Many people, from friends to enemies, have told me that they dislike horror movies because they don’t want to be scared, but what if I said that’s not the point? You’re probably watching horror movies all wrong.
Yes, it is true that horror movies are scary. That would be kind of asinine to believe otherwise. After all, if something can be described as horrible, it is generally scary or terrifying. But the misconception comes from perceiving incorrectly where the terror and fear are directed. To explain the issue, we’ll use a movie that I believe to be a horror classic: David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”
In “The Fly,” starring Jeff Goldblum, a scientist is transformed into a grotesque insectoid bent on warping the fabric of his wife and child’s DNA. This specific example is part of a subsection of horror known as “body horror.” In body horror, a majority of the scare comes from transformations of the body and these transformations are usually graphic.
Before dissecting the issues in “The Fly,” it is pertinent to define what the acceptable canon of horror films really is. Horror films are three things primarily: they play on rational fears, they are referential to horror movies that came before them, and they commentate on important political and social issues of their time. “The Fly,” of course, does all three of these masterfully.
The film primarily plays on the fear of losing oneself to their work. The scientist in the story is initially just curious with the prospect of teleporting an object or a living creature between two points in his teleporter pod, but his curiosity evolves into madness as the creature takes over his mind.
The film also builds on the genre that came before, pulling from such classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with the pod motif washing over the self and introducing a new identity, which does happen to the scientist. It also maintains the motivic idea of the “scream queen,” all in white, similar to “King Kong” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
In terms of political commentary, “The Fly” has an obvious issue and a not so obvious issue. The obvious one is the march of science’s progress and how far should science go. Should altering the DNA of humans be legal? Should scientists subject themselves to their own experiments at the risk of their own lives? The answers are up in the air even today. The inconspicuous issue within the film is the issue of abortion. The scientist’s wife becomes pregnant after he begins to change into the insectoid creature and so she contemplates aborting the fetus. This, at the time, was quite a scandalous issue and had a polarizing effect on people.
Now, you’re probably scared from the description of the film alone. That’s OK. However, this fear should not deter you from watching the film. Ultimately, horror films function like any other dramatic work, be it movies, theatre, radio, or television. They are meant to tell a story. You should watch horror films to see how the characters react to their circumstances, spooky or not.
My advice: take in a new horror film this October. Make it an evening where you really pay attention to what these characters are doing and why. Treat the film much like you would any other movie and really think about what the filmmakers did to bring you into that experience.