Horror films rarely win awards, because of their hackneyed scare tactics. So when the ratings and reviews (90% on IMDB’s Metascore, 96% on Rotten Tomatoes) for Babadook started pouring in, I got excited. The problem was finding someone to watch it with. After being rejected 5 times, even after filtering out people who would not consider watching horror (and that is a long list), Yip finally agreed (enthusiastically) to brave the monster in the cupboard with me.
But yet I am still drawn to the genre – to the dark, the gothic, and the horrifying. Why, I asked myself. Why pay money to scare myself?
Gaiman’s answer is inoculation. He writes scary books for kids because “a little fear in a safe place is like being inoculated… It gives you something you can go through and be sure you’ll come out the other end. It teaches you to be brave.” If Coraline could conquer her button-eyed-other-mother, then maybe we can overcome our more mundane fears – be it of ghosts, spiders, or failures.
Chesterton made the same point when he acknowledged that we all feel fear, whether we let it come to us or we go looking for it. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” (I was about to distinguish between real and Disney fairytales, but I realise that villains like Lady Tremaine and Ursula are pretty twisted characters too.)
The tradition of horror thus provides a safe space to feel fear. In fact, the space is so safe that horror sometimes shades into comedy. This is unsurprising since the line separating the macabre and the farcical is notoriously thin, as the Scary Movie franchise and Halloween costume parties clearly illustrate. Hence, I remember Ju-on‘s Toshio and The Ring‘s Sadako with mirth, because the company I watched with kept mocking them. They laughed at how blue Toshio was, and how incapacitated Sadako looked. And I was covering my eyes and laughing with them in the theatre. I’m quite sure we irritated people around us who actually wanted to be scared.
Babadook was not as enjoyable as I hoped it would be, though I understand why it won its awards. The concurrent psychological toll of a dysfunctional family, the extended moments of confronting the monster, Essie Davis’s weary desperation, Noah Wiseman’s innocent conviction of dark things, and the sombre cinematography all blended into a deep unease that pervaded throughout the film. And depth is key in this (or any) genre. The best horror stories penetrate the psyche and linger (hopefully in the day rather than the night). I am not quite sure if Babadook properly sits on that aesthetic pedestal; though it is definitely more than a movie of superficial sudden-appearance-scares and suspenseful music (of which there are plenty of).
The night after watching Babadook, I was so tempted to voice-messasge Yip: “baaaa-baaa-dooooook”. I confessed to Yip that I decided not to do it in case karma-is-a-bitch and I ended up having nightmares because of how much I thought about it or some other psycho-superstitious nonsense like that. Yip replied that he got slightly nervous whenever he typed “babadook”. I laughed and told him we were both wusses.
We all know shared experiences bond us. The more intense the experience is, the more we look back on it with nostalgia. And some of the most intense experiences are those in which we feel fear.
So here is my final and, perhaps, my most compelling reason for watching horror films: they provide an accessible and safe way to, not just be scared, but be scared with friends. That has got to count for something.
In light of the abovementioned reasons for indulging in the dark, I decided to spread some Allhallowtide cheer and hopped on the All Hallow’s Read bandwagon. I lent TOEL to Andrew and Coraline to Von. They are among my favourite books. (Then again, they are Gaiman books.)
Happy Halloween, Happy All Saints, and Happy All Souls, folks :D
(Edit: Here’s a NYTimes article about why scary stories might be worth your time. I wish I wrote that piece. Though I am quite happy with this one too.)