Thrill junkies fighting fear with horror

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Horror movies deploy Freudian uncanniness — the casting of familiar things in unsettling scenarios — to thrill us, and possibly even induce catharsis. But is it worth sacrificing precious innocence and personal symbols in the hope of conquering fear?

Clutching the armrest of my chair like it was life support, I stared at the screen as a child in a white gown and abnormally long hair climbed her way out of a television. As she climbed out and crawled across the floor, scratching the surface with her nails, she peeped through the curtain of her greasy hair and gave an unholy grin that showed her pearly white teeth. In case you haven’t seen this extremely disturbing movie, The Ring is a film that is about a ‘cursed’ video and kids who walk out of televisions. Suffice it to say that the child can give the heebee-jeebies to the bravest of souls out there. I chanced upon this movie over a decade ago, but since then never have I voluntarily watched horror flicks. For months after that viewing, I could still see the long-haired child crawling out of my TV at home and inching towards me. And, well, that is not exactly a charming bedtime story to close your eyes to.

So, when a friend suggested that it would be ‘fun’ to watch The Conjuring 2 as a group in the theatre, I scoffed jokingly and shuddered internally. The kid was back.

This is fear that I abhor: a feeling that I would never want to associate with the pleasant experience of watching movies. Clearly, I’m not one of those who have contributed to the spawning of the horror film industry, which has something of a legendary track record, both in terms of box office and critical response.

A look at the staggeringly high box-office numbers of horror films in Hollywood tells us that horror is one of the money-minting genres in the industry. Take The Conjuring (2013), for instance. It grossed $318 million worldwide and the 2016 sequel grossed $292 million worldwide, according to Wikipedia. Many actively seek the adrenaline rush aroused by a horror film. Clearly, the debilitating emotion of fear — even if vicarious — is something they would rather experience than not. And why not, when they don’t take home any of the horror (boy, would I love to have that no-strings-attached relationship with every film I see)?

But why the fascination with the horror genre? A friend who loves watching the genre says, “Because of the thrill. Because of the fact that you know this is never going to be true. The adrenaline rush is addictive.” So does she feel the same way about the blood and gore shown freely in movies like say Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained? “No. That is cruel. Man inflicting suffering on another is surely not ‘fun’. Paranormal activity is beyond our control.” Others echoed her views, saying they enjoy being horrified.

So, why this pull towards the macabre? Why inflict (almost masochistically) on oneself that gripping sense of fear as a manifestation of ‘fun’? As I went about quizzing people, I found three reasons: the thrill that comes from the surprises (which is akin to a good thriller flick); the fact that they are watching the movie with the staunch belief and absolute certainty that there are no ghosts — a feeling that will ensure that they will not have nightmares about kids crawling out of TVs; and finally, some actually find the formulaic jump scares funny and are able to laugh the idea of gory creatures off in the belief that their existence is as disputable as God’s.

This is also possibly why many prefer to watch a horror movie in a crowded theatre. The very public environment of a theatre offers an artificial and ‘not-home’ environment that helps experience the movie in a detached non-dangerous way. That there are hundreds of others, albeit strangers, surrounding you with their becalming human presence is an added bonus. Even if the pale emaciated kid is actually crawling out of the screen, imagine her vs. hundred others around you. No contest.

In some Indian theatres, there are always those well-meaning fellows who will crack a hilarious joke (about, say, hair oil when it comes to The Ring) during an important ‘scary’ scene, and poof, you LOL. The fact that the scene is absolutely not going to happen also cushions one’s brain from getting overtly agitated.

These emotions have been recorded and studied by psychologists for ages now. One particularly interesting theory is by the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Jung formulated what is called the ‘primordial archetype’. These are primitive images, derived from the experiences of one’s ancestors, which affect an individual strongly — a mother figure, the devil, shadows. And the filmmaker, knowing that this phenomenon can be exploited, casts these archetypes in the movie to arouse intense feelings in the viewer.

The Excitation-transfer theory, formulated by Dr. Dolf Zillman, suggests that the more passionately horrified the viewer is, the more intense their eventual pleasure at the plot resolution when they see the evil vanquished. For eg: when the devil or a spirit invades an innocent family, the feeling of disturbance or fear turns into pleasure and excitement when the devil is exorcised or driven out and ‘goodness’ prevails.

This is the same device of closure so successfully used in revenge dramas. Take the example of the Tamil film series Kanchana. The film involves a transgender spirit seeking to avenge the death of her loved ones. The film establishes at the outset the evil being meted out to the transgender, thereby making it okay for the spirit to go around killing her wrong-doers. The ‘good-bad’ tropes are a dime-a-dozen in Indian cinema.

Even Aristotle, whose time was well before the times of Dolby-reinforced horror cinema, had a theory called Catharsis. He believed that people willingly exposed themselves to fear and violence in a bid to purge ‘negative’ emotions from their minds. James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) is a futuristic horror flick, set in suburban U.S., where all forms of crime are legalised for 12 hours once a year — and no medical or security help is made available to citizens during that period. The film postulates that this leads to an overall reduction in crime rates, as people use Purge Day to let out their pent-up emotions, which are otherwise oppressed by civilisation and social norms.

Why this pull towards the macabre? Why inflict, almost masochistically, on oneself that gripping sense of fear as a manifestation of ‘fun’?

Are we psychotic at some level when we seek out fear? Well, Sigmund Freud’s theory of ‘uncanniness’ works both ways. The uncanny — the unsettling experience of viewing a familiar and comforting object in a strange, even jeopardous, situation — can both disturb and thrill. The incongruity can possibly excite one as much as it creates cognitive dissonance in someone else. Maybe it’s the dissonance itself that some seek, in an ironically pleasurable way.

Above all, remember the adage that we have heard almost all our lives: tackle fear with fear? Scared of the roller-coaster? Take it three times in a row to get over it. Scared of ghosts? Watch scary movies till you feel numbed by them. The repeated exposure might weaken the surprise quotient and your mind will automatically brace itself for any ugly turn of events. But this makes me wonder: so what if we are scared of ghosts? What is life that not does not give us a few chills now and then? Why must we ‘conquer’ it? Can’t we simply take the easy way out and skirt around the issue forever? Is it worth allowing a movie to destroy, in the guise of ‘the thrill’, our innocence and shattering our symbols of childhood identities, in the hope that it will help us fight fear in the long run?

Maybe a good dose of fear now and then is not such a bad thing. Maybe, if I do keep watching The Ring three times in a row, I will purge myself of the fear of horror films. That is, if I manage to get out of the little girl’s grasp.

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