“It pacified my soul”: the comfort of horror

The other day at work I did some training on human trafficking, and I’m not ashamed to say it rocked me back on my heels. I’ve been a social worker for 8 years, and like most people in Children’s Services I consider myself fairly resilient: someone with a reasonably thick skin, able to spend my days working with survivors of abuse and trauma without bringing it home.

But this training shook me up, cataloguing the new and various ways that people have invented to be evil to each other: the ritualistic torture and murder of children, baby farming, organ harvesting, modern day slavery, organised sexual exploitation, the list went on and on. And all this happening not in some kind of fright flick, but in the real world. In the UK. Now.

It got me thinking again about the role cinema can play in helping us process these real life horrors. Renowned director John Carpenter once spoke about his experience of watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, saying that it absolutely terrorised him but he then went home and slept like a baby because it had pacified his soul. When I was studying media back in my A-Levels, this was called “catharsis theory”: the concept of expelling one’s own troubles by vicariously living through another in the medium of film. Although there is some debate as to whether viewing violent imagery increases or exorcises aggression, in my experience I have found horror as a genre to be incredibly comforting.

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Take Audition (1999) for example. Made by infamous agent provocateur Takashi Miike, when it first opened people didn’t just walk out of the cinema: they ran. To say too much would spoil the seismic gut punch this masterpiece delivers, but suffice to say that although it starts off as a romantic drama the second half “descends into hell”, as Joe Cornish puts it.

audition

I watched Audition for the first time this year, and in the wake of Harvey Weinstein scandal (and the general pall of sexual violence which is frankly endemic in our society) I found it an almost transcendental experience. Here was a film which grappled unblinkingly with issues of misogyny, misandry, abuse, power and loneliness, pulling no punches and making no reductive statements. It gave me a space to process my own feelings about gendered violence, and afterwards I felt elated, purified, renewed. Pacified.

This is not the first time horror has done this for me. I have had a genuine spiritual experience watching William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (which, for the record, I find one of the most comforting and moral films ever made). And when grieving the death of my father, The Babadook spoke to me like nothing else (aside from maybe Pixar’s Inside Out) about the need to process my emotions healthily or else risk coming apart.

exorcist

I know this won’t be the experience of everybody, and I’ll fully acknowledge that not every horror film is as lofty or noble in its execution or purpose. But for me horror offers a safe place to look evil straight in the eye and by confronting overcome it, allowing me to leave more equipped than before to face the real horrors outside.

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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