I think I can pinpoint when my visceral distaste for horror began. I was a kid, and we were at a wax museum. Lifelike wax statues of Indiana Jones and Jimmy Stewart and Marilyn Monroe filled me with tourist-trap wonder. Then I wandered into the PG-13 section. There was a warning that said, “No kids,” but I ignored it, I guess. Wax scenes of gruesome deaths and horrifying accidents played out before me. Most of them were pretty mild and clearly fake, and I was unaffected. But there was one that was seared into my memory, where it remains to this day. The scene showed a guillotine, with one prisoner’s neck stretched on the block, being prepared for execution. At the base of the guillotine was a basket containing the severed head of one who had gone before. My eyes were transfixed – this head looked exactly like my next door neighbor, my friend Linda.
I couldn’t shake the image, and even though I knew it was fake, it disturbed me. It represented something real, and stirred my imagination. It made me sad for Linda. I had a hard time convincing myself that she was still back home, alive and well. Even if it wasn’t her, it very well could have been, I mean, it had been someone’s friend. It made me sad for anyone who had ever undergone such a grisly end. It made me sad for humanity. I don’t think I’ve ever shaken that particular sadness.
I hear the arguments: Horror is just a harmless way to get the blood racing, to confront our fears in a safe environment, to make sense of evil. But I don’t buy it. Maybe I’m the one who’s troubled, if I can’t separate fiction from reality, but my issue still lies in that association I felt as a kid – the images may be completely fake, but they represent real horror in the world that is not safe and not fun and not at all entertaining. So all that said, happy Halloween! From the scariest character of them all, the killjoy.
(To defend my reputation against prudishness – not that I need to, of course – I do enjoy a good scary movie. There’s a difference, though, between a suspenseful thriller and a gratuitously gory blood bath. The latter is a phenomenon in entertainment that I will probably never understand.)