Fear is the most important emotion man possesses. It is an ancient, primordial thing that has been with us since we crawled from the darkness, filling the blackness with the most terrifying visions man is capable of. The sole purpose of fear is survival, that unheard whisper urging us to run from the shadows. But as humanity has advanced, and the illuminating light of progress has pushed back the shadows, fear has gradually lost its place. We have conquered nature, dispelled myth, and stripped even the stars of wonder. Yet the dark remains within whose bosom fear still lingers in our collective subconscious, ever warning us of the horrors that threaten from the fringe, a vestigial birthright borne of a more savage age.
And it is these horrors that forever entice us, tales of the grotesque and evil; of monsters seeking to devour us and demons yearning to drag us into the depths. There is a thrill to these tales, of encountering the wretched and malicious, seeing what lurks in the blackness, and the release of surviving said encounters. Of controlling fear. It dates back to those early campfires of our ancestors and lives on upon the flickering screens of the cinema. We love peering into the primal dark, stepping with trepidation to the drumming of our hearts, cautiously searching out what lurks in our own dark souls. In a way, it is searching out our own humanity by embracing frail mortality. Feeling alive in the face of death.
And that is why I love horror, morality tales that warn us of the evils inherent in man, taking the shape of wraiths and monsters, wrought by the hands of twisted souls seeking vengeance. But horror tales are worthless if not relatable and that is why I love the slashers of the late 70s-early 90s. The world was coming apart. The economy was coming apart, corruption flourished in business and politics, insanity reigned with nuclear war always a press of the button away. With cities crumbling and the liberal movement of counter-culture, with its belief in love and hope discredited, so many people withdrew to the suburbs, little microcosms of a safer age, removed from the evils of the world: small communities where everyone knew everyone else and life could be simple again.
It was the genius of John Carpenter and his great work, Halloween, that everything was upended and something truly horrifying emerged. The horror so many thought they had escaped followed them to the suburbs and no longer were the monsters demons or vampires, werewolves or goblins. The evil that followed was man himself. Fashioned by a twisted age, these new monsters, slashers, came for us and we thrilled at this newfound terror. Michael Myers was a mentally unstable child who grew into a brutal murderer, stalking the youth and murdering at will. The archetype of what was to follow, Halloween proved a morality tale, where those who held to true old fashioned mores survived, while those who were promiscuous, drug addled, alcohol swilling, or outright assholes found themselves gutted and mounted as warnings to the “survivors.” It was a subtle message against the “evils” of the counterculture movement with its importance placed on the selfish individual versus the community playing out in America’s backyard. There was Friday the 13th with first Pamela and then her son Jason striking out at the venal youth that had let both of them suffer. Nightmare on Elm Street dealt with the sins of the parents being dealt to their children. Maniac handled how abuse created a serial killer and how the evil was tearing him apart inside. Hellraiser presented the story of how unchecked desire can consume one’s soul. And they kept coming and coming. There was something magical to these new monsters, something fresh after decades of the same stories being told and retold, of Dracula and Frankenstein of a dead age. These new monsters, these slashers, were scarier because they were of the present, were of our time, were us. They waited for us, represented us, threatened us.
And then things became mundane. We entered the cynical nineties that mocked and then dispelled the slashers. Then we embraced self-loathing in the 2000s, relishing the torture porn it engendered. And now, horror is too muted and mundane. There is no blood, no sex, no drugs, no true monsters. No reality. That lack of something to anchor the story, something to relate to, is what has stripped the terror from what counts as horror in this current age. Where zombies devour bloodlessly, the horror genre is labeled with a PG13 to ensure marketability, and monsters increasingly return to things from long lost ages rather than from the hearts of man.
The point of horror is to reveal to ourselves our other sides, our anti-humanity. It is to make us cherish every breath we gulp down, the warmth of daylight. Horror, like fear, exists to make us survive. When you strip away the threat, render it bloodless, make nightmares unreal, then you do a disservice to horror. It is not budget, actors, or even gore that makes horror the long lasting genre it is: It is the ability to make us face the evils within our own heart and cherish life while brushing death. The slashers brought reality back to horror. Hollywood sold it away.