Let me start by saying I am the world’s biggest scaredy cat when it comes to horror movies. For this reason, I had a love/hate relationship with Halloween growing up. On the one hand, it meant getting to dress up and go around getting free candy. On the other hand, it meant having to be ready at any moment to cover my eyes with my hands to avoid whatever horror movie trailer just came on TV. I mean, seriously ESPN, little ol’ me was just trying to watch some sports highlights so he could pretend to know what he’s talking about with his friends at school and you blast me with some demon haunting a poor family in Connecticut? Come on now! So, gather round strangers, as you listen to this other stranger—hi I’m John—do a little story time. In the end, I hope that if you’re a scaredy cat like me, you’ll maybe give some horror movies a shot. And perhaps finally see what all the buzz, or screaming, is about.
Just to set the bar of my level of scaredy-cat and prove I’m one of you, let me tell you about when the first season of The Walking Dead came out (yes, I know, it’s a TV show, bear with me!). I vividly remember spending the night at my best friend James’ house when the first season premiered. James and my other friend were dying to watch it (pun intended). So, not wanting to admit my fears, we binge-watched the first three episodes of the season. And being the totally cool kid that I was, I had no problem with it at all. Mainly because I learned a trick when I was younger to purposely blur my vision while it still looks like my eyes are open (little did I know it makes me go cross-eyed). But when it came time to call it a night and sleep in James’ basement? I stayed up until sunrise playing a rip-off version of Pong on my flip phone and sweating under several blankets, wondering how I’d escape the house if a zombie came smashing through the window.
Meanwhile, my friends slept soundly. I was 13, by the way. So, naturally, I kept my scaredy-cat nature hidden for most of my life. This was one of many instances where I let myself succumb to peer pressure and watch something scary, only to spend the night without any sleep. And for the record, I ended up loving The Walking Dead.
But evidently, I spent a lot of late nights in October hiding under my bed sheets playing my Nintendo DS until I was sure no ghosts were waiting to possess me or bite my feet off if I stuck them out of the covers. As a result, despite being the film lover I am, I wrote off horror movies for a long time. I didn’t see them as anything other than ridiculous cash grabs based on a more shock-than-awe strategy. Anytime I ended up watching one, see The Walking Dead scenario above, it always ended up adding years to my life in anxiety and staining my sheets with sweat. And it wasn’t the gore, mind you, that put me off. At least not directly. I grew up watching Tarantino films and every war movie I could get my hands on without my mom finding out. I was a big fan of Game of Thrones and love Amazon’s The Boys. Neither of which shies away from bloodshed, especially the latter. With horror, to me, it had always been the evilness of it. Every horror movie I seemed to watch always ended with the demons or murderers or demon murderers winning. What’s up with that?! What are you trying to tell me, except don’t let yourself be mysteriously kidnapped and your head placed in a metal cage that’s gonna explode any minute? I just didn’t see the merit. Or the fun. Or anything other than things that will definitely keep me up at night.
However, my perspective began to shift when I took a film studies class in the final semester of my undergraduate studies. Throughout the class, we had to watch various films on our own and come back and discuss them as a group. Imagine my horror (pun intended again) when I saw we had been assigned The Babadook. For the uninitiated, The Babadook is a film by Jennifer Kent released in 2014 with much critical and non-critical appraisal. But what is lesser known is that it was the most anxiety-ridden school assignment I ever received. That is until I actually sat down and watched it.
I loved my film studies class and wanted to make movies one day, so I knew I had to watch the film. I also knew, given my track record with the horror genre, I’d have to be smart about it. So, I set up my laptop in the middle of the day in our school library. Not in some corner either, smack in the middle where people constantly walked by. I needed the extra protection. Yet, despite my precautionary measures, I knew I’d be up all night once again by the time the credits rolled. But this time, not because I was scared. Because I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about one of the best films I’d ever seen.
The Babadook showed me something that no other horror film I’d seen up to that point had. There are other ways to do horror than relying solely on jump scares. The film starts out with a scene in slow motion. A woman breathes heavily in what looks to be the passenger seat of a car. There’s almost no sound. Glass shatters in her face, and she’s thrown back and forth as a young voice calls out, “Mom! Mom!” from somewhere else. She looks to her side, and we see a man in the driver’s seat as a bright white light consumes the frame. Our protagonist, Amelia, floats down to her bed from a black void and wakes to her young son, who is screaming about a recurring nightmare. She goes to his room, reads a bedtime story, and we cut to him fast asleep in her bed instead of his. He’s all over her, his hand tugging at her throat as he dreams, his foot kicking her back. Amelia moves him away and shifts to the edge of the bed, leaving a large, and due to the color palette of the film, literal black gap between the two. The title card fades in.
This opening scene absolutely floored me. It sets up a story that, yes, contains a monster in the closet, but more than that, it sets up a story that is entirely rooted in trauma, guilt, and the strained relationship between this mother and her son. The director, Jennifer Kent, weaves a complex, gripping story that paints Amelia’s exhausted, tired existence as a struggling single mother who is still haunted by a monumental loss in her life. By the end of my first viewing, I found myself incredibly moved and pleasantly surprised that it happened from a horror movie of all places.
This is not to say the film isn’t scary. The Babadook monster is certainly frightening at times, as are most characters in the film at one point or another. But it’s to say that for the first time, I began to have a thought. Perhaps the horror genre is more akin to comedy than I ever realized. I firmly believe you can’t have drama without comedy or comedy without drama. The distance between the feeling of having drinks remembering an old friend and genuinely laughing with your buddy over something he said is remarkably thin to me. The reason we laugh at anything is usually because we recognize some piece of truth within it, and perhaps, some piece of pain. What if the same is to be said for when we feel terrified? Yes, some jokes are just told by dads to be funny, and some scares are simply made to make you jump. But I think I have been far too harsh on horror films for no sin other than being what they say to be. Because perhaps, underneath that sense of fear, is something incredibly human. Like the loss of a loved one or the fear of being alone or a metaphor for depression.
Let’s go back to The Walking Dead briefly. It may not be considered “horror” by genre enthusiasts, but at its core, it certainly strives to be. Yet underneath all the face-eating zombies, or perhaps directly because of them, we begin to realize the show is making us ask who the real monsters are. The zombies, or us? The Babadook presents the classic story of a monster lurking in the closet. But what it asks is something much deeper. How long can you hide from grief before it wrecks everything around you?
So, this is my plea to you, fellow scaredy-cat. Give horror another chance. I’m not saying you have to run out and watch the new exorcist on opening night. But perhaps, when the sun is shining and you’re surrounded by your bravest friends, throw on The Babadook and see how you feel once the credits start to roll. Who knows, if you’re anything like me, you might just come away with a new favorite film—and wonder what other works of art you’ve missed out on by covering your eyes.