As a teenager, I loved being scared.
The X-Files, Stephen King novels, roller-coasters, playing spotlight in the bush. I was up for all of it. Then – somewhere in my mid to late twenties – I lost that love. I watched Paranormal Activity during the day, with all the curtains open and the sun streaming in, and still couldn’t sleep for a week afterwards. I began to feel nervous about flying, something I’d done without a second thought since I was sixteen. I gave up scary movies in favour of documentaries. I thought I was done with ghosts and demons.
But recently – maybe as a result of the fucking insanity of the last nine months – I’ve started to gravitate towards horror again. I’ve become addicted to My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left (both excellent true crime podcasts), and have read a couple of fantastically disturbing novels (The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent). But when it comes to horror, film – I feel – is the ultimate medium. And it was with no small amount of excitement (and some trepidation) that I turned off the lights and settled in to watch these two recent horror releases.
Hereditary (2018), Director: Ari Aster
This film had been on my radar for a while, and I was a little nervous about watching it (perhaps because the media was calling it the scariest movie of the year). It is scary, in a way that slowly fills you with dread. Hereditary focuses on a family that has just lost its matriarch, Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, Ellen. Ellen, it turns out, had D.I.D (dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder) and dementia. At a grief counselling meeting Annie also reveals that her father starved himself to death, and her brother hung himself at sixteen, leaving a note accusing their mother of trying to ‘put people’ in him. Yeah. Creepy. And it gets worse. Annie sleepwalks, and once woke to find herself standing over her paint-thinner-covered children holding a match.
I felt like this was what the film was really about; the things we inherit, the curse of mental illness/depression/schizophrenia. Being at the mercy of our own brains, totally out of our control, not knowing what to believe. It seems to be Annie’s own paranoia that is driving the film, but in the end that’s not entirely the case. I’m not sure the ending really worked, to be honest. It seemed to cheapen some of the themes and ideas that came before it.
This is definitely a film that needs a second watch, if only for the chilling shots of Toni Collette floating in the corners of dark rooms, so that you almost don’t notice her. There are also lots of intentional threads to find, recurring characters, little Easter eggs hidden in the scenes. It feels like a film that was very carefully, very intentionally put together, which I appreciate.
Ghost Stories (2017), Directors: Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson
I knew very little about this film before watching it, apart from the fact that it features Martin Freeman (of The Hobbit and The Office fame). Ghost Stories feels in places like a dark comedy, although there are some very frightening moments. Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career out of debunking the paranormal. When he is called upon to investigate three disturbing cases, his skepticism is tested. Like Hereditary, this is a film that I think would be worth a second watch, knowing what you know by the end. Also like Hereditary, the ending does feel a little disappointing, a bit like cheating. But the three stories are interesting, and creepy – the suspense builds effectively, and the performances are great (Alex Lawther as the demon-obsessed Simon Rifkind is particularly good). I found Professor Goodman irritating and unlikable, but I think that was largely intentional. Martin Freeman manages to be both extremely proper and extremely weird at the same time.
So what is it about horror films? Why is it so enjoyable to be scared, to hear about horrible things that have happened to other people (true crime), or to watch someone be haunted, hunted and dismembered? Is it healthy? Or is it morbid and disrespectful?
I think I’ve been asking myself these questions most of my life, as I’m sure many other horror fans have. I don’t know if it’s healthy or ‘right’, but I do know that there is something satisfying about immersing yourself in the truly terrible. The same way listening to sad songs when you’re depressed is devastating, but also somehow wonderful. If the world is fucked up and uncertain around you, it’s comforting to see this reflected in film. Especially when so many other aspects of culture seem to ignore the dark side of life. Horror films are at once an escape from and an acceptance of the shitty parts of existence. It’s cathartic, it feels balancing. The more we ignore feelings of horror the harder they are to deal with.
Plus it’s just really fucking fun to get scared.