Just because it’s real doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying

February 12, 2009

When I get bored, I slip into a sort of steady state of mind, my own personal state of nature. Oddly, that condition has come to involve watching a lot of horror movies. It isn’t that I particularly prefer slashers or monster romps to romantic comedy or drama. It’s more force of habit than conscious choice.
But I do enjoy horror films. In general, I think that the genre gets an unfair rap, dragged down as it is by a legion of oozing flops that trade on gratuitous gore and sex. Even the good ones often can’t seem to avoid that heartbreaking slide into endless sequels and remakes, each more derivative than the last.
But every now and then, a horror film comes along that is genuinely good, super frightening, and deeply, deeply disturbing. These movies touch a nerve, something aside from our fear of being eaten alive or inhabited by deforming demons. They make us realize what is intensely frightening about the world as it actually is.
Since high school, my favorite horror flick has been the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Evil, extraterrestrial seeds plummet through the atmosphere to pollinate, replicate, and eat away at poor, innocent humanity; as the villainous herbs conquer broad swathes of society in near silence, the heroes are left paranoid about the possibility that their friends and family have already been body-snatched.
The original 1956 film achieved harmony with the zeitgeist by playing in McCarthy’s key. Communists were everywhere, the authorities said, and the new commandment was, “Fear thy neighbor.” The transition from Soviet spy to alien plant monster called for some creativity, but the metaphor didn’t dive too deep below the surface.
But the 1978 remake fed on something much more interesting. Its genius lay in its manipulation of a standard theme of all horror movies: the isolation of the protagonists. At its most overt, we’re talking physical seclusion—hapless teenagers are trapped at Camp Crystal Lake without working phones or transportation, or space adventurers are months away from help with the light-speed radio down. But the terror of Invasion takes place in plain view. That doesn’t mean that isolation is hacked out of the plot entirely—when that happens, the film devolves into a monster-versus-world scenario, which gets boring fast. That’s a big reason why Independence Day sucked.
The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, and it’s here that Invasion lays its hideous seed. Ostensibly, the good guys discover badness while safely embedded in their cozy homes, surrounded by likely allies. But this comfort is cold, for two reasons: first, when they divulge their fears to their friends, they are carted off to psychiatrists; second, the psychiatrists turn out to be aliens. Burdened by their horrifying knowledge, they are alone, even in the middle of a crowded cocktail party.
Yes, this sounds an awful lot like the tired theme of adolescent poetry, but there’s more going on here. Our bewildered heroes have been yanked out of the safety of the predictable, structured modern world and thrown into a menacing universe that no one else will acknowledge, even when its glinting yellow eyes are staring them straight in the face.
Max Weber, academic demigod and patron saint of the social sciences, says that the world is disenchanted: where meaning and magic were once woven into the world’s very fabric, the former has receded into the human mind, and the latter has vanished altogether. For us citizens of modernity, life unfolds in a dry and predictable pattern of cause and effect.
But sometimes I can’t fight off that sneaking suspicion that monsters do, in fact, loiter under the bed. Of course, I know that they don’t; I’ve checked. But there is still a lurking fear that there is something truly menacing which flickers in my peripheral vision and vanishes when I try to look directly at it. The world isn’t disenchanted; it’s just that our sense of the magic in it has been shoved off to the side where we won’t have to acknowledge it. And when someone does acknowledge it—say, when Sarah Palin boasts that she believes in exorcism—we moderns punish severely.
Now, I don’t think that Palin was some kind of secret genius. I was one of the voters who punished her, because believing in exorcism is just crazy. And if my roommate came home from class and told me, in all sincerity, that his professor had been taken over by vegetables from space, I would move out. I’m a thoroughly modern man, and I don’t believe in monsters.
But all the while, that dissonant chord is grinding far in the background, humming in my ear that nothing is quite as it seems, that the hostile forces are gathering somewhere near, but just out of sight.  And as long as I can’t reconcile their existence with my modern sensibilities, I can’t warn anyone about them.  I can barely even admit them to myself.  And like the good guys in Invasion, that makes me feel very much alone.

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Comments 1

  • I like your article and I totally agree on what you said about our sense of “magic”. I think it’s a pity that so many people have lost the ability to see enchantment in the world (and they certainly had this ability when they were children). Although I usually prefer fairy tales, I want to see Invasion of the Body Snatchers now. ;)