A Horror / Tragic Story
by Jun Li
I opened the door, to my horror, a few skeletons lay there, chained on the wall.
Okay, time to recap. I and my friends, Jack and Peter, were playing around an old, abandoned mansion. We were told that no one was allowed to enter. However, curiosity overcame us and we picked the lock, granting us entrance into the sacred lair of the unknown.
At the sight of the skeletons, the three of us were completely stunned. Our jaw hung wide open for a few minutes before we came back to our senses. My sixth sense told me that something was about to go wrong, so I urged the other two to back out of the mansion.
“Don’t be such a chicken,” said Jack, with a shaky voice.
“Aren’t you scared too?” I challenged him.
“Yes, but we might never get the chance to explore here again if we leave now.”
“…All right, but we leave as soon as the first sign of danger shows.”
We ventured deeper into the mansion. The design looked like some sort of torture room, or a prison. Even though I was afraid, I was eager to discover more. Throughout the lair, we did not lose sight of skeletons or spider webs. These were at every corner, at every turn. The occasional howls from a distance made the hair on our backs stand up straight. We finally arrived at a long hallway. Jack picked up a piece of wood and lighted it up with his lighter. The flame seared at first, but after it simmered down, I was able to see the walls clearly. There were ancient writings, the kind we usually see in an Egyptian grave robber movie. As the expert in history, Jack tried his best to decipher the carvings. Meanwhile, Peter leaned towards the wall to catch his breath. At that very moment, a cold chill went down my spine.
“Watch out!” I shouted.
Before he could react, that portion of the wall he was leaning against flipped, trapping him on the other side. All he could let out was a loud shriek and he vanished behind the walls. I pounded against the wall, shouting his name. Only then did I know what real terror felt like. However, the chance of rescuing him was bleak. I sank to the ground, desolated and hopeless.
“Let’s get out of here, we have to inform the adults!” suggested Jack.
I got to my feet swiftly and both of us sped through the building. My heart was racing. I knew that danger may be waiting at the next corner. I could hear blood pounding in my ears. Wait, was that a creak I heard? “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself. The ceiling began to crumble. My sub-consciousness took over. I sprang forward and tackled Jack. Both of us fell to the ground. Just as I thought that trouble was out of the way, the burning piece of wood slipped out of his hand and landed in a pile of grease. Fire started spreading like mad. I struggled to get up.
“Come on, there’s not much time left!” I screamed as I turned towards the exit.
In a split second, my head turned 180 degrees. A gigantic marble pillar fell on Jack. I mustered all the strength from every single cell in my body, trying to lift it up, to no avail. My eyes were watery. I was completely out of ideas.
“Save yourself, leave me, please,” muttered Jack, with a weak tone.
This was certainly a tough decision for me. All the moments we had spent together flashed through my mind. How could I leave him now? As the fire was close to sealing my only exit, I knew that I had to be rational. I dived for my escape route.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as the mansion erupted into flames behind me.
Ms. Clover argued that this was one of the few film genres that regularly asked male audiences to identify with a triumphant female protagonist. It gave teenage boys license to indulge a gender-bending fantasy that was, she wrote, “unapproved for adult males.”
While these scholars argued that horror taps into positive emotions that are otherwise repressed, other psychoanalytic theories saw horror in the opposite light: as a safe and cathartic way to deal with darker feelings. In his 1980 essay “The Aesthetics of Fright,” the critic Morris Dickstein described horror as a “routinized way of playing with death, like going on the roller coaster.”
But not all theories of horror have been psychoanalytic, trading on notions of repression and release. In 1990 the philosopher Noël Carroll, a staunch critic of the psychoanalytic approach, published “The Philosophy of Horror,” in which he proposed that the pleasure of horror movies is due not to whatever psychic substratum the monster represents, but rather to the peculiar curiosity it inspires.
The defining characteristic of the monster, Mr. Carroll argued, is that it’s hard to classify, categorically incomplete or contradictory, or just generally hard to understand. The monster in the “Frankenstein” series, for instance, is what Mr. Carroll called a “fusion figure,” made of spare parts, including different brains. The horror is rooted in the unknown, but this strangeness also sparks curiosity and fascination. Horror plots are often constructed to emphasize the mystery of the nature of the monster. Most of “The Exorcist,” for example, is taken up with the intricate detective work of a mother trying to figure out what is wrong with her daughter.
One virtue of Mr. Carroll’s theory is that it captures the paradoxical nature of horror’s allure: the very oddity that makes monsters repulsive is precisely what makes them attractive.
In today’s age of increasingly explicit cinematic violence, the scholarly focus has gravitated to the basic pleasures of gore. In “The Naked and the Undead,” Cynthia Freeland, a feminist critic who teaches philosophy at the University of Houston, argues that certain kinds of graphic violence are so skillfully theatrical that they evoke a “perverse sublime.” Their far-fetched extremity also gives the audience the distance needed to relish the bloodbaths. Ms. Freeland cites the ghoulishly over-the-top scenes in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” including a sparks-flying chain saw duel between the masked killer Leatherface and a vamping Dennis Hopper that, just to make things more interesting, adds a hatchet and grenade into the mix.
In an essay that will be published later this year in “The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film,” Adam Lowenstein, an associate professor in English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, also emphasizes the aesthetic of horror. For him, meticulous camerawork, pacing and artful splatter are a kind of carefully staged showmanship that the audience appreciates as pure performance. He calls it “spectacle horror.” When Laurie Strode discovers a trio of dead bodies in “Halloween” — one emerging swinging from a closet, another from a cabinet — it’s a highly staged sequence in which the director, John Carpenter, is “quite literally pulling the strings on this series of attractions,” Mr. Lowenstein writes.
What are we to make of all these theories? Now that horror is a standard feature of the mainstream cultural menu, the genre has increasingly become like any other where craft and beauty are drawing cards. But what will always distinguish horror is its unique capacity to make us tremble. And it’s unlikely that any single theory will ever entirely explain that appeal, for fear is as personal and subjective as beauty.
To be sure, the psychoanalytic approach, drawing as it does on feelings and impulses born early in childhood, captures something important; adults forget just how terrifying being a small child can be. But children also adapt quickly, and not all frights are unpleasant: peekaboo, after all, is one of the first games any child plays, and “Hansel and Gretel” introduces readers to cannibalism before inviting them to celebrate the burning of a witch.
If getting scared is one of our first pleasures, then maybe horror movies are just a reminder of how much fun we used to have.Continue reading the main story