Horror Movies and the Zeitgeist: Why Seeing Horror Movies in the Theater is Worth Your Money

Why do I bother to go to the movie theater? It is not an entirely rational decision, maybe not even rational at all. But in the pursuit of entertainment, I choose to spend a heaping fistful of my per diem on one current, big-screen experience,  though I’d be better off adding to my monthlies for a Rook, Boxee, or Apple TV. For freebies I just mooch my girlfriend’s brother’s Netflix (paid for by their father), and you can too, if your loved ones have loved ones who have loved ones who have $8 extra and the internet. While you’re asking these vicarious sponsors for their family password, ask them if they have any microwaveable popcorn in their pantry — what could be more essential to a viewing, whether home or theater? By the way, beer is always allowed in my living room, and even though I’m fortunate enough to have a local gastropub theater, The Nitehawk, an ‘affordable’ $6 dollar Miller High Life, is only mitigating the pillage on my bank. Economists have a technical term that applies to the big screen experience, especially the food and drink aspect: fucking highway robbery.

I guess I’m just paying to feeeel. And, this October, fear is decidedly in fashion. But what to be afraid of? Well, I could turn on the TV and listen to the chorus of our overwrought national political discourse. Apparently my future is ruined if the wrong guy gets elected, that’s pretty scary, right? Actually, according to my adrenaline: no, it isn’t. Evil deities that eat children? Now that is worth a vote from my entertainment dollar!

After all, we’ve all seen the trailers. Even if you have not, you’re still aware of what October’s crop of pictures is about. You just know there’s a supernatural power, a deep dark secret, a handful of murders, and about a dozen “What’s that sound?” moments. If it’s done well, it’s scary, if it isn’t, you mock it. Either way you know what’s gonna happen, right? Bad things, that’s what. Bad things can be fun ... if they’re for pretendsies.

Our national culture is filled with stories about good-natured ‘Folks’ who suffer an American Greek Tragedy, especially in politics and horror. ‘Folks’ are a very ample, perennial slice of the American Pie. They’re always being exploited, whether their debt becomes a candidate’s talking point or they’re on a reality show, making basic grammatical errors. After, the one billionth ham-handed “regular joe” story, I’ve developed a sick boredom. We’re supposed to feel high fructose joy in knowing that we can identify examples of a supposedly “Average” American, but these portrayals always, always, seem to benefit some greater power (a political campaign, a TV network’s ratings). Silver screen horror is an essential cleanse because it redefines this manipulative portrayal of Homosapien Americana in three ways.

The first is that the ‘Folks’ in horror films are knowledgeable yet careful. They know not to meddle with the remains of a dirty past. They’re from a small town with a dark secret, and they never have any intention of being anything more than that. Their lack of ongoing curiosity is fodder for the protagonist’s ambition. Take this cliché as a for instance:

I wouldn’t bark up that tree,” says the Sheriff to the protagonist. He is always quicker with a wise metaphor than with his police-issue 9 milli.

“Why? Afraid I might get bit?” replies the protagonist.

The inevitable chaos that follows vindicates the sheriff’s passiveness, always. And that is the true nature of the ills of society. Those who care don’t know. And those who know don’t care. It is not within the sheriff’s jurisdiction to ‘cuff the paranormal and take it to central booking, and so he goes on with life, and you should too ... if you know what’s good for you. It’s a level-headed, dare I say, respectful way of bringing the audience in. What comes next will be shamefully amoral.

The second type of ‘F‘folks’ in horror films are sacrificed by the filmmaker as collateral damage. And they are good people! They are driving down the road when the guy that barked up the wrong tree comes out of the woods covered in his stoner friend’s blood! They pull over their big rickety pickup, they give the protagonist a blanket and cocoa. Just when it seems like things will be safe, this random do-gooder suffers an even worse killing than the stoner. This abandonment of simple-minded poetic justice is very refreshing. I want random deaths! This element of chaos is more realistic than television, where everyone lives or dies in a specific way, for a specific reason, and it’s always super important. Senseless, random deaths happen all the time in real life, but they never make it out of regional news. The horror story incorporates this morbid part of the human experience for equal parts entertainment and fear.

The third type of ‘Folks’ are the protagonists themselves, who are often played by the ‘folks’ of Hollywood — unremarkably good looking, un-tabloided actors and actresses who take on lead roles, scream and pretend to fight for their lives for their salaries. Most A-listers don’t want the commitment that horrors demand — they want the glory of high profile adaptations, the money of action/adventures, and the camera-winking of comedy. I give credit to the Nicolas Cages of the world because they count on themselves — not the material — to bring about the energy that it takes to convincingly beg for their lives (or take the lives of others) on camera. 

However, horrors are one of the last bastions of humble budget, low-profile films, and previously unrecognized actors, directors, writers, producers, and all of their collaborators and crew are attempting to cut their teeth. A bad horror is funny and shitty, but a good one can change careers, just ask Gore Verbinski. He went straight from The Ring to Pirates of the Caribbean. Frank Coppolla, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and countless other Hollywood tycoons got their start used using the horror as a jump-off point. Horrors are artistic, low budget, and have strong effects on the theater audience.  

That doesn’t make the craft any easier. Good horror films are displays of supreme filmmaking talentwithout that subvert traditional expressions of spectacle and defy the relationship between money and quality. The Blair Witch Project and other low-fi successesthat use the cheapest of ideas for the most memorable scenes. This ingenuity turns the oligarchy of cinema on its head. You know, last weekend, Paranormal Activity 4 made more money than Argo. We helped David beat Goliath! We voted with our American dollar, in the theater, where it counts.

After all, we are in a horror economy right now. We have a troublesome past, and we are facing a future of decline. We can either hang on in quiet desperation, or we can dare to follow that spooky sound, and in doing so, re-discover the thrill of being scared with a bunch of random theatergoers again. Without the group dynamic and nervous editorializing that is part and parcel of the theater experience (“Look out, girl. He got a knife!”), why not spend less money and watch it at home? That’s safe … until the town theater becomes a boarded-up shack with a ghostly infestation.