Ghost Story (film)

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One of my pleasures (some people might consider it a guilty pleasure) is watching horror movies. But as Noel Carroll notes in his fine book, The Philosophy of Horror, there is a paradox in enjoying horror. How can something frightening and sometimes violent be a source of entertainment? Another paradox is that to actually be afraid we must “suspend disbelief” and, for the time of the film, believe that the horrific entities described in the film exist. Fear in real life is not a pleasant thing. If I were being chased by a deranged serial killer who desires to eat my tongue for dinner, it would be one of the worst moments of my life, and if I survived, I would not wish to remember or relive that experience. Yet watching the same scene on film is exciting. If ghosts existed (I am open minded, but neutral) and a hostile ghost who could cause harm to me existed, it would not be pleasant if I suffered bodily harm or was scared half to death during the night.

If Aristotle had been familiar with horror films, he most likely would have pointed to catharsis, the cleansing of emotions, in this case negative emotions of fear and dread, as the reason that some people enjoy these films. The emotions I feel seem to be real fear–my heart pounds (usually more in anticipation than when the horrid looking entity pops out), I breathe fast, I feel the adrenalin rush. But I realize that the film is fiction and even if it were not fiction, it is only a film. Nothing will jump out of the projector and attack the audience.

I tend to prefer ghost stories most of all–Ghost Story (with Fred Astaire) is my favorite horror movie; The Shining is also an excellent flick, as is the original The Haunting. Notable also are The Others, the recent film, Insidious, and the first Paranormal Activity. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and Frailty are examples of top-notch theological horror.

Horror originally was influenced by the latent Christianity remaining in Europe, and Dracula by Bram Stoker basically operates with a Judeo-Christian point of view, and this is reflected in the classic Dracula films. In the older horror films, and in some of the recent ones, there is hope at the end of the film. Lately, with the decreasing influence of Judeo-Christian culture, horror films have become more negative, often ending in despair. I remember a movie from the 1970s in which the audience thinks a couple has gotten away from rampaging people in their van–but the movie ends with their van surrounded. The ending of the recent movie, The Mist, was also one of despair, as a man kills his son and two other people to spare them from being eaten by Lovecraftean-style monsters–yet right after he killed them the army clears the area. Despair is the cry of those without hope, of people without faith who believe, as did Bertrand Russell, that all human hopes and dreams will die in the death of the universe. Since I am in the Christian tradition which is ultimately optimistic, I find those films too much in tension with my values to enjoy. There are still many recent horror films that have a more optimistic ending, though the Judeo-Christian element is omitted or replaced by neo-Paganism or other pantheistic religions.

I suppose I really like horror because it brings into play the transcendent–what goes beyond ordinary experience–whether it be a ghost, a demon, or a serial killer who transcends most human beings in his evil. There is a sense in some horror films of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto. Combine that with being “just plain scary,” that combination creates a powerful horror film. That is difficult to do, which is why so few horror films are good films–but those that are good have given me and millions of other people enjoyment.

I also enjoy the Frankenstein theme, both in the old 1930s movies as well as in the more perverse Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. I wish more movies would be made with a Lovecraftean element. Some have, but other than the recent silent film, The Call of Cthulhu, none captures for me the cosmic horror from Lovecraft’s writings. I prefer older vampire flicks when the vampire is an evil entity rather than (gag!) vampire romances. Japanese horror, with its references to popular Buddhist legends, is particularly entertaining and frightening, especially Ringu and Juon and their American remakes.

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