Halloween (2007) movieTrick or treat? This seasonal fun, piped by children in masks and cloaks, is only the more innocuous part of the Halloween phenomenon that is going to fill the media and shops in the next few days. Spreading out from the United States to embrace the world, the commercialisation of All Hallows Eve has become big business, an attempt to make money through offering a consumer extravaganza in place of religious celebrations commemorating the dead.

A must for this period are horror movies (whose other big moment is summer, when audiences seems to have fewer pretensions and young people out of school crave any form of entertainment) which every year become more extreme and less interesting in terms of originality and depth. New movies, prequels, sequels, remakes and DVD releases with names like Friday the 13th, Dance of the Dead, Shiver and Zombie Strippers keep the market stoked with dark thrills and the fear brand riding high.

But horror is a genre that in the last few years has become more than a stepping stone for young Hollywood stars on the make; it is making serious money through some solid brands, including Saw, Hostel and Resident Evil.

It has not always been this way. Horror used to be a genre for B-movies, albeit with interesting opportunities to explore the theme of the fight between good and evil, and sometimes to present basic human dilemmas about life and death (as in some of the best vampire movies), power and responsibility (as in different adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), cruelty and other perennial human dilemmas.

Screenwriting theorist Robert McKee says that horror can’t be simply dismissed as a minor genre intended for a not particularly demanding audience. Rather, it is an occasion to deal with the most profound states of human mind and spirit, with its fears (monsters are a metaphor for abstract concept such as getting old, losing loved ones, and so on), and showing, in our times of moral ambiguity, a clearer distinction between good and evil.

Unfortunately this genre has seen an evolution that is in most cases an involution, a tendency to lose its way in mere technical excesses and sensationalism. But the creative inflation of themes and stories is only part of the explanation; according to Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi Krzysztof Zanussi Photo: Wikipediait is also connected with the loss of faith. 

“European films in the last thirty years have lost in great part a narrative conception of human life,” he says. “Christians no longer care about art, and therefore art has lost the sense of true mystery, preferring instead the ‘token mystery’ of horror stories.”

Zanussi’s sharply critical view that Western art has literally lost the plot of human life sheds some light on the kind of horror stories that authors and audiences seem to like best today. Losing the sense of a transcendent mystery seems also to have coarsened the taste of horror creators and consumers, making them indulge in the lowest level mysteries, in which gore and ugliness dominate.

There is another fact to consider. Today’s horror goes along with the contemporary cult of emotions, emotions that demand more and more extreme forms of gratification. French philosopher Michel Lacroix has analysed this trend, opposing it to the Enlightenment cult of reason but also to the more delicate search for the emotions found in contemplation. In his opinion these extreme emotions flag a loss of sensitivity, acting as a powerful drug more and more widespread — not only among young people but everywhere in our modern society.

It doesn’t came as a surprise, then, that today most successful horror films are the splatter flicks, even if a big success like the Saw series is promoted by its creators as a sort of morality play. The interesting thing is that viewers go to the theatre not only to be “scared to death” but also to live through the movie the opportunity to “do” unspeakable things to other human beings (things that afterwards you can find in the news), in this way becoming not only passive victims of certain behaviours, but also vicarious co-operators in violence and cruelty.

Alternatively, there is the “political” horror sub-genre, particularly those about zombies (28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later and the whole series of George A. Romero’s Dead movies), which seem to be the favourite place to explore some of the pathologies of our age (pandemic illness, political control over citizens’ life and so on). Although these movies might be seen as having slightly more artistic legitimacy, a deterministic and almost always pessimistic vision of the future and of human nature tends to produce works without any sense of transcendence. Rather than evoking the complexity of human passions, the monsters in them stand for simplistic political or ideological agendas.

Again, vampire horrors are not at all dead but have taken on a new life in entertainments aimed at adolescents, with their big taste for romance. Hence the Twilight books recently reviewed in MercatorNet, and television shows such as the new HBO series True Blood, heir of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Curiously, in these books and movies the presence of supernatural beings never suggests to young people any reflection about the order of creation and their eternal destiny; they are, however, frequently made aware of links to pagan mythology.

This trend betrays a total lack of awareness of transcendent being: “supernatural” beings in these stories are often only a different form of nature, in a vision of the universe that is completely immanent.

But on the borders of this whole inflated genre there is always the opportunity to create something interesting. This could be the case with the screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s futuristic novel, The Road. Not exactly a horror story, this is nevertheless an interesting exploration of one of the genre’s usual themes — the struggle for life in a world that has become lonely and hostile — in an emotional, but also philosophical way.

One can only hope that, at least this time, using the tools of the horror trade, a movie can capture some of the depth of the original story, dealing with the mystery of life and destiny, giving the audience the occasion to reflect about some of its profound dilemmas.

So, as Halloween rolls round again, here is the $64,000 question: is horror bad for kids? Sorry to be wishy-washy, but it depends. Gorefests like Saw and the Friday the 13th series are crass concessions to the worst in the teenage mind. But horror has always been a vehicle for meditations on the human condition, from the blood-soaked Medea, by Euripedes; to the flesh-eating monsters of Beowulf; to the torments of Dante’s Inferno; to the unbearable savagery in King Lear. Be afraid. Be very afraid. It could be good for you.

Luisa Cotta Ramosino works in the Communication Department of the
Catholic University of Milan. She is also a television writer and a
regular contributor to the weekly entertainment magazine
Il Domenicale.