The horror genre as a whole found itself in the crossfire recently, as violent movies have once again been blamed for inspiring real-life terror. It’s an old argument, but one that’s focused slightly in the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL (specifically, when Donald Trump asserted that horror movies are more dangerous than access to assault rifles).
I was worried that this editorial was late as a direct response to a tragedy that occurred in February, but the massacre in Santa Fe, Texas (and assertions that violet video games influenced the shooter) makes this discussion painfully relevant and timely. And with schools and universities beginning new academic years (and little change in terms of new restrictions to firearms) the spectre of violence on campuses looms ominous and large. If history is any indicator, the publication of this editorial will coincide with another tragic and emotionally inflammatory event like Parkland of Santa Fe (or Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and too many more to list).
Trump’s assertion of a link between horror movies and gun violence doesn’t carry much weight with anyone who’s studied this arena, either directly through scientific inquiry or peripherally through personal experience. If such a link existed, it most certainly would have been flushed out and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt over the decades the issue’s been debated. In fact, the most rigorous and accepted research proves the contrary, that violent fiction has no quantifiable or predictably negative impact on a person’s propensity towards committing atrocities. But this isn’t another rehash of tired assertions; the connection between horror movies and real-life violence (or lack thereof) is something you already accept or reject. If you’re undecided, the research is at your fingertips; Google is a valuable resource that will immediately direct you to studies on both sides of the divide.
The horror genre is already the whipping boy of cinema. As a medium designed to push boundaries and societal taboos, it’s always been a lightning rod for controversy and, unfortunately, censorship. Beyond the blood and viscera, the concepts and themes explored in horror are simply too harrowing for many minds to handle; too contradictory to set of moral standards or simply too scary to ponder. Which is why it makes for such an easy target in the American gun control debate; besides the practice of deflection used by the NRA and its proponents, any opportunity to disgrace, discredit, or disavow offensive or challenging art will be seized upon by those already entrenched in a certain mindset (if it fits a pre-established narrative).
This is why recent (and future) attempts to shift the American gun control debate from access to inspiration, especially as it pertains to the horror genre, should never be allowed to stand unchallenged (no matter how non-existent the link actually is). Within our own hallowed halls, fans and filmmakers have long asserted that horror is a reflection or society’s collective fears and anxieties, not the cause of them. Those who honestly believe otherwise aren’t likely to peruse the pages of Scream Magazine, so it’s up to us to counteract toxic misconception as we encounter them. But in addition to simply standing strong by our convictions, however, a more extensive look into horror’s portrayal of violence can actually turn up some striking counterpoints to traditional schools of thought.
What if horror movies aren’t what we think they are? While genre flicks have been targeted by religious groups for decades under the pretence they promote Satanism, Vice columnist Josiah M. Hesse made a shocking accusation in October, 2016: Horror movie with a religious component, he purported, are the product of a secret Christian propaganda campaign aimed at scaring stray members of the flock back into churches:
“It’s true that not all horror films serve as mouthpieces for Christianity—there are even a few examples that condemn church leaders—but nearly any horror film that touches on the supernatural will either condemn the faithless, frame non-Jesus religions as spooky, or claim that Biblical prophecy is coming to pass. Even slasher films with no ties to religion often dabble in moralistic tropes against drugs, premarital sex, or doing anything the least bit salacious.” (Source: Why Are So Many Horror Films Christian Propaganda?, Vice, October 18, 2016)
While I personally find Hesse’s claims both fascinating and preposterous (like most conspiracy theories), it aptly illustrates how the objective and subjective natures of art are malleable enough to fit just about any agenda. And while his angle doesn’t dovetail into horror’s place in the American gun control debate, another recent exploration does; Katherine L. Milkman’s October 27th Washington Post editorial asked: What if horror movies actually stop crime, not cause it? Could it be possible that horror movies are actually helpful? Beyond the standard argument for Catharsis first established by Plato, Milkman analysed an economic study of horror blockbusters released in the United States over the course of a decade:
“[Last] year’s Halloween blockbuster “Happy Death Day” pulled almost 4 million people during its opening weekend. Put in other terms, the researchers estimate that, on a weekend when an average number of viewers go see violent movies, the films deter nearly 1,000 assaults.” (Source: What if horror movies actually stop crime, not cause it? The Washington Post, October 27, 2017)
Though thoroughly intriguing, Milkman’s emphasis on horror movies as a substitute for real-life violence falls short of truly understanding the genre’s juxtaposition of delivery vs conveyance. Horror movie deliver thrills, scares, groans, and gags, but they convey messages and themes that go deep below the surface. The rise of neo-feminism has seen a reinterpretation of the rape/revenge sub-genre, for example: What was once regarded as exploitive and degrading based on delivery (as seen in The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave) may now be exalted as an illustration of female empowerment (as seen in Revenge and M.F.A.). Milkman’s argument essentially puts horror movies in the same category as small sex dolls aimed at deterring pedophiles from targeting children. Though initially presented an exaltation of the virtues horror movies, the genre is actually devalued as an art-form, inferring it might have little or no place in an otherwise peaceful society. Simply viewing films in such utilitarian terms, devoid of artistic merit or intent, is an insult to cinema.
What I appreciate, however, is Milkman’s willingness to discuss horror at the upper echelons of journalism, giving the genre cultural and anthropological weight. And while the door is opened, it’s the perfect opportunity to look beyond cold statistic and assertions dependent on a specific perspective—especially in regards to the ongoing gun control debate in America. No one is arguing that guns don’t have a place in horror movies, just like very few will argue that guns have no place in society as a whole. But since we’re focused on gun control and campus violence, our search for an applicable message will focus on films dealing with teenagers and high schools.
The problem with looking for an exact parallel is that few (if any) exist. The slasher sub-genre, arguably horror’s most popular, is inhabited by villains who revel in the physicality of murder. The term slasher, as a sub-genre and a noun, immediately evokes the visceral, penetrating wounds inflicted by knives, machetes, chainsaws and the like. No self-respecting Michael or Jason wannabe would stoop to utilising the immediately fatal, detached power of firearms.
Even in the genre as a whole, examples of massacres by gunfire are rare (aside from those directly inspired by Columbine or similar events); but that doesn’t mean pertinent ideologies aren’t expressed. Connection can be made by further zeroing in on films that share a trio of compounded key components: Access to dangerous powers combined with the pressures of adolescence and a tragic lack of impulse control.
It’s become painfully apparent that we can’t predict the identities of potential school shooters based on outward appearance. In parallel, Carrie White, the titular antihero of Stephen King’s first novel (brilliantly brought to life by Sissy Spacek in 1976) certainly didn’t look like someone capable of committing mass murder; but that’s exactly what happened. Even at her most despondent, Carrie seemed incapable of premeditated slaughter; she honestly didn’t seem to have a nefarious bone in her body. And though her relentless bullying made her rage understandable, it was the trilogy of compounded components previously mentioned (access to power, adolescent misery, and a lack of impulse control) that created her perfect storm.
Carrie becomes a roadmap to the potential origins of a spree-killer, and her telekinetic abilities are the perfect metaphor for a high-powered assault rifle. Deprived of her supernatural attributes, Carrie would have become a manifestation of victimisation (an emotional tragedy to be certain), but the students of Chamberlin High School would have gone home after prom night. Though a more mature woman may have conducted herself with restraint, teenagers simply lack the control and foresight necessary to wield such fatal fury. And Carrie isn’t the only example.
In The Craft, a quartet of teenage witches find themselves endowed with dangerous powers; and while they all get more than they bargained for, it was Nancy (the most powerful and unhinged) who crosses into criminal territories. Ginger Fitzgerald from Ginger Snaps found herself unable to restrain her lycanthropy due to the pressures of adolescence and a lack of impulse control, just as Jennifer Check from Jennifer’s Body couldn’t resist urges to use the powers she acquired through demonic resurrection. Martin from The Killing of a Sacred Deer has the power to induce (and cure) chronic illness; the teenager uses this ability to emotionally extort time and attention from adults. Clare Shannon was gifted with seven wishes in Wish Upon and uses her very first one to retaliate against a bully.
While teens aren’t the only ones capable of misusing supernatural abilities (check out The Monkey’s Paw), there’s a definite correlation between age and the potential for mayhem. The likelihood for abuse of power increases the younger a person is, as illustrated by Anthony from the “It’s a Good Life” chapter of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Not only does this pre-teen’s lack of impulse control lead to both terrifying and fatal consequences, his immaturity makes rational reasoning impossible—or at least extremely dangerous. While fictional adults endowed with extraordinary gifts can go on to become superheroes, young minds simply lack the maturity necessary to handle the responsibilities of great power (Peter Parker being an obvious exception). This is why Chronical, a story about a trio of teens who find themselves endowed with super powers, straddles the line between fantasy and horror.
These and numerous other examples don’t apply to the American gun control debate coincidentally; they speak to an intention that’s prominent in the genre as a whole, an intention those familiar with horror can attest to. While examples of films that genuinely seek to insight violence are extreme rarities, even the most brutal horror movies usually appeal to a person’s humanity. Few genre fans associate with villains during a movie-watching experience; rather, we bond with the protagonists and their plight—at least until the credits roll. Anyone looking for encouragement to commit real-life atrocities in the annals of horror will find little support or encouragement. Horror movies are entertaining and effective ways to process collective fears and anxieties and, as opposed to promoting deviant behaviour, actually seek to warn viewers about the potential pitfalls of transgression.
If anything, teen centric, academic-set horror movies have a decidedly anti-gun stance. From the weapons’ rarity in the genre as a whole to subtexts buried below the surface, guns are unnecessary plot motivators and (in most cases) genuinely discouraged. Hormone-addled adolescence is perilous enough without the insidious power of firearms thrown into the mix. This was harrowingly illustrated in Super Dark Times, where an object bought at a swap meet proves as lethal as an AR-15. Puberty and coming of age is a battle, one that leaves many with emotional and physical scars; and this is how it’s always been, since long before guns became a modern scourge. Horror movies remind us of this fact, making it clear that access to guns (like supernatural powers) should be extremely restricted.
If Carrie’s telekinetic abilities were something that could be purchased, common sense hopes appropriate safeguards would be established. For starters, these powers should be restricted to those who have matured to a certain age; additionally, they should only be granted to someone whose past actions make abuse seem unlikely. Furthermore, powers of telekinesis should only be bestowed upon those who can demonstrate appropriate control and restraint. Lack of basic controls combined with easy access would be an obvious recipe for disaster.
Luckily, America’s campuses aren’t plagued by telekinetic intrusions; access to guns and the havoc they wreak at schools, however, has long passed dangerous, epidemic proportions. Those truly looking to condemn horror movies as a major contributing factor would be well-advised to revisit their preconceived notions surrounding the genre with a mind towards looking beyond the blood and guts. Without an explicit or implied call to arms, a true examination of horror’s place in the American gun control debate must be plumbed. Doing so will produce an abundance of examples contrary to the right-wing narrative seeking to deflect blame for a seemingly never-ending series of school shootings.
Detractors are quick to point out the perceived stupidity of horror movies: Cliché plot lines, characters who run upstairs instead of outside, villains without motivations, pointless nudity, meaningless shock. Yet this genre (for the most part) exists in a universe where unspoken codes of conduct would eliminate most of America’s real-life gun violence. How “stupid” is that?
When millions of students return to classrooms this fall, none of them will be attempting to learn beneath the spectre of potential paranormal attacks by their peers. Unfortunately, many will be haunted by the possibility that a lack of safeguards compounded by the pressures of adolescents will put an assault rifle into the hands of a someone lacking impulse control. That’s really scary.
Words: Josh Millican