I’ve been reading up on Prometheus and the Alien movies lately. Why? Well, here’s a Tesh secret: I’ve never seen any of them, and I never will. I simply do not watch R-rated movies (or play M-rated games). Still, they are sort of a Big Deal in the film industry, with echoes through the game industry. My college degree was aimed at letting me work in film. Maybe someday I still will, but for now, I work in games. It behooves me to understand the cultural touchpoints that the Alien storyline offer to my professional interests. If nothing else, understanding a bit about Aliens means I can communicate a bit better with those I work with. ”Ripley in a Powerloader” isn’t exactly “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“, but the principle is the same (and if you get that reference without looking at the link, you understand what I’m getting at).
Some of this is simply being aware of the linguistic and cultural effects of the Aliens IP, but I’ll admit, I’m also a bit curious as to why they became such a Big Deal. I find horror movies to be… very distasteful. It’s noted sometimes that the first Alien movie was a horror movie that happened to be cloaked in science fiction elements. The sequel was apparently more of a prototypical Action Movie with Alien overlays, and the others were action…y. Prometheus sounds like it’s more of an Alien-like film, in that it’s more about the horror with a little sci-fi musing for flavor. Not having first-hand experience with these, I’m only speaking to what I’ve read about them over the years, so if those hasty generalizations are inaccurate, well, I’m not maliciously and intentionally misrepresenting them, at least. I’m just wrong.
So why do I care? Oddly, I find myself fascinated not with the subject material so much as why they are even hits in the first place. It’s the same sort of fascination I have for trying to figure out the appeal of the endless zombie movies and games, like Romero’s stuff, F.E.A.R. or Silent Hill (and Shamus has a handful of really good articles on horror in games, especially Silent Hill). Y’see, I don’t like zombies, but I think zombie game mechanics are actually a fair bit of fun. They also serve as interesting social commentary sometimes. Still, horror is not the sort of content I’m looking for when I think of “entertainment” or “enlightenment”, and it’s strange to me that these things make as much money as they do.
It seems to me that there are a few key concepts to dig into. One, Fear. Two, Horror. Three, the difference between the two. Four, catharsis. Five, killing monsters. Six, voyeurism. Seven, schadenfreude. Eight, fiction as a coping strategy for avoiding awful, horrible truths. I haven’t really wrapped my head around all of it yet, and it’s a low priority with everything else I’m working on, but still, there’s something there or else this particular flavor of entertainment wouldn’t be making any money.
Also, a thought question I proposed on Twitter a little while back:
What would a horror film look like if there were no gore, no monsters, and most importantly, no death?
To which I might add:
What would the horror genre look like if death itself became unhinged in any of a variety of curious ways?
All this to ask, ultimately:
What makes horror stories most interesting, and why? Can that be explored outside the realm of R-rated and M-rated schlock and actually be approached in a truly mature manner? (I reject the ESRB’s definition of “mature”, which is a prime example of Orwellian doublethink, where most M-rated content is deeply immature.)
Also, and maybe more importantly, what really constitutes “horror”?
It seems to me that there are significant differences between Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven and Ridley Scott, but all seem to play within the “horror” frame at some level. I have a very strong dislike for the gore, profanity and “torture porn” that might constitute the bulk of modern horror, but at the same time, I am often fascinated with stories that chase down the implications of bad decisions and how people deal with crisis, tragedy and their own failures. That said, I prefer stories that show people learning, or walking a path of redemption, rather than stories that are dystopic, deeply cynical or calculated to be offensive.
I think there’s value in stories and entertainment, value in learning from someone else’s mistakes… but delighting in those mistakes and the often dark, soul-crushing trappings of the horror genre seems to me to be unhealthy. I think understanding horror and fear is important to understanding life, so there’s undoubtedly value in fiction exploring them. There really is Bad Stuff out there, and sometimes we have to deal with it. It’s just… I think there’s a line between understanding it and embracing it, and flirting with that line seems like a bad idea.
This isn’t all just academic, either. It’s practical, as I’m writing what will likely become a series of novels, largely dealing with a fictional alternate history’s huge war and how key characters deal with it. Death is a bit unhinged there. My characters will wind up living through things that nobody should hope to live through. It’s important to face the horrors, though, and ultimately, to prevail in spite of them. As in so many stories, understanding the psychology of these characters will be essential to selling the events and character arcs as interesting and believable, even in unbelievable settings.
So… I’m getting there. I’m not angling for the horror market in any way, but I want to understand the psychology of fear and horror so that I can make the most of them without sliding into the Nietzscheian abyss that waits out there in the dark. It’s good to know where the dark is and how to fight it, but delighting in the fight is dangerous.
Edited to add this link to a comic summary of the first Alien movie, just because it’s good.