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The Horror, The Horror

Ceylon Chronicle (c) 2018.

What horror films are really about.

Does the horror film monster tell us more about ourselves than we know? The choice is between Sex and the City 2 and Paranormal Activity 3. And talks are deadlocked. She hasn’t watched a horror film since her aunty let her see Evil Dead at the age of five. I don’t watch TV spinoffs, or sequels, or films about greedy narcissists. But Paranormal is very different. I try my best to sell it, but she isn’t buying. But we know how all ‘rom-coms’ end, I plead. They get their man and they are happy - until the next sequel. Same with horror films, she says. Everyone ends up getting killed. I am impressed for a second. Not bad for someone who considers ET to be a horror. You don’t understand, I say. Horror movies tell us everything we need to know about society and politics and humanity. She looks about as interested in my theories, as a peacock might be about a hedge fund. I launch into my lecture anyway. Here’s all you need to know about horror. Stories scare us not with blood or violence, but with truth. The veins they tap, short circuit wires to your aptly named nervous system. Fear of the dark, rats, heights, spiders, war. These tricks are cattle prods, they may make us jump but seldom trouble our sleep. A true horror story chills us below the navel, hits us where our conscience used to be. The werewolf is the beast inside, that only your lovers see when you are drunk. The animal that comes out when you think no one is watching. Vampires show us how we bleed each other. How the rich feed off the poor, how offspring feast on their parents’ dreams, how men drain the joy from their women and women suck the life from their men. You may see no fangs, but the world you occupy is filled with bats and leeches of all sizes and shapes. And none of them are afraid of crosses. Frankenstein’s monster tells us that humanity will be the architect of its own demise. Tales of bodily possession remind us that sickness can steal your breath and devour your soul without warning at any time. Ghost stories tell us that the dead are restless; that our sins live on. They terrify us by opening hell’s gates, but comfort us in sparing us the void. The ghost story is optimistic for it tells us there’s something’s out there - that it’s not one big, all-for-nothing empty. For most of us, the real terror is not the inferno, but the unknown. The unseen poltergeist moving furniture is scarier than the demon spewing flames. The creepiest stories tell us little, but remind us of the ticking clock that stalks us all; the cloaked figure who trails us till we are caught. We spend our lives wondering how he will get us, knowing only that one day we will be got. But the zombie, that most ridiculous of caricatures, that is what should fill us with the most dread, because that is the one terror we are most likely to face. Zombie movies are so dumb, she says. She is wrong. Zombie flicks ask a simple but terrifying question. If the lights go out, how long before we start eating each other? Humanity has had electricity for only a century, though we act like it grows on trees and floats on streams. Is it inconceivable, on a planet that cast aside dinosaurs, that nature might one day snuff out the power grid? That all the king’s jocks and all the king’s geeks won’t be able to put it together again. She huffs and puffs but I have her attention. Imagine the satellites dying, our gadgets uncharged, the stores running out of batteries, petrol pumps filled with air, shops with nothing left to loot, planes sinking, banks crashing, prison gates flying open. What then? When there’s nothing to eat and no 24-hour broadcast, how long before we tear into each other’s flesh? For the rest of the world, I give a month. For Sri Lanka, once number 18 on the Failed State Index, I reckon three days. She is offended. She only gets patriotic when we argue. I deliver my well-rehearsed punch-line. If you find that offensive, it is only because I myself am deeply offended. In 1983, we slaughtered our brothers and set fire to our sisters on streets where we once played. We did it before in ’58, ’71 and ’77, and we did it again in ’89. Mobs of zombies tore flesh with fists and claws, with petrol and fire, with machetes and clubs. And the lights didn’t even have to go out. Of course we ended up watching Sex and the City 2. And yes, it was horrific.

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