empty and silent, but then the viewer sees a humanoid figure, partially concealed or maybe translucent, just standing there silently and creepily. I would consider that to be a pretty scary scene.

Maybe I shouldn’t really be analyzing horror movie techniques in the first place, since I’m not a fan of the genre and actually have only seen a couple movies that could be classified as horror movies, none of which I have particularly enjoyed. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading ghost stories, and I used to write a lot of ghost stories, too. I frequently have nightmares which make very good material for scary short stories. I also discovered several years ago that writing scary stories makes me less likely to have disturbing dreams; it’s as if I use up the ideas before I have a chance to dream them. Anyway, the point is that I have figured out what makes a ghost story scary and memorable, and the key is that it has to be about more than death and disgusting images. It has to rely upon ideas rather than images to evoke fear.

There are certain ideas that people naturally find creepy. One of them is the idea of death, which is what every zombie or ghost story uses, but that’s so straight-forward and so basic that it doesn’t make for a good story in and of itself. Another is things that seem human, but aren’t, particularly if they are messed up in some way. A distorted reflection in a mirror, a doll with a crack across its face, a disembodied voice, a mysterious shadow that looks like a person’s face… Even if some of those things don’t seem scary without a creepy context, if you stick them in a ghost story, they’re very scary. The plot of good ghost stories frequently center around a certain inanimate object such as a mirror or a doll that works towards that effect.

Staircases are another creepy image, although that might be my personal opinion rather than a universal fact. I personally have a kind of phobia of staircases which probably comes from the fact that they often appear in my scary dreams, but I think there’s a specific reason for that. To my overly analytic and metaphoric mind, going up or down a staircase stands for changing something. You are going someplace different from where you already are, you can’t actually see where you’re going before you get there, and if something goes wrong in the transition, you fall down and get hurt. Stairs work well for ghost stories if you think of them as a metaphor for the difference between life and death. In fact, in fiction, the difference between life and death can be metaphorical for the fact that, in real life, things change and are disturbingly unpredictable.  I remember one time when I was trying to make metaphors from a song that involved death, and my family laughed at me and said that death is never a metaphor. I beg to differ rather emphatically; I think that in art and literature, death can be a metaphor for things that are a little less specific. Otherwise, why would anyone ever want to read a ghost story or watch a zombie movie? Horror movies would be better if they made use of these kinds of ideas and metaphors.

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The Zombie Apocalypse is Real! (Sort of)

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I am kind of fascinated by the idea that monsters and other supernatural scary stuff are metaphors for real-life scary things. For example, vampires stand for people, situations, or diseases that slowly take away your energy and strength. (Like the last week of classes before final exams, for example, or like financial aid paperwork) Ghost stories are pretty straightforward because they come from people’s fear of death and their uncertainty about what happens after death. The zombie apocalypse legend, obviously, comes from people’s fear that the world will be destroyed by mindless hordes.

It is worth noting that zombies are actually fairly real compared to other imaginary monsters. Basically, a zombie is a person with a non-functioning mind and a functioning body. It almost goes without saying that the body is dead; I’m going to assume that if the mind is completely and permanently absent, the person is dead.  Technically, a person who is sentient and alive but not actually thinking at the moment is acting like a zombie.  I’m not just talking about being absent-minded. There are various diseases and parasite infections that can put a person in a very zombie-like condition. If you don’t believe me, google Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, which is the human version of Mad Cow disease. Or the nodding disease, which is a problem in some parts of Africa. Or rabies.  And while you’re at it, go ahead and google ‘fugu poison and datura stramonium’, because that involves actual zombies and it’s quite weird.

Of course, none of those diseases involve eating people’s brains, but that’s a very important part of the zombie stories. Loss of intelligence and sentience is the main idea here. Mindless hordes are much more creepy and disturbing than hordes of regular people with average intelligence, mainly because regular people with average intelligence are capable of listening to reason. (In theory, anyway)

Even aside from the zombie diseases mentioned above, a collective loss of intelligence is a real concern. I personally have a phobia of stupidity and live in fear that my IQ is dropping, and while that’s kind of a silly fear, it’s true that people can become stupider. That’s less of a problem for individual people than it is for humanity as a whole. It’s pretty undeniable that popular culture is being dumbed down in this generation. If you don’t believe me, compare any current popular novel with something written in the 1800s or early 1900s. Even if the old novel you’re looking at was a particularly bad one, it’s still going to have a richer vocabulary than anything written recently. Or you can watch a children’s TV show while you inevitably feel pity for the poor little kids who watch that stuff on a regular basis. Or you can just go to a public place like a grocery store or a bus station (places I have been recently) where you will quickly discover that people who are lacking in intellectual aptitude are not exactly abnormal. I know that IQ goes up over time and that IQ tests have to be constantly revised to maintain the mean and constant deviation, but IQ isn’t really a perfect indication of actual intelligence, which is much more abstract and difficult to measure.

The zombie apocalypse is real, but it isn’t really an apocalypse and it doesn’t really involve zombies. To defeat it, rather than shooting zombies, we all need to do clever stuff. Any kind of clever stuff will work. I intend to defeat the zombie apocalypse by spending all of my free time this summer reading and writing science fiction and getting really good at certain games. Come to think of it, another good clever thing for someone else to do would be to find cures for the aforementioned zombie diseases. (But if you really want to shoot zombies, I’m sure there are plenty of awesome computer games for that)