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Horrible Horror Films

by Pamela J. Cole

June 13, 2007—I don't like horror films. There, I've said it. I don't like them, even though I've never seen one all the way through (unless you count Young Frankenstein as a horror film). I finally rented Silence of the Lambs on video and literally hid behind my sofa through most of it. Life is scary enough to me without immersing myself in an experience designed to produce nightmares.

So I don't like horror films and I'm baffled by the legions of filmmakers who spend their time, energy, money, and inspiration (and that of their friends and family) to create these anthems to blood and guts and terror. It's a well-known fact that the quickest way to break into Hollywood these days is to make a cheap, clever horror film, a trend started by the Blair Witch Project, a low-budget, hand-held horror phenom that ultimately grossed millions and inspired a wave of wannabe filmmakers to go this route. (But ask yourself: what was the last film produced by the makers of Blair Witch Project?)

The latest local evidence of this rush is The Signal, produced by PopFilms, and Blood Car produced by Fake Wood Wallpaper. The Signal sold at Sundance 2007 for $2 million, no doubt inspiring even more local filmmakers to become bloody horror directors (even though producer Alex Motlagh once told me that horror films are the money projects that allow PopFilms to make more serious features, for which I'm still waiting). I've heard that Fake Wood Wallpaper is choosing a direct-to-DVD, self-distribution route of marketing their soon-to-be cult flick, Blood Car. Not a bad idea, considering the enormous hunger that exists for such horror films (i.e., The Otherside, Dance of the Dead).


I haven't seen any of these films and I don't plan to. I've read mixed reviews on them, so critically, I can't comment. But here's the truth: horror films, whether they're critically good or bad, make big money for filmmakers, studios, and distributors.

Movies are the most powerful medium that has ever existed, and as such, they reflect and affect our culture deeply, more deeply than politics or religion or academia, I believe. We live in a culture where "terror" is the word of the day, whether it relates to the activities of organized terror groups, or the fear that politicians and the news media hammer into our heads constantly. We have color-coded terror alerts, terrorist groups, terrorist leaders, a war on terror. Politicians use fear, not pride, to persuade us to vote for them. The daily news media leads with the most frightening stories, knowing it will draw audiences: What popular food could be killing you? How can you protect yourself from identity theft? We're terrorized and terrified at every turn.

The motto of the 60s was "peace and love." I venture that the motto of the 00s is "war and terror." We are a society that thrives on terror, so is it any wonder that we find so much of it relected on our theater screens? There is some debate now about the escalating levels of violence in major grossing (and gross-out) films like Hostel and Saw (that are literally carving out a new genre some call "torture porn"). As the images of bombing victims in London, and Iraq, and Afghanistan on our evening news become more graphic and prolific, so does the level of gore depicted in our horror films.

But is this good for us? Studies show that mass murderers often begin with torture and cruelty to animals, which desensitizes them to the point that they can turn those activities on human beings. As movie goers, does this exposure to horror films do the same thing? I don't know any answers to these questions but I find the questions themselves to be disturbing.

Call me idealist but I think the most powerful medium in the world should be used for good. There are those who argue that horror films are just for entertainment, which is what the Romans said about the slaughter of animals and humans in the Forum (incidentally, a form of entertainment that no longer legally exists--note to Michael Vick).

Maybe horror films really are just entertaining -- millions of people are watching. But I'm too afraid to find out.