On the Effect of the Supernatural in Horror Movies

This is the season for horror movies, what with Halloween being less than a week away.  And so it is that we may expect to see a lot of horror movies offered on television for our entertainment.  Now, what we want from a horror movie is to be scared, and the question is, Does the presence of the supernatural in a horror movie add to its ability to frighten us, or does it detract from it?

The answer to this question undoubtedly depends in large part on whether one believes in the supernatural.  For people who are really superstitious, their belief in the supernatural may be so strong that they find horror films about witches, ghosts, and demons too frightening, and will not watch such movies as a result.  I actually knew a girl like that when I was in college, and I decided not to continue dating her anymore as a result.  It’s not that I minded her being superstitious.  It was her refusal to let me take her to the Halloween special being offered at the Triple Threat Drive In that made me realize there was no future for us.

As for myself, I have quite the opposite reaction.  The presence of the supernatural in a horror movie so lessens its believability that, all things being equal, its capacity to frighten me the way I would like is diminished to the point that I am likely to lose interest.  Mind you, some of my favorite horror movies involve the supernatural, but that is in spite of it, not because of it.

Of course, most of the monsters in a horror movie correspond to nothing real, however realistically they may be depicted, even where there is no supernatural element.  There are no Frankenstein monsters, no pods from outer space taking over our bodies, no zombies trying to eat our flesh.  And yet, as unrealistic as these monsters are, as unbelievable as they are, their ability to frighten us is enhanced by their being either the work of mad scientists, aliens from another planet, or threats arising from natural forces not fully understood, rather than being the result of demonic possession, witchcraft, or the like.

An interesting example in this regard is the movie Häxan:  Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922). It is not always clear in this movie whether the scenes depicting witches, demons, or Satan himself are mere visualizations of what people once believed, dreamed, or were forced to confess, but in any event, when these supernatural creatures are being depicted, they really have a good time, and so do we.  Beautiful naked witches are seen making love to horned demons, while other demons furiously churn their butter as they watch the witches cavorting about. In one such scene, monks are seen to be terrified by the presence of Satan.  But later in the movie, we see religious authorities torturing a poor old woman in an effort to make her confess to her participation in a witches’ Sabbath, and we are given to believe that she is completely innocent of witchcraft, especially since the general thrust of the movie is that there is no such thing as witches.  It is this part of the movie that is truly disturbing, whereas the supernatural scenes are enjoyed with mild appreciation.  In a similar way, The Conqueror Worm (1968), which is about Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), Witchfinder General, and his assistant, John Stearne (Robert Russell), is more horrifying than a story about real witches would have been.  All things being equal, a movie about men like Hopkins and Stearne, who use their position of power to satisfy their greed, lusts, and sadistic delight in being cruel, is far more likely to horrify us than a movie about actual witches flying around on broomsticks.

Just as we see that natural horror is more frightening than supernatural horror when we compare movies about witchfinders to movies about witches, so too are horror movies about natural maniacs likely to be more frightening than movies in which madness arises from supernatural influences.  Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) were inspired by an actual person, Ed Gein, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas.  But even if these movies were not inspired by actual serial killers, the mere fact such men actually exist makes it easy for such movies to frighten us.

On the other hand, consider The Shining (1980), a movie about a family that moves into a haunted house, the result of which is that evil spirits take over Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the husband and father, causing him to try to kill his wife and child.  As we all know, men sometimes murder their wives and children, and so a movie about a man chasing his son through a house trying to hit him with an axe could be incredibly terrifying.  But since Jack’s mania is inspired by demonic spirits, most of the terror is drained from the movie.  Of course, the silliness of the “Here’s Johnny!” scene, which was played for laughs, was probably sufficient on its own to put ironic distance between us and the mayhem.  This was no mere comic relief. That scene made it impossible to take anything that followed seriously.  Still, the fact that Jack Nicholson’s character is under the influence of demonic forces actually provides even greater distance.  Too much distance, in fact, the result of which was that I was quite bored by it all.  The Babadook (2014), on the other hand, is more effective.  First, there is no “Here’s Johnny!” scene. Second, the movie seems to be more about madness than the supernatural. As a result, the mother in this movie is far scarier than the father in The Shining.

One reason why the supernatural works against a movie’s ability to frighten us is the same reason we don’t believe in the supernatural in the first place: it doesn’t make sense.  In The Omen (1976), it is clear that Damien is the Antichrist, and as various people in the movie become convinced of this, they try to destroy him.  Now, I generally try to get into the spirit of a movie when I am watching it, and in this case, I tried to suspend disbelief and accept the premise of Christianity on which this movie rests.  But I couldn’t help myself. I found myself wondering why everyone was so upset about the appearance of the Antichrist when his existence confirmed the prediction that some say is made in The Bible.  This would mean that everything is unfolding according to God’s plan, the Day of Judgment is at hand, and all of us are about to go to Heaven (well, not me, because I am an atheist, but as I said, I was pretending to be a Christian while watching the movie). Presumably, killing the Antichrist while he is still a child, before he has a chance to really do anything, would be thwarting the will of God, so I would think that the rational thing to do would be just to kick back and relax.  In other words, I really could not get into this movie.

In a similar vein, one of the problems with the story of Faust, the man in the German legend who sold his soul to the Devil, is that we never understood why anyone would make such a foolish bargain in the first place. A few decades of wealth, power, fame, and sex in exchange for an eternity of burning in the fires of Hell? Evil may be fascinating, but stupidity never is, and we quickly lose interest in the fate of anyone dumb enough to make that deal.  One reason that the movie Angel Heart (1987) works so well is that Johnny Liebling (Mickey Rourke), the man who makes a pact with the Devil, knows of a ritual that will allow him to substitute someone else’s soul for his own, so that after reaping the benefits of a pact with Lucifer, some other poor slob will pay the price while Johnny gets to go to Heaven, with God shaking his head, saying in exasperation, “Another sinner gets off on a technicality!” Things don’t work out well for Johnny, of course, but at least the ritual in his possession makes his decision to make a pact with the Devil a rational one (sort of).

Regarding the story of Faust as told by Goethe, Nietzsche said, “A little seamstress is seduced and made unhappy.  Surely that could not have happened without supernatural interference? No, of course not!  Without the aid of the incarnate devil, the great scholar could never have accomplished this.”  Right.  He sold his soul to the Devil in order to get laid. It is hard to regard anything so silly as being tragic, especially when some angel butts in at the last minute and says Gretchen, the seamstress, is redeemed, just as Faust is redeemed for no good reason at the end of Part II. Men have been seducing young girls and abandoning them since caveman days, and every such instance is more tragic than the one told by Goethe involving the supernatural.  And don’t tell me we are supposed to understand this story allegorically, because allegory does not work when the story taken literally makes us roll our eyes.

Not only are horror movies involving the supernatural somewhat incongruous in this or that particular, which puts a strain on the rational intellect, but they also tend to offend our reason by having no rules or limitations at all, at which we point we give up and quit thinking. Natural or man-made monsters are not like that.  Whether it is Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Terminator, we know they have their limitations, allowing us to try to figure out, along with the good guys in the movie, how to stop them.  Though I don’t care for vampire movies, at least they have rules involving exposure to the sun, dread of crucifixes, and wooden stakes through the heart.  But a lot of movies are like Poltergeist (1982), where we have no clue as to what will happen next, nor any sense of what can be done to stop the evil forces until the very end.  As a result, all we can do is passively accept whatever.

In some cases, there are rules, but we haven’t the slightest idea what they are in advance of what happens.  One of the worst offenders in this regard is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In this movie, when the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) discovers that a young friend of his has become caught up in Devil worship, he reveals that he has been studying the subject for years, and so he knows just what to do, because he has it all memorized.  There must be fifty-seven varieties of rules, rituals, and incantations you have never heard of, which we learn about only when Richleau pulls them out of his hat. As a result, reason is suspended, for we are reduced to waiting to find out about the next new rule.

If a movie must be about the supernatural, the least it can do is have a strong character who sneers at such nonsense.  All supernatural horror movies feature some characters that are skeptical, for it would be unbearable for everyone to be a believer right from the start.  But all too often, the skeptics are minor characters quickly brushed aside.  In the really good horror movies of the supernatural subgenre, the nonbeliever holds out for a long time, giving us someone to identify with, thereby easing us into the necessary suspension of disbelief as that character slowly comes around. Thus, we have Holden (Dana Andrews) in Night of the Demon(1957), Luke (Russ Tamblyn) in The Haunting (1963), and both Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is losing his faith, and Chris (Ellen Burstyn), an atheist, in The Exorcist (1973).  And finally, there is that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is being warned by a friend that it is unwise to meddle in certain mysteries.  Indy dismisses his friend’s concerns, comparing him to his mother, and saying that he is talking about the bogeyman, a bunch of superstitious hocus-pocus.  “Besides,” Indy says, “you know what a cautious fellow I am,” as he tosses his forty-five pistol on the bed.  In other words, it’s all right if supernatural stuff goes on in the world, as long as the hero has contempt for such things, at least until close to the end.

And so, generally speaking, as far as my preference regarding horror movies is concerned, the less there is of the supernatural the better, and none at all is better still.  Of course, that girl I knew in college was of exactly the same opinion, though for totally different reasons.  Maybe I should have compromised and taken her to see a Godzilla movie instead.

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