eyes without a face

[Chris] Too Scared to Look, Too Curious to Look Away: Horror Films and the Cathartic Experience

George Romero. Wes Craven. John Carpenter. Alfred Hitchcock.

These filmmakers created some of the most iconic horror films in the history of the art form. They have unnerved us, scared us, and kept us up at night, unable to shake the terrible story we just had shown to us. From the fear of going to sleep in the Elm Street films to second-guessing our love for animals in Hitchcock’s The Birds, these films confront us with our fears and do not let us hide. They confront us with the brokenness all around us and, invariably, the brokenness in ourselves.

And this is where horror films might have a healing function, as odd as that may be to say. Horror films can often function as a way to process the world around us, to have a safe space to process our emotions and think through how we might feel and embody various stories. For example, in his discussion on the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Kevin J. Wetmore argues in his book Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, “horror becomes a means of indirectly dealing with the experiences of 9/11 and the decade of despair which followed…Horror films do not exist in a vacuum as autonomous texts but rather contain deliberate engagement with contemporaneous culture” (14).

In other words, art – and film is no exception – is not simply some “other” disconnect from the realities of life, but instead is an integral part of it – both as a reflection of it and/or a commentary about it. It is grounded in the experience of “being-in-the-world.” Even with mythical creatures, horror cinema conjures up many of the anxieties of the modern world – grief, death, birth, stress, the feeling of safety, the feeling that you don’t really have control, etc. Horror films help us process the uncertainty of this life, especially when our emotions have betrayed us, and depression has convinced us to not think very highly of ourselves. It helps us process the violence and injustice we are expected to engage, even when its such a challenge to even understand ourselves, let along the world around us.

For example, in 2014’s Australian horror-thriller The Babadook, we enter the chaotic world of Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman), still reeling over the grief of Amelia’s husband and Sam’s father. During a simple mother/son moment of Amelia reading her son a book, they come across a story – the tale of the Babadook. While the book ends up frightening the child, the monster in its pages becomes a living manifestation which plagues their day-to-day existence. Yet the Babadook is more than just an oppressive force in the household, it also serves as a metaphor for the weight of this family’s anxiety and grief.

By the end of the film, as the final scene runs its course, we get a picture of how to live with grief in an emotionally healthy way – with the Babadook still living below the house, but controlled and subdue, rather than dominating and oppressive. As I watched this film last year, it provided space to process and lament the death of my grandmother and the loss of unmet expectations which prominently featured in my life at the time. It did not merely serve as a film, but as a dialogue partner, as if the film and I were both trying to process the world together.

On this point, I am reminded of Lamentations, a short, rather neglected, book in the Old Testament. In it, we see pages dripping with raw emotion and an invitation for us to lament ourselves. Along with the psalms of lament, this brief book opens the doors to the complexity of the human experience and we’re given permission by God Himself to feel deeply and grieve loudly. There is no lead up to the lament, but hits us right away. In Lamentations 1:2, we read, “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.” In this verse alone, we can easily see, in some ways, Amelia’s life in The Babadook. Perhaps we also find ourselves there – aching, longing, lamenting over injustices done to us, people who have betrayed us, and emotions that linger over us. Just like Amelia, we need to learn how to find emotionally healthy ways to process and live day-to-day with the conflicting emotions in our lives. And perhaps it is films just like these which can be a “safe space” for us to deeply feel our emotions and process them through the story of these characters.

Another example comes from the 1960 French horror film Les yeux sans visage (“Eyes Without a Face”). In the film, Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is seeking to alleviate his guilt by seeing to successfully fix his daughter Louise’s (Alida Valli) injuries sustained by a car accident, with was his fault. While we could certainly focus on the fact his daughter’s remedy is she needs a new face and her father goes about trying to provide that for her by stealing the faces of kidnapped women (yes, I know, that’s terrible), what we can identify from the narrative more generally is the power of guilt and the anxiety of beauty. It provides us opportunities to pause and reflect on what we often do when we feel the weight of guilty haunting our hours and days or when the weight of our body shame and unmet, social-imposed standards of beauty seem to evade us. What we often feel in those moments is, in some sense, horror. We feel disgust and, in a broader sense of the word, a violence which seems to have tangible emotional quality to it. There is a fearfulness of how to respond to the disorientation such feelings lay before us. As such, fear on our screens might just help us name and process these fears and better equip us to respond to them when they manifest in our lives.

When I think examples of looking fear in the face but not letting it paralyze us, my mind immediately goes to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus tells his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38). What a powerful image of tangibly-felt fear. Jesus knew what was coming – his journey to the cross was at hand. Just a few verses later, we read of Jesus asking the Father, “…if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (v. 39). If the Son of God faced fear and could move passed it in hope, we have no reason to feel guilty for being fearful. Like Docteur Génessier, our guilt can drive us to do drastic things to assuage our feelings and give us peace. Horror films can remind us – even invite us – into this journey of liberation as the Spirit brings to mind the promises of the gospel, one of freedom from guilt and adoption as children. Unlike Docteur Génessier, our Father will never harm us – even accidentally – and he doesn’t have to scramble around frantically to try and fix what is broken with us.

While so much more could be said and many more horror films could serve as archetypes for our purpose here, these brief examples can serve as appetizers to the ongoing feast of being able to explore how horror films, which are so often unfairly maligned or poorly understood, can be a means of reflecting on the world around us, identifying the social anxieties of the day, and rightly point to the good word in Christ – with all the gifts of common grace He has provided – which gives us hope to live lives cultivating and caring for His creation – for culture – and to be a shalom-seeking people in a world filled with outrage.

2 thoughts on “[Chris] Too Scared to Look, Too Curious to Look Away: Horror Films and the Cathartic Experience

  1. Great essay! Eyes Without a Face is one of those movies – like Texas Chain Saw Massacre – that seems way more bloody & gory in your memory than what is actually on the screen. The ending, at least to me, is oddly optimistic, considering everything that’s gone before it.

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    1. Thanks for reading it! Yes, I do think – in many cases – some movies can be more horrific even without blood and gore. When a film allows the human experience to be shown in such a way that they leave room for the human imagination to take over, it can allow for some rather terrifying film-viewing. And, similar to what you said, I thought “Eyes Without a Face” ended the way it needed to, considering the direction the narrative arc was taking.

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