Saturday, October 27, 2007

How Can They Like This Better than Christmas?

I hate Halloween.

I hate the creepiness, the figures hanging in effigy, the other "decor" - unpleasant, dirty, repugnant stuff, like cobwebs, slime, blood, bones, and very large bugs and rodents.

My kids love it. I have to admit I do enjoy the kids' enjoyment of dressing up, and we dress up with them. We still haven't topped the year we went as a medieval family with a Power Ranger.

Anyway, my kids are at a Halloween party right now, while I'm alone on call at the O.R. desk in a desolate section of the hospital, dimly lit, a little spooky when the lights aren't all on. And I'm sitting here surfing through Youtube for clips of the scary movies that made a permanent mark in my limbic system when I was a child back in the '70's. Silly, huh? Man, there was some SCARY stuff back then - not the digitally enhanced, over-the-top gore that has permeated more recent horror movies, but the more insidious kind, the ones with sinister PEOPLE, spine-chilling settings, and psychologically disturbing STORIES. Audrey Rose. Rosemary's Baby. And the two that I watched on TV at age 8 or younger and that terrify me still: The Changeling and "Amelia" from Trilogy of Terror.

"Amelia" is about a horrible, possessed Zuni warrior doll that resembles one of those shrunken heads with really sharp teeth. It comes to life and terrorizes the woman who purchased him, stabbing her repeatedly with his little warrior knife. I can still remember being afraid of small shadows in my parents' house when I was a kid because of the scene in which the woman glimpses its shadow flitting across the carpet in her apartment. The Changeling is really masterful. I really don't like horror movies at all, but this one is more a mystery/ghost story type of thing, with great acting by George C. Scott, who also stars in one of my favorite film versions of A Christmas Carol. Now that I'm an adult and a parent with a husband who has dedicated his law career to advocating for victims of child abuse and neglect, the film has a poignancy for me that went completely over my 7- or 8-year-old head when I first saw scenes from it at a family gathering. Back then I was just creeped out by the banging sounds.

Thinking about scary movies and Halloween got me thinking about fear and the nature of evil. The two are so inextricably intertwined. Does evil exist, or are we all just slaves to brain chemistry? If people become evil but are not born evil, what makes them turn? What is scarier in these films - insanity (Misery, The Shining, Fatal Attraction), human evil (The Silence of the Lambs, Dead Ringers, A Clockwork Orange, Halloween), or supernatural evil (Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Ring, The Omen, Nightmare on Elm Street, Nosferatu, 30 Days of Night)? Personally I think nothing's worse than the capacity to be cruel with relish and without mercy (Saw, Audition, Wolf Creek, The Last House on the Left, Hostel).

I've noticed some recurring preoccupations in scary movies that I think say a lot about what we human beings fear the most:

-loss of control or understanding of the world around us (The Forgotten, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Premonition, The Grudge)
-possession by an incomprehensible force, a subset of the loss-of-control theme (The Car, The Skeleton Key, Fallen, Child's Play)
-metamorphosis (The Fly) and/or dehumanization (The Stepford Wives, Children of the Corn, Dawn of the Dead)
-abnormality (pretty much all horror films)
-being trapped, tortured, or preyed upon - basically, anything involving pain, violence, isolation, or threat of death (again, pretty much all scary movies)
-ineradicable villains (Friday the 13th)

In graduate school I learned that at some point children develop a strong sense of what is "to be expected" and what isn't, and that they react in one of two ways: by finding the unexpected or abnormal element funny (for example, a red ball on the nose when they look in the mirror) or finding it extremely unsettling or scary. What I can't figure out is why some people really ENJOY the scare of a scary movie. I rarely do. I really regret having seen Gothika and The Butterfly Effect, for instance. There's no way to remove a striking image or idea from one's visual memory, and the negative energy emanating from a lot of the genre, I think, could ultimately be spiritually toxic, like a mind-contaminant. That being said, there are a few film thrillers / scary movies, and one terrifying play, that have enough admirable elements (intriguing story / well-written script / fascinating actors) to make them worth seeing. It's my List of the Month. If anyone has some scary movies that have stayed with them for one reason or another, let me know! I'm curious.

My "Favorite" Scary Movies and Play

The Seventh Sign - a B movie if ever there was one, but one near and dear to my heart from my teenage years, mostly because I had a crush on the lawyer-husband guy in it and even came up with a litmus test straight out of the movie to see who would end up being my future husband...long story...even weirder is that when I applied my test to my husband, long before we were married, he passed it...! Ah, the power of self-fulfilling prophecies...!

Psycho - gotta have some Hitchcock on here, and this just might be the defintive one for Halloween.

Dragonfly - a strange but entertaining ghost story; I'll never look at a parrot the same way ("Honey, I'm home!" Oooooh, creeeeeeeeepy).

The Sixth Sense - because some people do experience seeing dead people, and I could name a few!

Primal Fear - not a horror movie per se, more of a murder mystery; Ed Norton is stellar.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose - I was surprised at how much I admired this movie, I think because I enjoyed the court-room trial aspect of it, the clash between science and faith, the courage of the priest as he confronted what he believed to be ultimate evil.

The Woman in Black - saw the stage version in London and found it so scary (but also excellent) I couldn't sleep that night! SPOO-OOKY!


Many thanks to Anali for this great, highly addicting Pumpkin Simulator for anyone who wants to do a dry run (or 2, or 3...) before carving a real one. Makes Halloween a little more enjoyable for us Halloweenophobes!


Child Person said...

Have to admit I might never have come across your blog for various reasons, but sure enjoyed this piece! Guess I'll have to check you out again.
Is Anesthesioboist a combination of Anesthesiologist and Oboist as it seems? I'm amazed at the correlation between medical people and musicians. Is there some reason other than the dedication to detail that is necessary for both? Best to you....
Take aware,
Nancy Gray

T. said...

Hi, Nancy - Thanks so much for stopping by! Yes, the moniker is a combo of "anesthesiologist" (my day job) and "oboist" (my newest extracurricular activity - I just started learning!). Not sure why so many of us docs gravitate to music too...we even have a mostly-doc orchestra here! I'm really enjoying the journey (in music and in blogging, which is also new for me). All the best to you!

Child Person said...

So P.S.!
Went back to explore your blog and my questions are basically all answered. You can guess I'm not methodical enought to be either medically or musically inclined! Thanks again for a great read!
Take aware,
Nancy Gray

T. said...

Hi again, Nancy - checked out your blog also, and want to thank you for having a blog on such an important issue. I mentioned my husband's career revolves around child protection...Keep up the work!

Lisa Johnson said...

Hi T! I can't say that I like Halloween more than Christmas, but I have always loved Halloween - all the candy and trick-or-treating with my friends. I really had a lot of fun. I've even dressed up and gone to some parties as an adult.

I used to read a lot of scary books and watch horor films when I didn't live alone. I do get scared easily, but I still enjoy a thriller every now and then!

Happy Halloween! I have a fun pumpkin carving game on my blog if you want to try it! ; )

gelci72 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gelci72 said...

Anali, I am TOTALLY hooked on the pumpkin carving game! (URL here: I just made 3 and my daughter's made 2 already. Thank you! You cheered up my Halloween blues.

October 28, 2007 10:28 AM

AATF Eastern Massachusetts said...

I have no interest in horror movies per se and think they probably DO have a negative effect on the psyches of young people who include a lot of them in their diet. I still remember walking out of a film because it was too scary. It was "The Red House", if memory serves. I was only 6 at the time, and my brother and I used to go to the movies on Saturdays—for 10 cents, which will date me a bit. Film or video images can remain for years, buried or not, and I doubt that all the blood and gore served up nowadays to kids will be without some negative fallout down the line.

Lisa Johnson said...

You're welcome T! ; )

Anonymous said...

Not related to this -- except for one Halloween story -- but please check out Grand Rounds today at Some moving and insightful stories about experiences in hospitals. Thanks.

speducator lvc said...

This entry took me to a couple of places, I admit. First, I found myself laughing out loud at the memory of Trilogy of Terror. First saw it as a teen -- my mother talked and talked about how terrified she was when it came on TV one dark night. She apparently stayed on the phone for most of it with my equally-terrified aunt. My jaded teen self watched it and, while drawn in by the suspense, found it hilarious. For years, the "ayayayayaya" of the little doll became a punch line.

Then you mentioned the more contemporary fright movies that seem to replace suspense with gore and terror. I can't watch those, but I can share a story. A former student -- perhaps the most abused and abusive I ever taught -- was obsessed with Freddie Kruger. Obsessed in that way that only an unusually strong 12-year-old with the cognitive and emotional development of a toddler can be. It didn't take long to figure out that Kruger had melded in his mind with his primary abuser. Though his "Freddie Kruger" was in jail and wouldn't be coming back, I couldn't promise that there were no other monsters out there waiting to prey on him. They did -- at his therapeutic group home placement...and work done after the fact to heal the mind and body was little comfort for him or those who worked with him. We truly live in a frightening world. Those monsters are real. I loathe the movies that make sport of fear.

My deep thanks to your hubby and all those on the front lines fighting to protect kids.

T. said...

I am so glad you brought up such a striking and tragic example of how the arts and entertainment can really haunt us (double-entendre intended). I am not completely anti-scary-story - there are some well-written/well-produced ones out there that have some value - but gratuitous fright and gore can be over-the-top, obscene, and potentially harmful.

At the risk of offending its supporters, this is why I thought Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was disgraceful, as someone who strives to honor medical science, history, and spiritual learning. I liked parts of it, I truly did - mostly the home life / nonviolent parts - but the rest of it was a horror show with no spiritual purpose, unless you're a proponent of the worst, unhealthiest, most pastorally degrading sort of atonement theology (which obviously I'm not). Wallowing in depictions of X-treme torture seems ultimately anti-spiritual to me, though I do appreciate Monica Bellucci's point in one interview about the film when she described it as a violent film against violence. If that were actually how it came across it would be better, but the bloodbath was overdone. Anyone subbjected to that would have gone into shock and not made it to Calvary. Jesus was not some uber-strong superhuman...maybe that's what's at the heart of my disagreement with Mel Gibson's interpretation of the life of Christ.

speducator lvc said...

I hope I didn't state my case too strongly. I don't mind a little suspense...we sometimes work out our internal nightmares and demons by toying with and controlling the external ones. I'm just vehemently against those who peddle terror, hate, and obscenity as entertainment.

I'm glad to find someone else who thought that the gratuitous violence in Mel Gibson's Passion only detracted from the lessons he could have shared on the meaning of Jesus' life.

ps -- I'm lovin' the pumpkin carving link!

T. said...

I may be the one guilty of stating a case too strongly: I have to add here that I agree with a point my husband made when we were talking about this - that Jesus and thousands of other crucifixion victims WERE tortured to death, a fact we shouldn't gloss over or turn a blind eye to, and there is value in remembering that cruelty of human beings to other human beings, because it goes on today. Every day.

I just object to the gore-nography of Gibson's portrayal, because I think it feeds into and perpetuates a commonplace but, in my belief, untenable view of Christian theology, an interpretation of Jesus' falling prey to the political machinations of his time and subsequent execution as redemptive because somehow a bloodthirsty god needs a blood sacrifice to "pay" for the sins of humanity. Even prophets who spoke hundreds of years before Christ criticized blood sacrifice and concepts of atonement. This kind of emphasis on blame and punishment seems primitive to me, especially in light of the example Jesus set with his own life, affirming our goodness and love-ability rather than an inherently "fallen" nature, and living out the idea he expressed to the woman caught in adultery: "I do NOT condemn you; go and sin no more."