Monday, April 7, 2008

Why Horror Theatre?

Why Horror Theatre?

Since the beginning of this WildClaw quest, the response to our mission, bringing Horror to the live stage, has been in my experience overwhelmingly positive. Yet, every now and then, an earnest and oddly sad question cuts through the enthusiasm. “Why horror theatre?”

I usually rattle off a list of viable reasons for starting a Horror Theatre Company in Chicago in 2008. I talk about a new audience, and the fact that no one else is trying to do it, blah blah blah. It always seems to do the trick. And yet, the answer always feels shallow and insufficient.

Because the only honest answer I have to that question is an unsatisfactory one.
Why horror theatre? What do we need a horror theatre for? Honestly, I don’t know.

I guess to answer that you need to ask, why horror at all? Why horror movies, TV, literature? I have thought a lot about it over the past year or so, and so far been unable to come up with a clear, coherent answer. So, if you were looking for clarity and coherence, you should stop reading right now. People write books on this stuff, so, you know, go get one of those.

Because, I don't know. I don't know why I watch, or other people watch, or what purpose it serves. If I am to be perfectly honest, I have not always been a fan of horror. I watched them most of my life, but it was torture until I was in my late teens (Re-Animator being the first horror movie I thoroughly enjoyed seeing in the theater, of course, by that time I had discovered sex and booze as well, so, well, you know.) Although I am more a fan in adulthood, my love of horror barely holds a candle to the majority of the people in WildClaw, or, heck, in my own household, for that matter. Horror for horror's sake has never done it for me, be it Vampires or monsters or psycho's or clowns. Just because a commercial promises blood and killing does not guarantee that I will automatically go see the film. Now, I respect horror. I am a big movie fan, and I love ALL genres of film. Horror movies have been around since the dawn of the motion picture, so I am, by default, I guess, a horror movie fan. But no more so than I am a Sci-Fi movie fan, or a courtroom drama fan, a western fan or buddy-movie fan. I have been over most of my life certainly less a Horror Movie fan than a sports movie fan. I am simply a sucker for a well done sports movie. OK, truth be told, I like the crappy sports movies as well. I know the formula backwards and forwards, and I can see it all coming, but if they hit all the necessary points, play those proper heartstrings, I cannot get enough. The great (Breaking Away, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Hoosiers), the good (Miracle, Shaolin Soccer), and the not so good (Necessary Roughness, Major League), it simply doesn’t matter. Sign me up. Vincent Papale or Rocky Balboa, I love me my sports movies. And if you ask me why I like them, I can tell you, definitively. I am a sucker for them because they are uplifting, life affirming, fantasy fulfillment. Somedays I wish my life was a sports movie.

Life affirming is not how I would describe the vast majority of the Horror movies I have seen in my life, good or bad. I have never wanted to live in one, though at times it has almost felt like it. Most of the time I can't describe or explain what compels me to watch, to pay my hard earned money to sit in that darkened room and put myself through it. In the middle of it, when the walls are bleeding and the voice says “get out", there always comes a moment when I want nothing more than to follow those instructions and flee the theater.

That said, it is horror movies that have left some of the deepest and most lasting impressions on my psyche, images I can call to mind instantly and that still play upon my imagination. The final image of the unrated version of The Descent, with Sarah sitting there, staring at nothing lit only by her flickering torch, has taken its place most recently in the dark and disturbing gallery of images, somewhere between the original The Omen, as Damien turns towards the camera with a smile before the credits roles,

and Jack Torrence frozen in the maze of The Shining. Images that pop into my stream of thought unexpectedly, and never fail to give me a shudder. Frozen guys and demonic children have scared me ever since.

Although I have grown to appreciate horror, there is still that part of my brain which to this day does not enjoy horror. That part that usually waits until I am right in the middle of a particularly well made horror movie, every muscle tense, before it speaks up and reminds me that this is insanity, self inflicted insanity. This split within me has been there for as long as I can remember, each side battling for dominance. There is the one part that was adamant about staying up with my older brothers in the early 70’s. Creature Features on KTVU was showing the national premiere of Night of the Living Dead. And yet, there is the other that spent the next week lying in my bed at night, terrified, psychologically tortured, staring out my window sure that a zombie army was going to come lurching over our hill any moment, wreaking havoc amongst the living. That part that said, never again, I never I want to see that movie again, or any movie like it. And then the other part, the one that made sure I repeated that very same ritual, every weekend, late at night, for the rest of the decade.

I so vividly remember Bob Wilkins, the cigar, the music, the sight of that skull candleholder signaling to me that my parents were asleep and could not protect me, and that my brothers would sell me out to the ghouls and the goblins for a nickel. Terrified, and yet forcing myself to endure it.

And thirty some odd years later, it is still pretty much the same. I claim no insight or special understanding, and yet I still find myself in that darkened room, clutching the arm of a chair or a pillow, just waiting for it all to end. There are many who have taken up the conversations of the sociological implications of the horror genre’s popularity with much greater knowledge and wit than I. But. . . .I still don’t quite get it. I am curious, I really want to know, why do I still do it to myself? It takes much more to scare me these days, but when it happens, when I find myself in a darkened theater, clenched and tense and I listening to the CHUDs approach from the darkened recesses, the thought never fails to cross my mind. Why the fuck do I do this to myself?

Perhaps it is my inability to answer that very question which makes me think that the world of 2008 needs a horror theatre. Because we still seek it out. After all that we have seen and experienced, we still, for whatever reason, seek it out, still need to grapple with that fear, wrestle with that idea, that sensation, experience it, and perhaps. . . own it. I had the honor of being a student of Del Close years ago, and he used to tell us to “follow your fear.” They are words that have resonated for me since I first heard them, because, at the base of our fear, do we not learn who we are?

I have heard a dozen explanations for the popularity of the horror genre. It seems that in the 90’s the rationalization was that we, the audience, were adrenalin junkies and that we fed off of the rush, that a good horror movie is like a roller coaster. That the illusion of danger, the illusion of danger and vulnerability gave people’s dull, tame, safe, boring lives some source of primal satisfaction that we had otherwise evolved away from. Perhaps. I guess that made sense.

In our post millennial world, however, it seems to me that those reasons don’t hold water. Fear is all around us. Our lives, we are told daily, are no longer safe. Danger abounds, round every corner. We are told, over and over, to be afraid. That 'they' are out to get us. Be afraid of terrorists, be afraid of Republicans, be afraid of Democrats, be afraid of Muslims, Christians, Jews, blacks, Chinese, the illegal immigrants . . . . . every single one and a dozen more intent on not just advancing their own agenda, but on destroying our world and our way of life, to turn our friends and neighbors against us, and yes, perhaps, eat our brains (not unlike the army zombies from my childhood vigil). While we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to fear the 'other', we are also told to fear our food supply, fear our medicine, fear our environment, fear the weather, fear sex, fear the economy, fear machines, fear the government, fear our schools, fear the media, fear change, fear a lack of change . . . . we have no shortage of fear in the new millennium. This palpable societal fear seems to me so wide ranging, like a free floating cloud that hangs over us without the hint of resolution. With images of death and destruction are piped into our homes every day, only to be followed with a story about the bees disappearing which will inevitably lead to a disruption of our food supply, to be followed by a story of an asteroid bearing down on us which may potentially wipe us all out like the dinosaurs we are. . . .in 65 years. The way we are sold fear these days, it seems if one were to follow ones fear, it would be a long zigzagging journey going round and round, doubling back on itself countless times.

Perhaps sociological need for the horror genre may be even more acute now. We need to figure out a way to grapple with our nightmares and process our fear. Not simply for the visceral roller coaster adrenaline inducing body terror thrill, but for a chance to focus all of this free floating anxiety and fear, condense it, and perhaps, get a handle on it, work through it a little.

If the need for the horror genre is more acute today, the job of the practicioners of horror seems much more difficult. It is simply harder to scare us now. And by scare, I do not simply mean make us jump, or turn away in disgust, but scare, give us something to leave the theater with, to ponder. We have watched mass murder and execution, ethnic cleansings, genocide, innocents leaping to their death from the tallest buildings in the world, legitimized the use of torture and openly waged wars of choice, and that was all on TV between 6 and 9pm. It takes more than monsters that to scare us these days. Is this free floating societal fear responsible for the further sensationalism and higher gore factor of the latest surge of horror movies? Is the popularity of the so-called torture-porn sub-genre (Saw, Hostel) a result of the fact that we need more and more to frighten us? Do we need more gore, more pain, more sadism, because horror is now competing with the nightly news?

I actually think we could do with less. I think the reason it is harder for horror movies to scare us is because of the gore, the spectacle. The production values may have gone through the roof, but the level of humanity has nearly been eliminated. Like so many other genres, it seems to me that it is the very lack of humanity, real people and real emotions, that leaving us cold.

After years of arguing against the idea of being desensitized to horror and violence by television and the movies, I have changed my opinion. I feel that it is self-evident that we are desensitized to images of horror and violence. We are bombarded with these images in the movies, on television, in newspapers. They simply cannot have the power that they once did. The images are bigger, and brighter, and louder, and they bleed better and brighter than ever before.

At the same time, moviemaking is no longer magic. Every movie released today seems to have its own “making of” documentary attached. The industry of moviemaking in many ways is making it harder and harder for the moviegoer to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. Therefore, we need more; it must be more graphic, more extreme, and more seamless. In the age of CGI, sometimes it feels like nothing dazzles us anymore. These days, we know as we sit in the movie theatre, or more often our living room, that we are safe. We know it. We may be afraid of the water coming out of our tap, or the police that patrol our neighborhood, but the CHUDs and the psychos, the monsters and demons, they simply do not scare us like they used to. They are two dimensional, and as we have been told time and time again since childhood, it is only a movie. It takes an excellent movie to move us in any way, and there just aren't that many excellent movies out there, period. And excellent horror movies? Come on. So we take what we can get, and we know that it is all make-beleive, and we have fun for an hour and a half if we are lucky. They may make us jump, or turn away in disgust, but do they make us suspend our disbelief? We can be impressed with the technological mastery. . . .the craft of moviemaking . . . but we remain at a dispassionate distance, objectively witnessing the images as they flicker across the screen. We sit safely in front of the screen, be it the TV, computer, or movie scream, we sit back (so often these days in solitude) and simply watch. We do not feel or experience, we simply watch. They have substituted spectacle for empathy, gore for character, splatter for story. Gore and spatter are good and fine, and have their place, don't get me wrong. I appreciate quality kills as much as anyone, but when the numbers pile up indescriminately, it loses its meaning, and it is simply not scary.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Why Horror Theatre? I guess the answer is, when it works, when we successfully get our audience in that room, close the doors, take down the lights, they simply do not know what to expect. We have them at a unique disadvantage. The images are life sized, the volume normal. They must focus their eyes and direct their attention. The audience must discard the notions of horror that is born and bred in and Dolby Surround and HD. They must enter into a relationship with the story and the characters. They are not allowed simply to sit back and watch. They are forced to become involved, to actively reach out with their eyes and ears and perceptions. Simply, they are not safe. The line between the world of make-believe and the safety of the audience is blurred.

What would appear to be a disadvantage for live theatre, the expectations of an audience raised on Hellraiserand weaned onHalloween, accustumed to more gore and bigger louder bangs and starts, turns into an advantage. The suspense comes from a room full of people silently listening to a whispered conversation. The horror comes more from the empathic experience of witnessing another live human being, investing emotionally in that person in front of you, and then finding yourself surprisingly moved and, well, horrified at his evisceration. The effect, well, lights and fabric and. . . .well, let us not give away all the secrets but suffice it to say, gore, is there, but the impact comes from the humanity, not the biological effect. The biological effect simply serves the story, and is therefore far more crushing than one that comes from pushing the cinematic limits of carnage. And when the blood comes, live onstage, you feel it ripple throughout the room, a mixture of disgust and fear and excitement and appreciation the vast majority of films simply cannot deliver.

Why Horror Theatre? Because now more than ever, as our world peddles fear and insecurity, as our politicians and clergy predict apocalypse, and our scientists ring the alarm of catastrophic climate upheaval, all in an effort to sell soap of one kind or another, perhaps we need to get a handle on this most basic and primal of all feelings, in a dark room, with our other people experiencing the same live horrific event.

Or, perhaps not.

-- B.


alyrenee said...

that was so much deep brain hurts a little. Or perhaps it's that zombie gnawing at my crown.

Excellent essay sir. And rest assured that I too would sell you out to the zombies for a nickel.

Dr. AC, Fool for Blood said...

Wow, I am mightily impressed both by your expansiveness and the ability to make things personal as well. Nicely done, good sir. You covered so much ground that I'm a little intimidated to even begin trading quips with you, but suffice to say, I think you've made an excellent case as to answering "Why?" The next thing for folks to realize is "Who?", which is, of course, where WildClaw comes in.

Those of you who saw THE GREAT GOD PAN know what I'm talking about. Your mom knows it too. Yes, she does. You know.

Anita said...

"Simply, they are not safe. The line between the world of make-believe and the safety of the audience is blurred."

And all because you are massaging their imagination with story and some cool slight of hand. They(the audience) really make the connection to the hand coming out of the staircase to make themselves scared. they're in on it.

pcfoster said...

I'm sorry, I must have dozed off there. Could you repeat that?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these insights. Your essay is very moving.