A bookish, teenage girl is walking home after school. A car drives by slowly, and we’re introduced to her promiscuous, fun-loving friends. Maybe they invite her to a party, or to a weekend at an old cabin. She doesn’t want to go (she has work to do, or babysitting) but they convince her. One thing that we know for sure is that she will live, and her friends will die.
In the best horror, tropes are bent or broken, but the basic elements that give it its power remain. The more complexity is layered in, the more the the basic building blocks of fear and choice are obscured. Mainstream horror, by not challenging standard tropes, serves as an easy lens through which to view the decisions and repercussions that underpin all horror and make it not only the most moral genre but the most primal, especially when it imbues seemingly unimportant, day-to-day decisions with savage consequences, transforming them into metaphors that are as much about instinct as ethics.
Horror’s Pocket Universe
Horror exists within its own moral space: the first step in creating a world that turns on choice is to segregate individuals from society – to take away their ability to consult with authority figures, parents, or anything more comprehensive than the occasional library book. Maybe a bridge is out. Maybe the group is trapped in a cave, or in a cabin, far away from civilization. Maybe the main characters are teenagers, with no one to believe their story, or perhaps the action takes place in another world entirely, with its own, arcane rules. Regardless, the result is the same: characters are left with only their wits and ability to choose wisely to help them navigate a treacherous landscape.
In the natural world, a bad decision can be lethal: paying too little attention as you drink from a stream, foraging at the wrong time, lagging behind the herd – all of these things carry the possibility of a grisly death. In horror, the fear and anxiety of living in constant peril are brought into the modern world: the danger of being stalked by a killer, of being unsafe in your own home, or of being threatened by predators. Mainstream horror imbues even mundane situations with deadly stakes. Whether it’s the decision of two teenagers to have sex, or of one to go outside when he or she hears a noise, or to simply get something to eat or drink instead of staying in bed – mainstream horror turns modern choices into life-threatening dilemmas.
Disproportionate punishments act on the surface as ethical constructs that serve to keep the individual in step with cultural mores, but by creating a world where seemingly unimportant actions result in extreme consequences, mainstream horror is projecting onto the complex, modern world the simplicity of the primal one, highlighting the fear of choice that exists in both. Though our day-to-day lives aren’t fraught with danger, at an instinctual level we still suspect and fear that even small decisions carry the potential of terrible consequences. Who hasn’t fretted over a small, meaningless decision, or replayed an argument in their mind, wondering what they could have done differently?
The extreme penalties of horror remind us of our biologically driven belief that the world is a dangerous, random place, where our lives can be risked by even the smallest mistake. In a world like that, survival is constantly in doubt, and choice itself is terrifying.
The Loneliness of the Righteous
We are rarely as pure as the bookish, teenage girl, and each seemingly reasonable but deadly decision made by her peers makes us question whether we would survive if put to the test. But if poor decisions get us killed, why fear good ones? By the time the pool of characters has been winnowed down to one, the risk of good decisions is clear: isolation, and survivor’s guilt that speaks to the essential, empathic truth of horror: that survival is less of a prize when it comes at the cost of community.
In horror – and life – there are no perfect choices: once the ball of consequences has been set in motion, there is punishment for staying with the herd and punishment for breaking out, punishment for making the wrong choice, punishment for the right.
The Broken Promise
The hope of the survivor is to return to society, but when this occurs, as often as not it comes with an even greater sense of isolation: a byproduct of the hero’s transformation.
We fear that we will make the wrong choice, or that even seemingly unimportant choices will threaten our survival. Assuming we make it through horror’s gauntlet, though, we fear that our choices will result in separation from the group, either through leaving friends behind or through segregation from the mainstream. In these cases, fear of choice is fear of change, and horror acts as a bridge between the simple and the complex, the primal and the modern: change in the animal kingdom is fraught with danger, but in the human world, confronting The Other is how we grow. Horror walks us along the razor’s edge where we teeter between the need to hold on to what we have and the need to move forward, the fear of doing nothing, and the guilt that comes from knowing that evolution carries with it the risk of leaving everyone – even ourselves – behind.