Initial Thoughts On Horror Movies

A little over a week ago my wife and I went to see Crazy Rich Asians. She wanted to see it because she loves romantic comedies. I was not opposed to seeing it because I had read some good reviews of this movie. And it is a good movie; despite going through the romcom checklist, it feels fresh and is quite entertaining. However, this essay is not about Crazy Rich Asians; I am writing about the previews we saw before the movie and my subsequent thinking since then.

Before the movie there were the requisite 3 or 4 upcoming attractions trailers. I do not remember how many. The previews were almost entirely upcoming romantic comedies or period pieces. I do not remember what they were, except for one. The one I remember was for the upcoming horror movie The Nun.

One reason this trailer was so memorable is that it stood out like a sore thumb. It was a non-sequitur within its lineup. Another reason it was memorable was that there was an effective scare at the end of the trailer. I will not spoil it; anyone with an interest should see it for them self.

Since then, I have been thinking about the horror genre. To begin with, I want to define the horror genre as containing elements from outside of the ordinary world: occult, non-human monsters, strange and evil forces. I am guessing (I have little formal expertise in literature) that generally the horror part of the genre focuses on forces beyond humanity and outside of humanity’s ability to control. Horror, then, is based on the idea that there are forces and beings that humanity is powerless against.

This leaves slasher movies and torture porn out of the running. These movies seem to explicitly state that we are our own worst enemies, but also suggest that this enemy is still defeatable. I suppose that A Nightmare on Elm Street presents a hybrid of horror and slasher movie, but in the end Freddy Krueger is usually defeated; at least until the next sequel.

In the horror genre, the antagonistic person or force is not typically defeated. Nor is the antagonist in these stories typically defeatable. Even if the vessel of the evil is defeated, the knowledge and forces that the villain used to express their villainy remain after their demise. In its essence, horror is about forces that are able to go on about their daily business even if their agents are defeated.

I suppose, then, that the most effective horror movie I have seen in many years is A Serious Man, directed by the Coen brothers. It is not a horror movie per se; it is a comic movie, played for laughs. It does still touch on all of the factors that make a good horror movie. Were the musical cues changed to something more ominous I have no doubt that this would be a horrific movie where we see a man’s life torn apart by forces we cannot comprehend.

The preview for The Nun led me to do a little research. I found out that this movie was part of The Conjuring movie universe. So, I watched The Conjuring. It checks off all the horror movies tropes and clichés. The movie is entirely predictable. However, it is an effective horror movie with lots of tension and some good scares.

This got me thinking about other horror movies I have enjoyed. I decided to write a list of horror movies that I enjoy. This is an initial list, off the top of my head. Inasmuch as possible I am attempting to conform to my stated definition about forces outside of humanity’s control. Though there may be internal inconsistencies at present I will remedy this as I have time to think about the subject. This list is not exhaustive, and I hope it can help others refer me to other movies I have not seen before. Here, in no particular order, are my picks for my favorite effective horror movies:

  • The Exorcist
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • The Others
  • Alien
  • Night of the Living Dead
  • Hellraiser
  • The Babadook
  • It Follows
  • The Shining
  • Poltergeist

This is not an essay designed to deliver a top ten horror movies list. This is the beginning of me thinking about horror as a mode of storytelling. Movies are the main medium in modern times for telling these stories. I got to thinking about horror as the result of a movie trailer. There are also many written tales of horror that I admire. I will be writing about those as well.

This is less an exercise in essay writing for the general public than it is a method for me to start thinking about horror storytelling. As a result of this I am hoping to write an effective horror story of my own. And for me, the place to start is analyzing the subject at hand to death. I hope you find this journey as enjoyable as I do.

Trump and Hyper-Gremlinzation

I have mentioned my intense dislike for the sitting President of the United States before. Watching the antics of this administration has seriously deepened my dislike of trump. I have struggled to find a way to accurately describe the chaos and destruction that is daily presented by this administration.

One description that I have liked until now came from Kate Brannen. Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, she described the trump administration as “Game of Thrones for morons.” Though I like this description, I think it implies far too much credit to the administration. Associating this administration with Game of Thrones implies that there is far more thought and strategy going on than I think is possible for trump and his cronies.

Then, recently, I found out about The Institute of Gremlins 2 Studies. It started here with an article on the AV Club. That article has a link to this interview at MEL magazine. I devoured each article, as well as the links associated with the articles, and then did some independent research on the gremlins of the Gremlins’ movie series.

I have since spent some time reading the tweets on @G2Institute. What I found seems like a perfect description of what is happening in modern politics. It describes not only the stupidity and chaos coming out of the White House, but also the perfidy and collusion of the Republican congress. Taken a step further, it could also describe the Democratic party’s current status as bewildered bystander.

The Institute of Gremlins 2 Studies has a pinned tweet describing a process called Hyper-Gremlinization. This is defined as “a future where the film is increasingly inseparable from reality.” I easily found evidence of this. The interview in MEL magazine suggests that character Daniel Clamp, the real estate developer who’s building the gremlins wreak havoc in, is at least partially based on trump. They point to this Wired magazine article to underscore the point.

This would seem to imply that trump himself is not a gremlin, but an enabler of their antics; this does seem somewhat apt. “The Gremlins go beyond the acceptable transgressions: They very much threaten the system represented by Clamp Center.” In an eerie analog to the President, it seems that while Clamp is ostensibly in charge of the mess that is his building, it is also hopelessly out of his control.

The Villains Wiki page on Gremlins describes them as “ monsters … notable for being mischievous and chaotic, obsessed with destruction and cruel practical jokes.” The only part of this that does not make obvious sense in describing the trump administration is the part about being obsessed with cruel practical jokes; though we have no way of knowing or proving that administration members are joking, there is no evidence that precludes this.

It is my opinion the Hyper-Gremlinization is the best description of the current state of politics in the United States today. A figurehead president hopelessly out of his depth, overseeing a set of actors within the administration and the Republican Congress who are seemingly intent on the destruction of everything within their grasp for their own amusement. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congress stands by as a powerless observer.

Perhaps not the best possible description, but it is the best I have at the moment. Further inquiry will prove it apt, or not. However, I think the theory of Hyper-Gremlinization, in stating that reality will increasingly conform to the actics of the gremlins in the movie, is exemplified by the trump administration.

 

Victory at Hue

I briefly watched a documentary about Vietnam yesterday. The documentary was exploring the heroic efforts of the United States Marine Corp at the battle of Hue during the Vietnam war. The snippet I watched was about 5 minutes long, but the tale it told was a little disturbing to me.

The battle of Hue began on 31 January 1968. The USMC mopped up their operations on 2 March 1968. The marines involved served heroically. This was the gist of the documentary’s narrative. I do not dispute this.

My first objection is a quibble. The battle of Hue seems to have been a marine battle these days. The efforts of the US Army and ARVN forces are forgotten, at least in the contemporary narratives. I may be able to blame the movie Full Metal Jacket for this, but since media analysis is not my forte it is hard to say. The only point I am trying to make is that battle was won by the combined efforts of US forces.

My main objection is that the battle is considered a US victory. The communist were driven out after a month of battle. This is true to an extent. If you can imagine that no communist sympathizers returned to the city after the battle, then you can undoubtedly declare victory. I doubt it was that simple.

The city was destroyed. People’s lives were ruined, military and civilian. The US controlled the rubble after the battle. However, the Tet offensive, of which the battle of Hue was a small part, played a large role in turning American public opinion against the Vietnam war.

What I find ghastly is that here we are, just a little shy of 50 years later, being shown documentaries that display no critical analysis skills. We are showing the battle of Hue as a great victory for the USMC.  We are being shown the Vietnam war as a noble cause.

What I thought about was all the death and destruction brought about by the war on people who thought that the capital and profits of a society ought to accrue to all citizens equally. Essentially, the US invaded Vietnam to be the thought police. That a contemporary documentary can advance the thesis that a city can be destroyed to save it from people who do not think correctly is an abomination.

An Introduction to Maya

Maya is a big deal for me. I discovered maya years ago when I was taking a comparative religion class. Maya is a Hindu concept that loosely translates as “illusion.” However, as is true with many religious concepts, there is far more to maya than mere illusion. I will now attempt to make the case for why maya is a concept I use to make sense of the world we live in.

Ellwood & McGraw (2002) define maya thusly, “Brahman manifest in the world of forms; illusion when these forms are seen as other than Brahman” (p. 500). In this definition, the illusion mentioned is maya. To understand this definition you have to know that “Brahman (always with a capital b)” is tantamount to existence and reality. We humans have imperfect perceptions of reality and thereby we misunderstand our existence. The patterns and belief and experiences we possess trap us in this state of illusion. Consequently, we do not see the world as it is.

John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live provides an adequate representation of the concept of maya. In the film, a drifter played by (Rowdy) Roddy Piper discovers a box of sunglasses that allow him to see aliens when he wears them. The sunglasses allow him to pierce the veil of illusion that exists around him. While wearing the glasses, he also discovers the consumerist messaging hidden within advertising.

I reiterate that this is an adequate representation. The issues that the movie explores: class, social control, consumerism, colonialism, and others are all fodder for consideration of maya, but do not completely explain its scope. The forms that Ellwood & McGraw reference in their definition encompass everything in our lives and experience: childhood, education, socialization, that is, everything that we do and say in order to live our lives as comfortably as possible.

There are aspects of maya that seem easily discernable; propaganda and marketing being prime examples. However, propaganda and marketing are only discernable if we realize what they are. If we view them as types of information, such as news and entertainment, what motivation exists for us to seek out their meaning?

The context of maya that I find most relevant is in its role as a deceiver or a limiter of knowledge. A Christian theologian might link maya to the works of Satan. I think this is reasonable but misses the point; maya as a concept is based more on self-deception than the evil intent of outside beings. This is also the weakness of the They Live analogy.

However, I cannot argue that outside intent precludes one from labeling something as an aspect of maya. Consider the field of agnotology, which is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. This ignorance can be produced as a result of what we are told by the media or in our education. The technical term for this type of ignorance is an information asymmetry. One of the biggest reasons that information asymmetries exist is that they can be exploited for profit. Advertising is a prime example of this; if two products are indistinguishable then branding can help push a consumer to buy one over the other.

Anyway, this is meant to be an introduction to the concept. It is important because I intend to reference maya often going forward. I don’t want to just spring it onto people whilst I write on other topics, so, here it is. This explanation is woefully incomplete, but it is enough to allow you to know what I am talking about when I do mention it in the future.

References

Ellwood, R.S., & McGraw, B.A. (2002). Many people, many faiths: Women and men in the world religions, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brave New World

I lost my grandmother this month. She succumbed to cancer on July 19. She was 89 years old, just a few months shy of her 90th birthday.  Though logically I realize that the longer she held on the more pain she would be in, I am saddened by her death.

I am a very analytical person. Therefore, I have been thinking about things. My cousin made a speech about my grandmother at the funeral. Listening to him reminded me of some things that I take for granted now without even thinking about.

My cousin talked about how nobody ever went into her house through the front door. Everybody knew to come in through the side door that led to the kitchen. When we heard a knock on the front door we knew that someone was visiting from somewhere else. There were no strangers at my grandmother’s house, only visitors.

My grandmother welcomed everybody. One of the first thing she always did was to ask if you were hungry. Didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, she would try to feed you. And my cousin also reminded me that my grandmother welcomed anyone when they needed a place to stay.

He reminded me that she could be pretty tough at times. If you did something wrong, she was quick to scold you or spank you depending on the severity of the wrong. She was always a tough woman.

My grandmother survived many tragedies during her lifetime.  None of these tragedies ever seemed to slow her down or change her ways. She was always the same loving and welcoming person no matter what was going on in her life.

I guess the biggest lesson I can take from my grandmother’s life is that it is possible to be tough and loving at the same time. There is no contradiction between these terms. My grandmother was always tough with us. She never babied us. But never in my life did I ever doubt her love.