What Else Can It Do?

BY ELI RYDER

Man in Smoke.jpg

I saw a trailer yesterday for a film called Crawl, in which a young woman must save her injured father from being trapped in the crawl space of their home while a hurricane brings on rising flood waters—and there’s a gator-like monster down there with them. Individually, those components are pretty intense. Compiled, they’re near unbearable.

There are about a thousand outstanding horror films, novels, and stories whose only goal is to scare. The Big Four—Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and all their sequels come to mind. And sure, they’re immensely popular for good reason. They do the scare thing brilliantly, the gross-out impeccably. And audiences by and large leave their seats a little shaky, a little sweaty, and glad the ride is over until the next time they sit down. There’s high entertainment happening there, no doubt.

And I am certain Crawl is going to do that scare thing really well, too. Being a claustrophobe with a recurring drowning nightmare, I’m basically the target audience for that film’s scares. Hell, I got twitchy just during the trailer. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. Sure, that’s the point of scary movies, right? To feel that life-or-death intensity without the risk? I’m all in on that, for sure. But can it be more? Can it do more?

I think about films like Get Out, Us, Hush and Alien, whose metaphorical content are intended to facilitate social conversations as a result of their scare tactics. Yes, they are scary films, but the fear they generate serves another purpose deeply intertwined with the horror itself. These films force us to confront biases and misconceptions about the machinations of society, the people we share those societies with, and most importantly, ourselves. Often, those reflections aren’t comfortable. But they result in a deeper understanding of, oh god forgive the phrase, the human condition as it manifests in experiences different from our own. And they can validate perspectives often overlooked by mainstream entertainment, and even horror specifically.  

Then I think about stories like Stephen King’s The Body, which is hard to classify as horror but whose undertones suggest an evil in Ace Merrill running deeper than natural human assholery—a suggestion which is later solidified in his Needful Things. The Body is undeniably classic bildungsroman, but is driven by the face-your-fears prospect of seeing a dead body, the ultimate mark of lost innocence. The film adaptation thrives without the supernatural undertones, resulting in an ultimately satisfying experience. But the novella? Heartburstingly emotional because it’s all the great things the film is—plus scary.

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels ramps that up a notch, taking the bildungsroman into werewolf territory and letting it grow teeth. I can’t remember a time a book hurt so bad with all the good feelings; Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door hurt worse than anything I’ve ever read, but Mongrels does it with love and nostalgia, whereas Ketchum uses a sledgehammer and a basement.

All of this admittedly vague exposition leads me to this: What else can your genre do? I love horror. Love a good scary movie, and the most recent Pet Sematary is almost perfect in that regard. It’s everything a straight-ahead horror film should be. The film stabs the right notes at the right times and then twists the knife fantastically—and as such, is great entertainment. But I sometimes want more out of my entertainment.  

Which is why in my own writing, and in what I watch and read, I gravitate toward the emotional truth a piece creates, and am always looking for the reason why we endure the fear. Just that in itself, enduring the fear, can be the point, but in the case of Crawl, wherein I’m actually negatively anxious about the experience, will there be a payoff beyond playing in that anxiety? For some, it certainly won’t need anything else. For me? That anxiety is a high price of admission, and I’m going to be looking for, am always looking for, the grand destination to which all that twitching and sweating leads.