Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Strange adventures

Yesterday the little girl was crankily negotiating the after-effects of some vaccinations administered at her one-year pediatrician’s visit, and I stayed home with her rather than subjecting her daycare providers to said crankiness (and, for that matter, rather than subjecting her to being one infant among many when what she really wanted was some individual TLC), and once again it proved entirely too difficult for me to carve out blogging time with a needy and clingy tot on one hand and the never-ending list of things needing doing around the house on the other. But, I did squeeze in some random passive internet time, some of which got me thinking about genres.

Specifically, thinking about the superhero genre versus the horror genre. Of course both are particular favorites of mine, but they have some other commonalities beyond that. They’re both particularly visual story genres, thriving in comic books and movies (not exclusively, obviously; you don’t need to tell this Stephen King fan that horror short stories and novels do all right for themselves, and prose superhero stuff isn’t unheard of, either). They’re also both fairly ghettoized, for reasons which seem arbitrary if not unfathomable; war movies or westerns or various other niche genres can have high body counts, ultra-violence, heroes on pedestals, scenery-chewing villains, etc. and being a fan of those things gets mostly “oh, ok, cool” responses, while being an avowed horror or superhero fan is far more likely to earn “oh, ok, weirdo” instead. Superhero comics begat Wizard magazine just as monster movies begat Fangoria, because those fandoms are subcultures that demanded narrowly focused publications, as opposed to everything else that’s part of the general culture.

Here’s the thing, though, coming at it from a slightly different direction: horror is a geeky interest, superheroes are a geeky interest, and since they both appeal to me I have always assumed that they appeal to the basic geek archetype in equal measure. Stephen King is on the record as a huge Batman proponent, and Gene “The Demon” Simmons of KISS is likewise a major Spider-Man fan. Or take someone like Joss Whedon, who not only just about perfectly blended superhero and horror tropes throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer but also has two big movies due out this year: a horror flick (The Cabin in the Woods) and a superhero blockbuster (The Avengers). Yes, do in fact take Joss as an example, because therein lies the crux of my recent epiphany, stemming from the shocking amount of difficulty I had in finding people among my geeky cadre of friends who were willing to go see Cabin in the Woods in the theater with me. Because apparently being heavily into superheroes (and various other deep-end geeky pursuits) does not guarantee that one is all that into horror. Who knew?

I went wandering down this trail of thought again yesterday after a conversation which had nothing to do with Joss Whedon movies, a conversation with people I only know as fellow superhero comics fans online, where more than one person reacted to the very concept of the horror genre with a quick dismissive “not my cup of tea”. Once again this threw me for a loop, but as I saw the parallels to the movie theater excursion I realized this divide must run pretty deep. And I’ve come to the conclusion that superhero stories and horror stories are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Next time, a 2000-word discourse on why werewolves are the monsters most frequently appropriated as superhero protagonists!
They’re both extreme forms of escapism, but from opposite ends of the spectrum. Superheroes are wish-fulfillment fantasies, presenting protagonists who are (theoretically) embodiments of everything the audience wishes they could be. Sometimes this is a good thing, when the embodiment is a paragon of virtue (like Superman), and sometimes it’s arguably less of a good thing, when the embodiment is a cold-blooded revenge fantasy (like the Punisher) but it’s a pretty consistent throughline. Horror stories are nightmare fuel, presenting antagonists who are embodiments of the things the audience is afraid of. But neither one is terribly realistic, or likely to resemble what the average person would encounter in daily life, even if the superhero in question is an unpowered vigilante or the terror being examined is a plausible serial killer.

I think the protagonist/antagonist shift is noteworthy enough to dwell on it a little more. Comicbook series are named after superheroes, and the reader expects to follow the adventures of Green Lantern or Wolverine or whoever as he fights a never-ending (sometimes rotating) string of bad guys. Horror novels and movies are named after the monsters. It’s Night of the Living Dead, not Night of the Human Survivors; It, not The Kids from Derry; Dracula, not Van Helsing (yeah I know they made a movie called Van Helsing but that’s hardly a horror film). And whoever gets the title billing is basically in control of the story.

That might be the fundamentally most important distinction between the two genres, then: superhero stories are about promoting order and defending the status quo, whereas horror stories are about chaos. In a prototypical superhero tale there might be some innocent victims who are plot devices, but you can pretty much count on the hero saving the day and evil being defeated without any losses. In horror, there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. From Friday the 13th to Alien, the good girl may have survived the psycho killer’s rampage, but all of her friends are wormfood. And in the sequels, it may very well be that none of the original cast return to have more adventures … except for the villain.

But there’s no guarantee of a downer ending, either, and that’s the really subversive part. A lot of horror stories end ambiguously, with “The End …?” or the equivalent, and ambiguity equals chaos. The audience goes into a superhero story knowing how it’s all going to end and wanting to revel in the awesomeness of the getting there. The audience goes into a horror story with no idea what’s going to happen; maybe terror will stalk in the night but ultimately be vanquished, or maybe terror will pile up corpses right up to the last frame or page … and YOU COULD BE NEXT! So horror isn’t about wallowing in the awfulness of blood and tears and depravity, not entirely at any rate. It’s exhilarating, just like superheroes are exhilarating, but with fear fueling the adrenaline. Instead of the sensation of flying, it’s the sensation of spinning around with your eyes closed. And that’s not for everyone.

Of course there’s exceptions to all of this. Deconstructed superhero stories often have evil triumphing or the hero failing, and even straightforward comics sometimes feature villains as anti-hero title characters (oddly enough, those are consistently among my least favorites). And it’s certainly possible to come across a horror story that’s both gratuitous and yet somehow predictable and boring. But as broad strokes go, I think I’m onto something. So there may be a general geek tendency to seek out escapism in the strange and fantastic, but even so there will be a wide scope-of-humanity range in the deeper reasons for seeking it out. If it’s for comfort and reassurance, looking to a fictional world that makes sense and plays by the rules because the real world often doesn’t, then superhero stories are the right kind of strange but horror stories are not. If it’s for the spice of variety, novelty for novelty’s sake, then either superheroes or monsters can meet the need.

Undoubtedly there are some geeks out there who really don’t care for superhero stuff and are exclusively all about the horror, but I can’t claim to have ever really made any friends who fall into that category. Clearly those are the people to whom I would say “oh, ok … weirdo.”

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