Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dark rites

So now that things are finally back to normal(ish) around the ol’ salt mines, not to mention the fact that we’ve completed the running gauntlet of birthdays extending from my son’s in September through mine, my Very Little Bro’s and my mom’s in early October, I am now more or less mentally freed up to concentrate on things that really matter. Like Halloween!

Specifically, what better time than the darkening-ever-darker days of late October to catch up on horror movies? I have a review for the 1001 Movies Blog Club lined up for tomorrow, and another one due in November, so in the meantime I figure on maxing out my Netflix membership by dipping into some less reputable cinema. All things in moderation and all that.

Of course there is a bit of a conundrum inherent in that plan, given that I do nearly all my movie-watching these days on the VRE, and there’s something slightly impolite about watching gory flicks even on a small portable player screen while sitting right next to a complete stranger. I’ll probably work around this by taking a couple of days to consume each movie, watching them only in the mornings when I can sit alone in a single-file upperdeck seat on the train, and switching off to something (arguably) less objectionable like Smallville in the evenings when it’s more crowded.

(Side question: what does it take for something to qualify as Halloween-evocative? If I were to make a themed music playlist for a Halloween party, beyond obvious lead-pipe locks such as “Werewolves of London” and “Running with the Devil”, how tangential could I get? “Candy Girl” by New Edition? What about, speaking of Smallville, “Superman” by R.E.M., since people dress up as Superman for Halloween year after year after year? Discuss.)

Anyway, a macabre movie festival-for-one is on tap. Which has me thinking about horror flicks in general and why they tend to have the core audience that they do. And something occurred to me which had never quite crystallized for me before (amazingly enough considering this is going to be the third time – after this and this – that I’ve ruminated deeply on the genre itself in just the past six months).

Here’s the thing, as the philosophers say: all of us ain’t nothin’ but mammals. Deep down inside we all still have a lot of inescapably embedded neurological hardwiring primarily concerned with surviving in the wild, both in the sense of staying a step ahead of death and also propagating the species. And despite how far removed we are from the primal concerns of defining ourselves as predators rather than prey, we still gravitate towards culturally-acceptable outlets for processing all of that. Especially when we’re in middle school and high school.

In my (about to be grossly oversimplified) experience, there was kind of bell curve distribution of archetypes for the kids in my class. (Actually, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering how hugely significant gender roles are in adolescence, but let me state for the record I’m really just talking about the boys here.) Because I was lucky enough not to be stuck in a broken, failing school system, most of the other guys were decent enough students, and a fair number of them played some kind of sport or another, so that’s the middle of the curve: student-athletes. Dead-center would be the most popular kids, who were good at sports and aggressively mediocre at studying. Move away from the center to the left and you have worse and worse GPA’s; move to the right and the academic achievement goes up. You also have falling popularity in both directions, as well as declining sports participation. In other words, the continuum runs like this: burnouts, dumb jocks, C-average jocks, smart jocks, and nerds.

There’s no question that the jocks have it made in terms of satisfying their fundamental imperative to assert male dominance. That’s kind of what organized sports are all about. And the burnouts never really have to worry about anyone questioning their inherent virile toughness, either, since they tend to be the ones getting suspended for fighting and other related outbursts. Those four-fifths of the continuum are well acquainted with their inner primate. Nerds, not so much.

Some nerds, the pure nerds who are essentially defined by their intellectual nature to the exclusion of any social skills or extracurricular passions, basically concede the point and don’t even attempt anything like a shot at alpha maleness. But others, and here of course I’m getting at geeks like me, may very well feel and respond to the urge to do something that shows they might aspire to the minimal criteria for mating. Assuming, though, that a geek is a geek (through whatever chicken-v.-egg happenstance) because he’s a little off, i.e. not into sports like the other kids, or into his own pursuits no one else shares, or whathaveyou, then what possible play can he make? He might not be able to show that he’s fast and strong, but can he show that he’s tough or brave or any other traditionally male trait that’s supposed to be evolutionarily advantageous?

I would argue that if someone makes a movie that is specifically conceived and constructed in order to freak the audience out right in their amygdalae, and someone else can sit through said movie without looking away, such an act of consumption could be construed as a testament to the viewer’s mettle. It’s a stretch, I know. Sounds pretty silly to tease it apart and lay it all out like that, and I’m doubtful that very many pencil-necked fifteen year old boys who adore House of 1000 Corpses would cop to that being any kind of motivating factor at all. I’m certainly not insisting that it’s some kind of conscious calculation of cost-benefit analysis at any rate, not even for little old overthinking fifteen year old me back in the day. But I do think there was a subconscious element at play, if only in my personal case. I remember discovering that not only the roller-coaster ride of adrenaline during a horror movie was fun, but also that the feeling of accomplishment upon making it to the end of a horror movie was enjoyable, and something I prided myself on. Not by directly comparing myself to the quarterback of the football team in terms of our respective guts, but maybe distantly and indirectly. For that matter, I’m sure I knew I couldn’t legitimately hope to socially unseat the popular jocks just because of a high threshold for scary cinematic imagery, but within and among my circle of friends we all absolutely jockeyed for dominance.

I mentioned in my earlier post about horror movie sleepovers how falling asleep in the dark was easier knowing my three friends were in the room with me. That was really only a half-truth; it was and it wasn’t. Because watching an entire slasher flick was only the beginning of the ritual. Then we would spend a significant portion of the wee hours trying to spook each other, trying to prove each other’s weakness with a well-timed startle that would make someone scream like a girl and show how wound up the movie had really gotten them. That’s the part that really cements the whole theory in my mind, because there is not a shred of doubt in me what we were on about during those late night marathons of messing with each other. Why are (younger male) geeks drawn to horror movies? Because we need some way to prove we are in fact male, and we don’t have a lot of other options at the time.

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