Let's talk about horror.
As we work on Night of the Living Dead, I've been reading a wonderful book called The Philosophy of Horror, by Noël Carroll. I've been a lifelong horror fan, but until now, I haven't really thought that much about what horror is, why I love it, what it does for its audience, and why horror has had such a resurgence at certain chaotic times in our cultural history.
Some people trace the horror genre back to Mary Shelley's amazing novel Frankenstein (which I've just finished reading for the first time), but I see its roots much further back, at least as far back as Shakespeare's gory, blood-filled Titus Adronicus and Macbeth in the 1590s.
So what is horror and why do we love it?
The Philosophy of Horror explains that unlike most storytelling forms, horror is defined by how it affects its audience. The Western is defined by its setting. The Musical is defined by its storytelling language. The Love Story is defined by its content. But horror is defined by its effect on us – it literally makes us feel horror. It's the one storytelling genre in which the emotions of the characters are also the emotions of the audience. In a romantic comedy, we don't feel sad when the lovers have a big fight at the end of Act I, because we know the form and we know it'll all get resolved. In a murder mystery, we know the killer will be caught; we're not emotionally invested as much as trying to solve the mystery ourselves, in competition with the characters...? But with horror, when the characters feel revulsion and horror, so do we – even though we know it's not real. The characters and audience are connected in a more deeply emotional way.
As Carroll points out, there are other forms that deal with monsters and other scary stuff – fairy tales, fables, classical odyssey adventures – but there's a fundamental difference. In those other forms, monsters are a "normal" part of the world; in horror, monsters are a violation, a corruption of the natural order. Or to put it a different way, in those other forms, monsters are an ordinary part of an extraordinary world; in horror, monsters are an extraordinary part of our ordinary world. Like Dexter. And Tony Soprano.
In terms of content, horror stories can be split into two main categories: those that locate Evil "out there," in the woods, in others; and those that locate Evil inside us. Interestingly, Night of the Living Dead is both at the same time.
But in contrast to Romero's later films, Night of the Living Dead spends very little screen time with the zombies and it shows us very little gore. Despite the gallons of fake blood and animal entrails in his other movies, Romero's stories aren't really about blood and gore; they're about surviving till morning.
Just as Romero combined the ideas of the Evil outside and the Evil inside, he was also first to combine the splatter film with the traditional horror genre, and his work led directly to other classics like Halloween and An American Werewolf in London. The splatter film's zombie cousin, "torture porn" (no heart, no soul, no metaphor) removes the traditional horror, and reduces itself to just a pageant of blood and gore. Think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, I Spit on Your Grave in 1978, and Ichi the Killer in 2001.
Almost all splatter films (and their subgenre, the slasher film), including Night of the Living Dead, follow the same narrative arc. The action is elimination, just like The Three Little Pigs and Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (later re-titled And Then There Were None). The process of elimination isn't unique to horror – just look at Spelling Bee or Hands on a Hardbody – but it's a staple of the horror genre, and it's the foundation of most zombie movies.
So why do we love horror? The easy answer is that horror is like a roller coaster, a vehicle for us to scare ourselves in a context we know is safe, to feel the horrors of our primitive ancestors, but without the danger of being torn apart by a wild animal. Today the wild animal is the film zombie and the tearing apart is safely confined to the screen.
But the deeper answer is that horror movies and stories reflect their times and the fears of those times. In the era of the War on Terror, if we're afraid of our government, of its surveillance of us, of its willingness to torture, we work through those fears by seeing torture porn like Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005). We scare ourselves, and afterward we get back in our car and go home. Fear is a valuable human tool that warns us of danger, but in our modern society we need that tool less than we did a thousand years ago. Just as we exercise our bodies in imitation of the physical labor of the past, we also exercise our emotions by seeing horror movies.
The great acting teacher Stella Adler said, "The theatre is a spiritual and social X-ray of its time." But as with classic fairy tales, we each take from these stories what we need, in this place, at this time. And each of us takes something different.
The same year Romero's film opened, another film Wild in the Streets showed us a less metaphoric but still potent horror for many mainstream Americans, as a teenager becomes President and puts LSD in the water supply (the same year the US outlawed LSD). The classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner tackled racial fears, and the psychedelic animated film Yellow Submarine challenged mainstream values about almost everything. Soon after, Richard Nixon would invent the War on Drugs, primarily to scare adult voters into supporting him. There was plenty for America to fear and Romero tapped into all that.
1968 was also the year Hair opened on Broadway, chock full of nudity, sex, and obscenity, in stark contrast to Hello, Dolly!, which was still running. Everything was changing.
So what do those same metaphors offer us in 2013? Today the zombies may represent the racial Other, or an oppressive government, or moral punishment from God. Today, liberals may see the zombies as angry Tea Party types, trying to split our country in two. Conservatives may see the zombies as illegal immigrants, flooding across our border, taking over our culture – and significantly, not speaking English.
The zombies are the ultimate Others, but they are also us.
And in the anger and fighting of these trapped human characters in Night of the Living Dead we can see how we turned on each other during the 60s, how we turned on each other after the attacks of 9/11, how we turned on each other after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Fear brings out the worst in us and in the characters trapped in this farm house.
And once you let them in the door, it's all over.
The metaphors of horror serve us even if we're not conscious of them. They feed our subconscious, either for good or ill, even if we don't consciously recognize what the metaphor stands for. Either we'll see in this story a validation of our fears or a cautionary tale about giving into our fears. But one way or another, it will work on us all. And when the roller coaster ride is over, we'll get in our cars and go home to the safety of our locked doors and our Facebook friends who all agree with us.
But we'll know the horror isn't gone. It's still there, even when we turn away from it. But having seen Night of the Living Dead, we will have worked through our fear, at least for the moment, purging that which would otherwise cripple us. As Adam Lowenstein says in the documentary The American Nightmare, "The apocalypse isn't now. The apocalypse is always."
Which is why we'll always need horror.
Long Live the Musical!