Monday, March 2, 2009

Don't call me sissy

I have a no scary movie policy. I've learned from years of experience that nothing good comes from putting myself into that kind of situation. You can call me a wimp, but it's the sensible thing to do.

It's not that I have qualms with blood, gore, violence, danger, suspense, or intensity. I rather enjoy the occasional dark and creepy situation, in context. My testosterone-driven affinity for action, adventure, and explosions had allowed me to ease myself into a healthy desensitization to cinematic carnage. Why then, this arbitrary line in the sand? Let me explain...

I'm a boy. From Power Rangers to G.I. Joe, boys glorify fighting. I enjoy a good action flick here and there, and everywhere. Set against the backdrop of an epic struggle of good and evil (or grey and grey), blood will be spilled. That's simply the nature of things. Usually, such fatalities are quick and dirty - even the most brutal of situations, they're rarely sadistic. Starship Troopers is a good example (though it took me years of misspent youth to work my way up to that one). It was a pretty gory movie, with human soldiers being eviscerated and impaled by insect opponents left and right. But that's war, son. People die, but you're sure as hell not in it alone. There's camaraderie, bravery, and when you go, it's in a sudden blaze of glory.

I'm also as capable of appreciating a carefully crafted mood as the next bloke. Suspense driven thrillers like the Sixth Sense or dark, vicious fantasies like Aliens have all found acceptance and approval in my moviegoers' playbook. The difference between these movies and horror is intent.

For action, the intent is quick and frenetic entertainment - gore is a side effect, and passes quickly. In thrillers, violence is put in the context of an overarching and meaningful narrative and mood. But for horror, the intent is fear for fear's sake. Realism is not the goal, nor need it be. Every play is psychological. Shock value. Every death is protracted, as if distilling human suffering to a finely tuned art. Indeed, suffering is a key element in my distinction; but we will come back to that.

It's the lack of realism that allows many people to enjoy horror movies immensely. They giggle and smile at each implausible evisceration and uncannily brainless victim. This is either a result of years of desensitization or a firmly established awareness of the difference between reality and fantasy (or both). Yet the thing that makes cinema compelling is the "willing suspension of disbelief", and some of us are better at that than others. The scope of my imagination (though not necessarily creativity) is vast, allowing me to entirely escape into fictional universes. The unfortunate side-effect is that while I may cognitively recognize the implausibility of the horror universe, I'm still going to suspect a slasher around every corner given the right motion picture stimuli and a dark stairwell.

But what really is the limiting factor on my cognitive retention of scary images is suffering. I can't stand suffering and torture. Death should be clean and with dignity. Die Hard 2 was a pretty bloody action flick for its time, but what really stuck with me in that movie was one scene where a soldier slashed an innocent young man's throat with a knife. The folds of skin peeled apart from the wound as the man died a slow and excruciating death, gasping for air and clutching at his throat in helpless astonishment, blood dripping form the wound. It wasn't the killing and it wasn't the blood - it was the suffering.

One of the most traumatizing moments in my early cinematic exposure came watching Demolition Man starring Sylvester Stallone and one very hot young Sandra Bullock. In the movie, modern day criminals are frozen in cryostasis instead of incarcerated in jails. Stallone, a cop convicted in a botched terrorist bust, was frozen along with the terrorist himself. Hundreds of years later, Earth has become a Utopian society, completely unprepared to deal with widescale violence and psychosis. Yet somehow, the terrorist escapes, leading to Stallone being thawed out to deal with the crisis 20th century style. In the escape scene, the terrorist breaks out of his shackles while being interrogated by the warden. Finding himself locked in a cell alone with his interrogator, he seizes a fountain pen and extracts the warden's eye, leaving him writhing on the floor in pain. Meanwhile, he shoves the fresh eyeball, dripping with blood and impaled on his writing utensil, up to a retinal scanner and escapes. I was probably ten years old at the time. All the action and fighting in the movie I had no problem with, but that one scene gave me nightmares for years. Human suffering. Torture.

Perhaps you can begin to understand my issue with horror movies, then. These are movies that centre upon fear. Killing is a game. The characters, prey to be stalked and tortured - picked off one by one in the most shocking and grotesque of ways. These are images that, despite my own exposure to violence and gore, continue to scar my virgin brain. No matter the context, I'll still expect my reflection to pull out a knife and stab me when I look away after watching the Long Kiss Goodnight...

I've tasted enough suffering in movies of various genres to know what turns me off and frightens me, so the idea of an entire movie in that vein is absolutely nauseating. How disturbed was I watching just a few minutes of the horror movie Leprechaun? How uncomfortable am I just looking at posters of that murderous plaything, Chucky? The problem is not realism. It's imagery. It's psychological manipulation.

Sure, I could desensitize myself to the blood, gore, and fear through hundreds of hours of horror movie viewing (and nights of cold sweat)... but why go to such lengths to tolerate a genre that I don't at all enjoy?

If, after all this, you still choose to interpret my gentle and impressionable imagination as cowardly, then I have only one thing left to say: Bite me.

But watch out... I've been known to bite back.


The reason that I've brought this topic up today is that as part of our post-exam festivities, my friends and I headed over to the University of Toronto's Graduate House residence to watch a movie. Graduate House has a nice key-card locked movie room, with a widescreen high definition Sharp LCD TV and surround sound (but such poor acoustics that you can make out what is being said).

I suppose when you get a whole bunch of people together to have a party, things can get rough (particularly if there's drinking involved). In light of this, certain rather serious safety measures were built into the theatre room. This included a direct link to the campus police. /gasp

My friends decided to watch the Grudge. This is in clear contravention of my "no scary movie" policy. I countered this by sitting backwards and facing my friends rather than the screen. "Are you that scared?" Well, no, I wasn't scared and would not be while watching a horror movie with a whole bunch of loud friends. The issue is really what impact the film would have on me hours later when I begin thinking about it while alone in the still of the night...

Kushima: Come on... you don't smoke. You don't do cocaine. You need to exert yourself a little by at least watching this movie.

Bite me.


sandlot said...

I think you should take that picture down. It almost gave me a heart attack and reminded me of the time my friend chose the same picture as wallpaper for my laptop when i wasn't looking. I ended up screaming... at the library.

I'm a wimp too. It's okay.

a_ndy said...

Sorry for the heart attack. I felt like a genuinely creepy picture was warranted to prove I was serious in talking about this horror movie business. :P