Sunday, August 21, 2011

Horror and Holiness

Perhaps it's wrong of me: I do enjoy a good horror film. I'm not quite sure what it is about the Horror genre that sets me off. I guess it's the allusion to the fact that there is more in Heaven and Earth (and indeed under the Earth) than is dreamt of in my Philosophy. Perhaps the Anglo-Catholic mind is especially susceptible to the sense of the Gothic, the cold stone and gargoyle of old church buildings coupled with the Medieval monstrosities of Hell so graphically depicted in old Dooms and inhabiting the eldrich recesses of the mind of Hieronymous Bosch.

For me, it is the stories of Montague Rhodes James that have delighted me most. These are tales of ancient evil, of revenants and guardians of forbidden knowledge and secret treasure. Very few of them have really made it into the realm of the movie. There have been some pretty good adaptations made for television. There have been two versions of Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, My Lad the better version being played with Sir Michael Horden, detailing the tribulations of a pernickety Cantabrigensian Professor with no fear of the "supernatural" whose life comes a-cropper when he happens upon a whistle near a barrow on the Suffolk coast. A later version with John Hurt worked very well until they spoiled the story.

The only film that I know of M. R. James' work is Night of the Demon based on the short story Casting the Runes again with a skeptical protagonist being faced with something beyond his understanding. It may be black and white but it is a very good film.

I like a good horror film. It's a shame that very few are being made at the moment! There has been a big shift in the way that horror is being done now. As Roddy MacDowell's character (Peter Vincent) says in the original version of Fright Night, "All they want to see slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins." He's right. (Interestingly, I believe that this film is being remade with Doctor Who Actor David Tennant as Peter Vincent).

It seems that most horror films today are obsessed with showing off most of the outside of nubile young ladies and then finding some awful way of showing off their insides thanks to digital special effects. We have reached the era of Torture Porn which seems to be more concerned at killing someone off in the most elaborate and gory fashion and observing their suffering (from behind the sofa) until their life is finally snuffed out by the coup de grace. And that's it. There seems to be very little to point to the beyond, these days. Final Destination may be about Death and Fate, but that's as far as it points: the centre piece is the manner of death and avoidance of it, and the Saw films point to nothing other than man's depraved ingenuity of finding out ways of taking someone to bits. To my mind, this is not horror, this is disgusting, a cheap way of getting a reaction from an audience not from the head or the heart but through the stomach - sometimes literally. Gone are any references to Good and Evil. Only Nasty Things happen and have no moral identity.

That says much for a materialist culture where Death is the enemy to be overcome, despite the fact that it is inevitable for us all. Yet one contrast this with the sublime Pan's Labyrinth which juxtaposes the trials of the fairytale with the brutal realities of the Spanish Civil War. The sight of the zombies wandering through the shopping mall was a definite comment on the culture of today. Bluewater Park is filled with the mindless searching for a life!

Harsh? Maybe a tad. Much of what I've said above is opinion, but there is something which I feel is an important statement about our society.

On Wednesday 24th, the Church celebrates the life of St Bartholomew. Tradition has it that St Bartholomew was skinned alive and then beheaded. Of course, the horror movie makers would deeply relish this idea, and I'm sure that they would want to work this into the next installment of Saw. But how they would miss the point!

If one reads the daily instalments of the Martyrology, one again is faced with some hideous deaths. Admittedly, I think some of them have been dressed up to heighten the drama. Tradition has St Laurence roasted alive, scholarship has him simply beheaded. I know which one Wes Craven would depict in a film! However, one reads the Martyrology not to act as some rubberneck at a car crash searching for the most nasty way of dispatching a saint, but to connect with real, genuine human beings whose faith points beyond the material world. The more tortured the saint, the more we marvel at the tenacity that this person had for the love of Christ, and the more we question the depth of love that we have for the Lord. Saying "yes" to God could see us roasted on a grid iron. it's true.

Should we feel inadequate that we could not undergo torment for Christ? No. That way lies some unhealthy attitudes to suffering. We are bound to suffer for our faith - The Faith - and there is no getting away from that, but we remember God's faithful words to us in that He will not allow us to be tempted beyond our means, and any suffering we undergo has a purpose, a question for us to answer posed by God Himself. One can read that in Job. The fact that some martyrs suffered horribly is a testament to their belief, and it is reasonable for us to venerate them and praise them for their steadfastness.

A good horror film says something about the life beyond the material. It may be just a story but that's what stories are for, making statements about Life above television sets, toasters and turntables. Contrast this with the real lives of the saints, martyrs and all those who have in any way suffered dreadfully at the hands of men. The modern stalk-and-slash, torture porn films really do trivialise the latter at the expense of entertainment.

Opinion again? Perhaps.


Bishop Mead said...

I confess I enjoy many ( though not all ) of the hammy Hammer House of Horror films !
Much of what passes as horror today ... Is far too simply that ... Horror at its most extreme with little to do with Good vs Evil.

Warwickensis said...

Hammer Horror is great fun, My Lord, especially the first films from the late fifties and early sixties before it got caught up in the full iconoclasm of the later sixties. My favourite from that era is the Horror of Dracula.

Two recent(ish) films that I did enjoy were the Japanese films The Ring and The Grudge. (I liked the Hollywood-style remakes less)

Both, to my mind, pointed out something quite fundamental in their stories of Good and Evil.

The Ring spoke of a cursed video tape and an evil that can reach through the television screen to get you. Yet what was so striking about it was the fact that there was a reason for that evil.

The Grudge in some sense is similar in that it's the evil that comes from man that can poison the lives of many unsuspecting people. Both point to an evil within which can reaches around the corner of the material to strike from beyond. Very clever and very thought provoking.

edpacht1 said...

I like your distinction between horror and torture porn. It's a real one. True horror is intensely moral. At its heart is a conviction that evil is very, very real and utterly wrong, and that there is virtue (however flawed in itself) that stands against it.

As a young lad I read horror stories and horror 'comic' books with great relish (to the disapproval of many adults), always taking note of the comeuppance that always came to the evil at the end. Whether parents realized it or not, this reading helped to build a moral character in me, and helped build a foundation that is still with me today.

In classic horror the badness of evil is always at the core of the work. However, in much of the modern stuff that passes for the genre, the whole purpose seems to be to exult in the pain and humiliation that one can inflict upon another, and the evil becomes the reason for reading the book or seeing the film.