Horror: Realism and Fiction

By Ellis

It appears to me based on what we have seen so far in class and from the readings from this week that horror relies on blurring the line between reality and fiction. Too real, and monsters won’t be allowed to appear; too fake, and we wouldn’t see our own lives reflected in the fear of the characters. As such, in this week’s readings, reality and fiction blur to create media panics that strike the right chord between what is real and what could be. They make us question our own realities. This reliance on a blurred line between the real and the fictional can be seen in three genres of horror we have studied so far: slasher films, found footage, and media panics.

Slasher films: This genre is used to encompass the “real” of horror. Friday the 13th for instance is significantly more realistic than Paranormal Activity. Murders do exist; serial killers do exist. The monsters in these movies are nothing more than people. And yet, they are given supernatural abilities to heighten the terror. Use of things like the Killer POV and suspenseful sound editing make it seem like the killer is everywhere all at once. If doesn’t matter that we’ve just saw him kill a counselor by the lake, we’re still worried about the girl in the woods. In addition, it doesn’t matter that he’s been stabbed, shot, fought, strangled etc—like a zombie, he keeps coming. He doesn’t stay dead. This doesn’t include later variations of slasher films where the supernatural is made explicit: even when the monster is entirely human, there is an element of the impossible. Lastly, masks. Even when the villain is human, we are restricted from viewing his face. This unknown keeps us unsure of where we stand or who we’re fighting. It falls in line with movies like Jaws that knew to keep the monster hidden.

Found footage: this genre demonstrates the fictional side of horror. So far in this class, we have seen ghosts, aliens, zombies, and demons appear in our found footage media, a dramatic departure from the “mundane” murders of slasher films. These monsters do not exist in our world, they are other, they are scary in that they are unknown. And yet, the very function of this medium is to make the fictional appear real. By framing these encounters with ghosts or demons in found footage, or by explicitly stating that what we are seeing actually happened as in the case with Paranormal Activity, reality is reintroduced to the fiction. These people are normal people—the location of Grover’s Mill is repeated regularly in War of the Worlds, anchoring the narrative in our world; Katie and Micah’s house is a regular home filmed with a nonprofessional camera—and we are therefore able to put ourselves in their shoes.

Media panics: this isn’t a genre so much as a response to horror, but it shows another perfect blend of the real and the fictional. It relies on a combination of realistic thinking and an emotional illogical response. At its heart, media panics, according to the readings we’ve seen, appears to come from a place of fear as well as being reliant on a degree of condescension. Concerned for the “youths,” promoters of these panics assume that “other people” aren’t smart enough, godly enough, or simply too impressionable to protect themselves from this occult threat. And yet, this doesn’t seem to be based on any fact, it assumes the worst of people. It is dependent on the belief that everyone else is, unlike yourself, susceptible. This is taken in concert with the belief that certain media—rock and roll, vinyl, etc—has the ability to corrupt. Take the McMartin preschool. These stories are obviously ludicrous, but fear came first and rationalized these children’s stories. The absurd was made real, and in doing so, became truly scary. Or take the War of the Worlds, the media panic is the result of the absurd being made believable and taken as fact. Scientists in the story commented to describe how insane concepts like “heat rays” worked, making them believable. Meanwhile, the fears of backmasking also relied on scientific explanation to explain why unconscious messages can influence the conscious mind. These experiences that are not at first scary are made so by adding an element of realism. Eventually, viewers rationalize the experience into something that isn’t just realistic but currently actually happening. The absurd situation, a belief in the foolishness of others, and a logical explanation turns births an actual horror.

These are the three genres of horror that we have seen in class, and each relies on a combination of the real and the fictional, the absurd and the logical. It appears that horror relies on the blurring of the line between the invented and the real, and stories that are based primarily on one must incorporate elements of the other in order to scare. Horror must make one question what is real and what isn’t, it must keep you wondering even after the television or radio set or book has been turned off and closed. It must make you question innocent technologies. It must keep you looking over your shoulder even when you know you’re alone.

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