It’s Halloween! (So Let’s Talk Scary Movies) #2

On Thursday, I rewatched the first horror movie I had ever seen in a theater–actually the first movie I had ever seen in a theater, period. It was probably one of the most intentionally rebellious things I ever did as a teen. Movie theaters were “evil” places in my cult, and I was forbidden from going to them, even to watch a Disney movie.

Horror movies were also considered evil and demonic for the obvious reason that they often deal with dark topics and the cult didn’t know how to recognize a metaphor.

So, what do I do when I decide to sneak out to a theater for the first time? I go watch Silent Hill, of course.

I remember being scared shitless, but I didn’t remember much about the movie itself. Watching it this time was sort of like watching it for the first time all over again. This one quickly took a place amongst my “movies that are metaphors for the importance of darkness.”

Spoilers in case you haven’t actually seen a movie this old yet.

Silent Hill is a moody, thrilling underworld journey about abuse, revenge, and facing your dark side. Whereas IT focused on facing and conquering fears, this movie is about encountering the dark, painful parts of ourselves.

The story opens with Sharon, an adopted little girl, sleepwalking and dreaming about this place called Silent Hill. It’s implied that these types of episodes have been going on for quite some time, with no response to medication or medical attempts to manage the sleep walking. Her mother discovers that it was a town in the state in which she’d been born that had become a ghost town after coal caught fire in the mines and drove people away. Thus, Rose decides that the only answer is to take her daughter back to this burning town to see if they can figure out what is haunting Sharon.

Rose and Sharon end up separated, and the movie follows Rose’s attempts to find her daughter in a land that has become a nightmare. Her searches eventually lead her to discover a bullied little girl who had been burned by religious fanatics for being a witch. Down in the bowels of the hospital where Alessa was put on life support after her burns, Rose encounters a little girl who looks exactly like Sharon…if Sharon were a demon.

Rose learns that Sharon is “what’s left of Alesssa’s goodness.” Her look-alike is Alessa’s revenge. They had sent Sharon to Rose to be cared for, eventually calling both of them back.

Rose also learns that the religious extremists plan a similar fate for her daughter. Although Alessa’s mother, a member of the cult, had abandoned her when the group had chosen to “purify” her, Rose has an opportunity to save her daughter from the religious extremists by taking in the darkness of the other half and carrying it to the church where the extremists hold their meetings.

It’s a powerful movie with so many characters playing off each other that my Jungian heart goes crazy with the possibilities for analysis.

The movie points out that “to a child, mother is god,” highlighting both the incredible power that mothers hold over their children. Most children, even when their mothers are harming them, still see their mothers through rosy glasses, requiring the child to take on the interpretation of “if good mother is doing these things to me, it must be because I am bad.” It’s nearly impossible to consider, as a young child, that mother might not actually be good. In keeping with this theme, Alessa’s mother is never actually touched by Alessa’s revenge. Even though she’s one of the people that Alessa could easily blame, she doesn’t.

In a similar way, cults like these ones often portray God in a similar light. It takes a lot for a member to question whether the group (which represents God) is doing the right thing, whether life circumstances are indeed deserved. Alessa’s mom wasn’t a good mom because she hated her daughter. She failed Alessa because she herself was under the same spell with the group.

Rose is contrasted with Alessa’s failure. Rose is able to save Sharon the way that Alessa’s mother should have saved Alessa. In some ways, I like to think that Rose is the internal mother that can be developed to heal from religious trauma, but I think the literal interpretation of her being an adoptive mother is also legit.

In turn, Alessa is contrasted by the split girls, identical except that one is good and one is…not exactly evil, but definitely dark. The good child, Sharon, is easy to love. The one that carries Alessa’s pain and anger is harder because she’s scary and unpredictable. But Rose can’t save Sharon without accepting Sharon’s other half.

Alessa’s mom is horrified by the shadow side as she watches her take her revenge on the religious fanatics, but there’s an interesting question even in the violence. Who is the true monster? Yes, the fanatics have been hiding from this dark child, but they also were the ones who created her. They burned Alessa, blind to the evil they themselves perpetuated. We also find out that they’re dead too—that they died in the fire they started, but that they are avoiding awareness of how they have destroyed themselves until Rose forces them to confront the shadow they have created.

Right towards the end, after Rose has managed to cut Sharon down from the stake (technically a ladder more than a stake, but serving the same purpose), she’s holding her and rocking her. Suddenly, the dark duplicate appears and looks into Sharon’s face. The scene cuts away then, and Rose and Sharon wake up later and head home.

It’s unclear from the movie whether the dark one just leaves Sharon alone after she looks at her or if she and Sharon reintegrate with each other in that moment, but my guess is that they integrated because neither were whole on their own. They had been split by the horror of what happened (good metaphor for trauma), and the healing came through Rose offering the corrective experience of a mother who doesn’t abandon her child. Rose needed to love both the shadow and the light in order for the little girl to fully heal.

Best Horror Movies to Watch this Halloween

I adore horror movies, which most of my readers are probably well aware of by now. The tingle of fear is such a delight, and despite the tendency for formula, horrors can have incredibly nuanced symbolism and personifications of life. I’m always on the lookout for great movies to watch in October, but there are a handful of flicks that I keep coming back to over and over because they hold such powerful messages. If you’re looking for something that has a deeper psychological message to analyze, here are some that I heartily recommend.

The Sixth Sense (1999, IMDB link)

A boy who sees ghosts. A psychologist who wants to help troubled children. This is one of the most powerful illustrations of facing the shadow parts of ourselves  and helping them heal. I often use this movie as an example of how to approach and transform the things that we fear within ourselves. So often, what seems to be scary and horrific is really just a wounded part of us that is desperately looking for healing.

The Babadook (2014, IMDB link)

A little boy finds a story book with a very real and very nightmarish character in it. Not a movie for the faint of heart. This movie takes a very real-life horror (grief, child abuse, and depression) and turns it into a mythology and monster story. There are some really emotionally intense scenes, so fair warning. However, I absolutely loved this movie and its message. Once again, the things that we fear within ourselves, the traumas that we can’t bring ourselves to face, are the monsters that become stronger and more terrible the longer they are suppressed. But their power is taken away when we face our shadows with compassion.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012, IMDB link)

A group of friends head up for a weekend of fun, only to find their horrors brought to life. A really fun horror movie that makes fun of horror movies while also philosophizing about fear and human nature. It’s possibly the most explicit that a movie has ever come to demonstrating the way that horror symbolizes the things within us. Which of the items would you have chosen?

The Awakening (2011, IMDB link)

A skeptic sets out to disprove the existence of ghosts at a haunted boarding school. This is one of those really underrated movies, I think. Beautifully acted and a poignant illustration of childhood trauma and memory repression. It’s not an untypical person-sets-out-to-disprove-ghosts movies, but it’s one that I think gives hints that the creators seemed to realize there was a deeper meaning to what they were doing.

1408 (2007, IMDB link)

A man finds himself trapped in the hotel room from hell. Stephen King is generally a genius. I almost want to put down The Shining for its brilliant depiction of the horrors of family dynamics and living with an abusive father. However, I choose this one because I actually rewatch it more often than The Shining. This is another beautiful and creepy metaphor for the way that suppressed grief haunts us.

Haunter (2013, IMDB link)

A girl stuck in a time loop, haunted and haunting, as she struggles to unravel the truth. Trauma is probably the realest horror we encounter, so it makes sense that it creates some powerful symbolism both for the way that it affects us and the way that families can inundate themselves in denial.

So there you have it, a mixture of old and newer movies, of well-known and more obscure titles to bring your October evenings to a delightfully horrific mentality. What are your favorite scares to watch over and over?

The Art of Horror: Mirroring Reality

picture from The Haunting (1999)

I love horror movies. Not the slasher, blood-and-guts-everywhere kind—the supernatural/psychological thriller kind. They fascinate me. They terrify me. I’ll even watch the cheesy 50’s movies with black-and-white zombies or bad Edgar Allen Poe retellings.

My partner doesn’t like them so much because he finds them predictable.

And yes, I can admit they’re predictable, but for some reason, that doesn’t diminish their scare value. In any other genre, predictability would be likely to annoy me. But in horror, it’s okay. I don’t think horror movies are as much about originality as they are reality.

Now I know that last statement probably left you sitting there thinking, “what kind of reality does she have if she thinks horror movies are about reality?”

No, you’re right. On the surface, they are far from realistic, but there’s always more than just what’s on the surface.

Just as fiction can sometimes represent truth more accurately than non-fiction, horror movies can represent reality better than realism. Horror movies personify our problems, fears, and relationships. And the better they are able to capture that, the better they are—even if the ending is so predictable the plot summary can make you yawn.

We all know how most horror movies end. We certainly don’t watch them for the ending any more than we watch romantic comedies for their surprising twists or action movies for their intelligent dialogue. The lingering popularity of horror movies, I think, lies in their ability to represent something deeper.

The family looking for a new start that moves into a house only to discover that they can’t make that fresh happily-ever-after ending they were seeking. The parents that refuse to listen to their child who is crying out for someone—anyone—to open his/her eyes enough to see what the child sees. The friends who discover that someone isn’t to be trusted, a discovery they make too late. The person falling in love with the not-so-nice stranger. The haunting way a dead loved one lingers around or the terrifying absence of another.

For every one of these, we can look at the characters and say, “No, don’t go in there!” “Listen to what she’s saying!” “Don’t trust him!” “Don’t run that way!”

We know what’s waiting on the other side for these people—we’ve been there. Maybe we currently are there. Not literally, but in other ways.

We know the destruction that can come to a family that hides secrets from each other. A monster may not come out and mutilate them, but then again, perhaps a monster does, they just can’t see it. They can only feel the effects.

Horror movies are predictable because they’re supposed to be—they need to be in order for us to relate to them. In fact, I think the most terrifying part of a horror movie is that the predictability is so damn realistic. So I watch them, because I want to feel the ability to scream out those warnings, knowing that in that situation, I probably would be doing the same thing.