It’s only fitting that the last film I viewed for the 2014 Toronto After Dark dealt with the first question that exists in every horror movie viewer’s mind in some way or form: why horror?
This documentary’s debut at the festival was an event in and of itself. It got an introduction from Rue Morgue managing editor David Alexander along with the team of writer, journalist, actor and film-maker Tal Zimerman and directors Rob Lindsay and Nicolas Kleiman. Why Horror? itself focused on Tal Zimerman, an utter horror fanatic and his interviews with many prominent figures in the horror film genre along with psychological experts and scholars examining the nature of horror in human life and how that translates over into why people like horror films.
Why Horror? spans a lot of territory and cultural background in Toronto, Tokyo, Mexico City, Xochimilco, London, New York, Vancouver, and Waterloo. We got some fascinating insights into Zimerman’s childhood, with his very understanding family (and long suffering but good sport of a mother), as he experimented with makeup effects creation on his brothers along with seeing his young son play with gruesome action figures while watching Godzilla films.
We got to see if people’s brains functioned differently through immersing themselves in horror movies through some tests that Zimerman (and at one point his mother who generally avoids horror movies) underwent and we got some history lessons as to how humans in different places used art and folktales to deal with themes of horror before the creation of film. And yes, the beautifully grisly paintings of the artist Goya is definitely used as an example of the former.
But there were a few things in particular that caught my eye in the midst of conversations with George A. Romero, John Carpenter, and witnessing events like the Mexican Day of the Dead.
For instance, there was a discussion with some interview subjects about gender in horror. It was something of a mixed balance. On one hand you had actual dialogue with female participants in the horror genre such as the actress Barbara Crampton and directors Jen and Sylvia Soska. These conversations, if nothing else, cement the fact that women not only watch and enjoy horror, but they are definitely a part of it: and they have been a part of the horror film genre for quite some time. Indeed, there was even a fascinating segment of the documentary where women in Japanese horror are discussed: particularly in how female ghosts can embody the resentment and hatred of a life of, at least traditionally, enforced passivity bleeding into a need for vengeance even beyond the grave.
Yet on the other hand, much of the documentary was very male-centric in scope. In some ways perhaps it can’t be helped considering that the main interviewer, instigator and focus of the Why Horror? documentary is Tal Zimerman and, as such, there is a definite emphasis on how horror affected his developing years as a young male and, by extension, those of other men in the field. Perhaps that’s what led to discussions with subjects about how horror film supposedly elicits fear and sexual arousal in women. There is even a study of sorts in the film focusing on how women, again supposedly, are either impressed with a man’s stoicism in watching such a movie with them or seeking comfort in them as a protector-figure out of fear. There are definitely some gender stereotypes in some of these segments, though it does tend to highlight the presence of the ultimate assumption: that horror is a male-dominated field.
It also brings home the fact that even if horror is a universal human feeling, both perspectives of fear and lived experiences are determined by one’s cultural standards.
Indeed, I think that these segments bring up a lot of questions and thought in the viewer and they lead to other places. After all, there is the title of the documentary to consider here. Why does horror as a film genre or as any kind of genre even exist?
Each interview subject had a fascinating insight into the matter: ranging from horror films functioning as initiation rituals that we no longer have in modern society, to a mode that facilitates the safe catharsis of fear and potentially latent sadism, all the way to being a place that allows us to engage with the inevitability of our own mortality and death: of knowing and coming to terms with the trauma of death that is ultimately inherent in our lives as human beings. Really, fear itself is a force that makes us feel more alive and depictions of danger and death make us more aware of what we are not: and perhaps providing a little more closure from that truth.
One other thing that really got to me personally was another question that got posed throughout the film: what was your first horror movie? I actually had to think about this quite a bit myself based on everything I’d seen in the documentary. My first horror film was actually Gremlins. I remember being very fascinated with the story behind them, the different personalities that developed and multiplied, and being immersed into that campy 1980s night world of very specific world-building rules while wondering how Gizmo got to a point where he never tried to eat after midnight.
But I also know that some don’t consider Gremlins, or its strange sequel, to be a proper horror film: whatever that is. I think, in terms of the “coming of age” discussions that spanned throughout Why Horror? my first ever film was actually Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight. It was at that point in my youth that I actually first witnessed sex, questionable morality, and profanity combined with the monstrous, the supernatural, and the gory. I remember almost having a panic attack over seeing it: but in retrospect it was more from my own father’s negative reaction to the swearing and graphic themes than it was to the film itself. I think that it was at that point, in my life, that I “awoke” in a fashion: and it’s apparently commonplace for that to happen with adolescents and horror movies.
I suppose Why Horror? is on to something when it seems to hint on the fact that your first horror films say something about you. I’ve always been fascinated with horror from a very early age. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all human story and myth ultimately comes from trauma — from the basic trauma of realizing your own vulnerability and mortality — and that this realization will alter your consciousness and help you integrate with the rest of this strange, uncertain, arbitrary world of why. Perhaps horror is the original darkness from where we got all of our stories out sheer necessity.
Even though I’d be hard pressed at this time to attempt to describe the narrative organization of Why Horror? I would say that Zimerman begins a fascinating journey into the origin of horror as stories. In the Question and Answer period after the documentary, someone from the audience asked Zimerman if he predict horror’s future. This actually prompted Zimerman to bring up the presence of horror stories online in the form of creepypastas: how they seem to have gone back to a new kind of oral storytelling (which the scholar Walter Ong might see as products of “secondary orality”) or an online urban mythical structure. I believe he expressed an interest in perhaps making a documentary on creepypastas one day.
If so, I definitely look forward to it.