Confessions of a Film Junkie: Do Horror films help American’s cope with their fears? (PART II)
By Brian Cotnoir
I wrote an article a little over two years about whether or not it can be said that Horror films help American’s cope with their real life fears. I talked about how since the earliest days of films that some American’s rely on Horror films to help cope with their fears. I briefly touched upon Horror movies reflecting the fears of people of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but I really didn’t get into that much detail, and so seeing as it seems like the whole country is in some form of turmoil I decided that I would take this opportunity to write a follow up to that article.
Then that fateful day happened; September 11, 2001, to this date the most devastating act of terrorism ever inflicted upon this country. Thousands of lives lost, millions of people’s lives turned completely upside down, it was the scariest thing ever seen, and it was being broadcasted to billions of people all around the world on live TV. For a brief time the scariest thing people saw wasn’t a Violent Slasher movie being shown in theaters it was images of terrorists attacking people, and scenes of bloody conflict and combat being shown on the 6 o’clock news. Reality had once again become the scariest thing in the world, and it was during this time that we introduced to new styles and types of horror films.During this time, with the Internet becoming more and more widely accessible to people in the world, we began to gain excess to films from foreign markets. During the years that followed the 9/11 attacks we began to see in an influx of Asian Horror films like “Ringu” and “Jun-on”, which would be remade for American audiences with an American cast under the names “The Ring” and “The Grudge”. For Many Americans these films were our first real introduction to Asian cinema, and let’s be honest at this point in the world the only thing most American’s new about Asian Culture was “Chinese” food and Anime. These films were great because not a lot was really known about Asian culture and so we were able to get some exposure to Asian horror films which presented with stuff to fear that we’ve never seen before. Foreign Horror has truly flourished in the U.S. in the past decade and we’ve gotten many great horror films from overseas such as Sweden’s “Let the Right One In” (which was made into “Let Me In” by America two years later), Norway’s “Dead Snow”, Australia’s “The Babadook”, South Korea’s “Thirst”, and Iran’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”. Foreign Horror takes risks that most American studios never would attempt. Before films like “Ringu”, no American studio would make a film about a VHS tape that will cause you to die if you watch it. And films like “Let the Right One In”, “Thirst”, and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, deviate away from the typical Victorian Vampire story of Aristocratic love and sensuality and focus more on how a vampire survives and functions in today’s world. It’s something entirely unique.
Meanwhile, in America at this same time, when studios weren’t doing their own versions of popular foreign Horror, they were trying to find new ways to shock and terrify us. During these times we saw a rise in Splatter Films (or “Torture Porn” as it’s sometimes called). Film’s like James Wan’s “Saw” and Eli Roth’s “Hostel” became notorious for their bloody violence and gory imagery, and they became these sort of “I-Dare-you-to- see-this-film” kind of movies; especially “Hostel”. You see a big thing that most American’s had to come to terms with—in the years following the 9/11 attacks—was realizing that a lot of people actually hated American’s. “Hostel” was a film about spoiled young American’s who go overseas looking for sex and good times and end up getting kidnapped and sold to bitter European’s who’d love to torture and kill young deserving Americans. Some of these films served almost as a warning to not travel abroad for fear that you will be attacked and killed by angry foreigners for the sole fact that you are an American. Why do we watch these kinds of films and more importantly why do we enjoy these films? I know for me personally, I enjoy these films because I like seeing people get what they deserve. I don’t think it’s because I’m sadistic, but rather it’s helping me cope with my own fears. Let’s be perfectly honest, Paxton and his friends from “Hostel” aren’t really all that likable, so it’s hard for me to feel sympathetic towards them when they’re being tortured. The college environmental group in “The Green Inferno” (another film by Roth) is so despisingly despicable because they’re masquerading behind a cause for their own personal gains and not because they actually want to make a difference. They’re so unlikable, that I’m actually cheering for the cannibals in this film. Even all the violence in the highly controversial “A Serbian Film” is justifiable. Milos has been lied to, manipulated, and tortured by Vukmir, so it’s only fitting that he kills him in one of the most violent ways imaginable. It’s because we like to see these bad and unlikable character get punished that we are able to let go of our own fears. We’re not scared because it’s the main characters in these films that we feel relatable too, but rather the killers in the film we often relate too because we imagine ourselves as them and not the victims.
Now, I’m going to go back to “The Blair Witch Project”. Now this wasn’t the first “found footage” Horror film ever made, but this was the film that showed studios a way to make a cheap—but still frightening—horror movie. You see “The Blair Witch Project” had one major advantage over most films; it had the allure of a “I Dare you To See it” film and had a new form of media to market it; the internet. The makers of “The Blair Witch Project” used the internet to promote their film and help spread the message and myth of it to help it reach a wider audience. It was these filmmaking techniques and marketing strategy that would pave way for another found footage series to find success. Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” truly ushered in the age of the Found Footage Horror film in Hollywood. Like the “The Blair Witch Project”, the marketing for “Paranormal Activity” was solely a viral marketing campaign. The first time I heard about this film was from my best friend who heard it from her older brother who lived in California. He saw the film in theaters and then told us we had to see it, when it came around. It wasn’t showing in any theaters in Boston at the time (near where we went to school) and when we tried finding out more about it on-line found the website where you could request that it be shown in a theater near you. To our excitement, “Paranormal Activity” came to Boston theaters and we were absolutely blown away by it. Once again, like “The Blair Witch Project”, “Paranormal Activity” sparked many debates amongst its viewers about whether the film was real or not. The success of “Paranormal Activity” sparked the demand for sequel films, prequel films, spin-off’s and countless copycat films by other studios hoping to cash in on the found footage popularity genre. Even today some studios are still making Found Footage Horror films, even though by now most of us are fully aware that they are fake. So why do so many people keep going to see them? Well going back to the 9/11 discussion, we saw thousands of people killed on live TV right before our very eyes. Look at all the violent attacks that we’ve see reported on the news the past several years; The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the Boston Marathon Bombing, The Charleston Church Shooting, the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando, and many other horrific acts of violence. With all those tragic and horrifying things happening in the real world today, how can anybody be afraid of a Horror movie about a fictional serial slasher, or a vampire, or even aliens? It’s not scary to some because it’s not real. We see terrifying things in real life on the news every day and I think that it’s because found Footage Horror films have the illusion of appearing like the events on camera are actually happening that makes them more frightening to some people. The special effects don’t look like some big-budget CGI work, they look like they’re actually happening. I think some people honestly, want to believe these films are real. I think everyone knows someone who believed for years that some found footages films were real. I think there is a good possibility that some people want to believe these films are real so they can be more afraid of something than what’s actually happening in the world today.
Whether you agree with me, or you think I have no clue what I’m talking about, there is no denying that Horror films have changed greatly in the 15 years since 9/11. Without even realizing it, the industry has completely changed how we make, market, and view Horror films. I wonder what will be in store for Horror films in the years to come.