Halloween arrived in August this year.
I’d broken my foot and was mostly confined to my apartment when Nazis marched on Charlottesville, and in a fit of pique, I turned on Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Feeling like an upended turtle confined to my apartment meant I’d watched just enough real-world violence online to demand some respite—and some way to exorcise my rage. My DNA is laced with the ancient Semitic fear that They’re Coming for Us, and here was spittle-flecked, bloody proof on the news. I was desperate for something cathartic and dumb, and boy, I got it with Zombie’s remake/re-imaginging/re-whatever; it was as clunky and unwittingly funny (and gory) as its lunk-headed monster.
Sound familiar? Like a shambling, masked menace, Donald Trump seemingly cannot be stopped. Every time we think he can’t go lower, can’t find a new way to torture and scare the public, his administration manages to surprise us with crueler measures. Forget Jason and his infamous hockey mask; it seems nothing can take down this administration. Our Final Girl was unfairly vanquished, and we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.
I have a long and storied history with horror, from a high school thirst for pushing my own limits to the film nerd pressure to prove my bona fides, especially in a male-dominated industry. From Nekromantik to Salò and more modern stuff like Martyrs, I spent years channeling my not-insignificant anxiety and insecurity into bloody on-screen catharsis. Like pot, my relationship with horror lost its luster after a few major panic attacks; I’m embarrassed to admit I often prod my more bloodthirsty friends for details on movies I’m about to screen for work. I once made a comrade tell me the grossest parts of Raw, that fabulous feminist cannibal movie that reportedly made viewers faint at the Toronto Film Festival, before I’d watch it.
I spent years channeling my not-insignificant anxiety and insecurity into bloody on-screen catharsis.
But my hunger was back, and with the cinematic world at my fingertips, I dove back into genre like I was starring in The Descent. I gobbled up The Devil’s Candy, got spooked by The Conjuring 2, was terrorized by Berlin Syndrome, chilled with The Blackcoat’s Daughter. I finally caught up with the chillingly relevant Get Out, which places race relations at the forefront of a horror homage to the mindless robots of The Stepford Wives. The remake of It is a double-whammy of nostalgia for the ‘80s and the original 1990 adaptation, as well as good old comfort food for horror nerds. When I wasn’t laughing at some of the more outré tidbits, I was delightedly yelping at the creepiness of it all.
Even the TV shows I chose—Twin Peaks: The Return and Orphan Black—played on political fears, from the violence roiling just under the surface of Middle America to the fight for bodily autonomy, with a dose of gruesomeness that would make body horror maestro David Cronenberg blush. “When horror movies are a respite from reality…” I posted on Facebook, and several friends chimed in. One was indulging in the original Suspiria, which is streaming on Amazon; another had chosen an on-the-nose double feature of They Live and The Thing, two movies rife with not-so-subtle political subtext and paranoia.
Shudder.com curator Sam Zimmerman points out, “Horror has a long history of being political and challenging, using the heights [and] absurdity of its stories to match the feeling of frustration in a seemingly mad and unjust political or social climate.” After all, my old favorite Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its OG Final Girl reflect the fears and “pervasive nihilism” of the post-Vietnam era. From Wonder Woman to figures like Senator Kamala Harris, the search for a heroine to save us from this shambolic administration is growing more and more urgent.
The last time I’d enjoyed scaring myself so much was after 9/11, when I’d been hit with a one-two punch of parental cancer and national disaster. I’d spend hours stoned in the dark watching the Resident Evil, Fatal Frame and Silent Hill franchises. I can’t explain to you the smell that lingered over New York City, but I can conjure up the sounds of zombies and crackling radios perfectly. But you couldn’t pay me to actually watch one of those heart-tugging dramas about the heroes of Ground Zero; hell, I won’t even look at the news on September 11. While I definitely appreciate a political subtext—Night of the Living Dead, anyone?—I’m still pissed about movies like Remember Me, which uses the event as a cloying plot twist.
“Perhaps dramas that are meant to be head-on feel too dour,” Zimmerman continues. “There’s a reason things like Hostel flourished in the Bush years and are referenced today, while something like the Iraq-set Green Zone wasn’t well-attended (no disrespect to Paul Greengrass).” Hostel, of course, was one of several movies name-checked in David Edelstein’s 2006 feature, “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn.” Whether or not the viewer is complicit in partaking in violent on-screen scenes is a question for provocateur Michael Haneke; I’d argue that the viewer is the tortured as much as the torturer.
“Horror, of course, has always had a sense of humor, a way of gazing into the abyss and laughing. We’ll always talk about the genre as a release, because it is,” Zimmerman concludes.
Thankfully, the chill of September will soon give way to the thrills of October and its movie marathons, with monsters we can vanquish and haunted houses we can escape. And hopefully by the 2018 midterms, we can unmask some real-life monsters, too.