It wasn’t long ago that my oldest daughter returned from a night at the movies and flipped on every light in the house. Her sleeping siblings were rudely awakened in the process, and they made it clear they weren’t happy about it. But my daughter felt that the illumination was necessary in order to stave off whatever possible evil may have been lurking in the dark corners of our family room.
“What’s going on?” we asked her.
“I just saw ‘Insidious,’ ” she told us. “It scared me to death. I’m sleeping with the light on tonight, OK?”
This was the most extreme response she had ever had to a movie, but she insists that scary movies are her favorite kind of movies. To each their own, but, for my part, it’s that kind of reaction to horror films that makes me steer clear of horror films.
I can remember, long ago in my misspent youth, many a time walking out of the theater and realizing I was going to have trouble sleeping because of what I’d just seen. The jarring images would linger for days, and I found myself wondering why I had willingly subjected myself to entertainment that frightened the bejeebers out of me and left such an unpleasant aftertaste.
This makes me something of an outcast when Halloween rolls around. While others seek out new and exciting ways to experience paranoia, terror and more than a wee bit of nausea, I find myself asking why someone would want to deliberately inflict such things upon themselves. Ordinarily, people look for ways to avoid nausea. They even have medicines for that kind of stuff. Yet when October rolls around, people line up for one chance after another to gross themselves out, and I’m left scratching my head.
That’s not to say that I refuse to watch anything with a horror label. I can, in fact, appreciate the handful of films that transcend the genre by means of a compelling story. I also enjoy the goofy old-time monster movie stuff that is more silly than scary.
But when it comes to the hardcore gore-fests that constitute modern horror cinema, I find myself wondering if there’s anything culturally valuable or personally edifying in vicarious experiencing the foulest of nightmares brought to life.
For the most part, it’s a positive thing that not all of us like the same stuff. Not everyone shares the same tastes, and just because I don’t find any value in something doesn’t make it intrinsically bad. Romantic comedies don’t float everyone’s boat, and I can only drag my wife to so many superhero films a year. But when it comes to over-the-top slasher flicks, I worry that these films are feeding an appetite that, perhaps, ought not be fed.
Civilized people generally recoil when they see someone else’s guts spilled and blood splattered all over the place. Yet movie houses now provide simulated mayhem that looks more real than reality, providing audiences with the opportunity to inundate themselves with images of torture and mutilation that surely makes it easier for them to stomach such things when they happen in the world and not on the screen.
The usual caveats apply here: 99.99 percent of horror fans don’t emulate cinematic sadism in their everyday lives, and censoring horror movies is neither necessary nor productive.
My problem isn’t fear of copycats. The issue, it seems to me, is that these entertainments are purposely intended to either disturb or desensitize. Neither outcome strikes me as particularly productive, either collectively or individually.
But, then again, I like sleeping with the lights off.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.