When we think of the horror genre, our minds tend to focus on the physical aspects of terror; knives, chainsaws, boxes of doom, and so on, the genre lives to spill blood, and for good reason. More than any other genre, horror allows us to look inside ourselves and question our own perspectives on mortality, fear, and the ever-present anxieties we live through from day to day. While I love the Halloween franchise more than about 90% of my family members and would happily sit in front of my television and smile from ear to ear while watching almost any of the Friday the 13th films before gladly revisiting the Savini FX of Maniac (1980) any day of the week, there has always been a soft spot in my heart for what some prefer to call “Emotional Horror.” Whether it be the output of A24 or the word-based brutality of films many would not necessarily call “horror” (they’re wrong), there is something so enthralling and spellbinding about the power of what we say. At the end of the day, the sharpest of weapons are our words.
When I was a child, nothing scared me more than the wrath and anger of my mother. A very abusive human, both mentally and physically, she was scarier than any slasher I could imagine and very few monsters scared the living hell out of me as much as she did. When experiencing Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) for the first time, THAT is what scared me the most: the tension-filled scene at the dinner table where Toni Collete’s character said every awful thing possible she had buried deep within, unleashing it on her son. Moments like that are what a child dreads — the unspoken frustrations parents feel that eventually brews to the surface until they explode in a series of anger-filled carnage bombs.
I will forever defend my opinion that Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) is most definitely a horror film in the sense that Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview is a walking monster in his thirst for power and to beat everyone and everything in his path, including his own son. The scene in which he mocks his son’s disability and then tells him that he is now his rival is one for the books, and to me, one of the most unsettling scenes in years.
Goodnight Mommy (2015) helmers Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala hit audiences with an absolute juggernaut of a horror hammer with their 2019 film The Lodge, a great example of how, mentally, words can kill in ways that start a chain of horror and dread. Taking a fragile individual Grace, played by Riley Keough, and putting her through the most devastating series of events until past the point of return, the film shows that when you’re being gaslit and put through the worst of mind games, the resulting violence can be just as shocking as a stalker looking through your windows at night.
Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008) scared the absolute hell out of me. It’s horrific knowing how our minds and mental stability can be so fragile that when we’re cycling and/or struggling, an individual can hold the power of saying something that could trigger a complete mental breakdown within us. THAT scares me lightyears more than a man in a sack mask.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an argument about “elevated horror” or any of the unnecessary terms that are often placed on films such as The Lodge, Hereditary, or similar fare. Every subgenre of horror is important, and worth being praised and none are more crucial than the other. What those films do hold is this idea that we are the true monsters. We are the ones we all should fear. Our hearts are darker than any monster around and there is power in what we say, what we do to each other.
When you’re in love, hearing “I love you” means the world, but when you’re going through a breakup or similar hardships, “I love you” can destroy your entire world. Holding that power, it’s easy to crush people with words. We choose which letters we create words with, and we create the statements that we throw at others, which can be the evilest and vilest things around, all in order to break someone down and ruin their existence. The horror and terrifying reality that we are the most vicious creatures around makes for some shocking yet excellent looks at humanity, society, and the situations we put each other and ourselves in.
While some tend to scoff at trauma-based horror (Film Twitter is great at this), there’s something cathartic about sitting down and watching the unraveling of the characters in front of us because watching that train wreck of emotions and terror allows us as viewers to address what part we play in the destruction of others. There is something profound in the way we allow ourselves to tear each other down, and horror, true to form, allows us to confront those personal disappointments, allowing some form of recovery.
Very few genres give their viewers such different approaches, but horror, via its many forms, can dig into our souls until we’re forced to ask ourselves, “how and WHY are we all so evil?”
Brilliant, if you ask me.
Jerry Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, he has annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow him on Twitter @JerryisjustOK and visit his website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com
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