The Joy of Horror - A Response to Charlotte Skeoch

I don't like horror films. I don't like being scared. I don't like gore. I don't like dismemberment. I don't like sadism. I don't like torture. I don't ever find violence funny. I don't like any of that stuff, but that's my personal taste and does not warrant a dismissal of the genre in any way.

It's a real shame to have to take a fellow HuffPost UK blogger to task, to smear their reputation and jeopardise the united front of film bloggery on this site. But I must. For Charlotte Skeoch's recent article 'The Anti-Fright Fest Campaign for Hugs, Not Horror' had me reading through my fingers and dizzy with moral disapproval.

We're better than that here on The HuffPost UK, so I felt the responsibility of presenting Charlotte with a different view on Fright Fest, the horror genre and horror fans. Ironically, I might not be the best person to do this because, just like her, I really don't like horror films.

Horror is, experientially, my least favourite cinematic genre. Ideologically, however, I still prefer it to both chick flicks and anything starring Danny Dyer. I would probably rather watch a chick flick or a Danny Dyer film (or - heaven forbid - a chick flick starring Danny Dyer) but I'd still respect a decent horror film above either.

I don't like horror films. I don't like being scared. I don't like gore. I don't like dismemberment. I don't like sadism. I don't like torture. I don't ever find violence funny. I don't like any of that stuff, but that's my personal taste and does not warrant a dismissal of the genre in any way.

Like anything in this intricately nuanced world Charlotte and I skip merrily through, trying to focus on the nicer things, there is good and bad. Horror is a genre as old as cinema, as old as storytelling and as old as our species. And, like any genre, within it exists art and dross - I would argue, in equal proportions. Horror is well-established and serves a very important purpose within our culture.

Storytelling, in general, is a form of education. It sugars the pill of wisdom for a young audience. Where did the myth of the haunted house come from? It comes from practical storytelling - if you try telling the average little boy not to go into a derelict property because it's 'dangerous', that's like a red rag to a bull. So you construct a scary story to keep him out.

The horror genre, in some ways, is actually the most puritanical of all genres. The slasher films of the 80s are almost the purest form of the medium and if we strip away the ketchup, hockey masks and boobs, we're left with a blueprint in which kids are told in the most brutal of terms that if you go into places you shouldn't, have sex too young, do drugs, act flippantly or in a bullying manner and don't heed warnings, you could pay a very high price. Who survives all of these films? The earnest, abstemious industrious virgin. Every time.

Despite my emotional fragility, two of my favourite ever films are horror films - An American Werewolf in London (the ultimate lesson in heeding advice with thrown in zombies eating toast) and Poltergeist, which seems to me to be a brilliant comment on the forces that were destroying the modern family in 1982.

When horror is done right, it is a hugely powerful force of intelligence which uses our primal fears to guide us through our own morality. When it's done wrong, it is undeniably vile on both a moral and visceral level. I don't like it when there is no theme, no message and no thought above showing an audience as much depravity as possible.

I agree with Charlotte about the Hills Have Eyes remake, which featured an inexcusable (and inexcusably long) rape scene. Although I feel the original (by Wes Craven, a man who aggressively brought intelligence and artistry to the genre) is a film which brilliantly explores the idea that any human can, given the right circumstances, be reduced to their base primal nastiness. It was a valid point, well made.

Horror is a part of us. It's a part of what makes us human. The Stephen King quote which Charlotte used and almost understood is a salient one. He is saying that within us is a thirst for combat and violence and that, as a species, we're doing our best to rise above it and that football and horror stories are a pretty good nicotine patch. We can't deny the dark part of our souls. This doesn't mean we all actually want to see a lynching but - to remove some testosterone from it - don't we all still crave to see people on reality shows reduced to tears and politicians humiliated? It's a part of us, this darkness, and I feel it's far more dangerous to deny and suppress it than it is to give it a little air from time to time and enjoy it as part of a social experience.

I went through a horror phase as a teenager. I think most chaps do. Testing your limits, staring into the abyss a little and toughening yourself up for the realities of the big bad world. I was fortunate enough to come from a protected, sheltered home. I was shocked to discover the brutality of the world when I started flicking through my parents' newspapers. I became an insomniac at the age of nine after reading about several domestic murders where whole families were butchered. My dad tried to console me by pointing out that all of these attacks had been carried out by members of the families themselves. All this did was make me barricade my bedroom door each night and watch him with crippling paranoia every time he opened the knife drawer. It's healthy to expose yourself to the darkness from time to time. To be aware of the perils and forces in this world.

So what of the people who love the genre? The people who expose themselves to images of depravity on a daily, or nightly basis? Well, again, there are good ones and bad ones. I have to admit, as someone who goes regularly to film conventions that I'd choose not to sit near the man with the Freddy Kruger tattoos. But then, I'd also choose not to sit near the girl with the dolphin and fairy wings tattoos.

I used to own a couple of indie video shops and, yes, we had our share of worrying horror fans. Personally, when I was a teenager, I loved a slasher film as they generally satirised my peers and there was a great satisfaction in seeing the bullies, hippies, posh girls and sporty boys getting their throats slit. As an adult, I know that most teenagers are going through a terrible pubescent phase of narcissism and the thought of seeing children getting dismembered is utterly abhorrent to me. You couldn't pay me to sit through a film like that now. I saw the first Final Destination film and it not only made me feel ill but it made me feel really sad. So, I have little time for middle-aged men who thirst to see such things. But each to their own and better they expunge their need to see such things in this manner than they choose to actually commit them.

There is some wonderful film journalism out there which takes the genre seriously and explores it with intelligence. I'll read anything the horror film critic Stuart Barr writes and sometimes wish I could sit through the films he does. His review of Maniac recently made me really want to indulge in what was clearly a highly innovative and challenging cinematic experience. But I'm a wuss.

I went to just one film at Fright Fest this year, I tend to go to one each year, and it made me sad. The film itself was a great experience - the new version of Clive Barker's visionary opus Nightbreed, which was one of the key films that I obsessed about as a horror-dabbling teen. What made me sad was that I could not stay for the whole festival. The good humour and camaraderie in that cinema was palpable. For a cinema filled with almost 1500 people, I didn't see many of the sado-masochists or blood-hungry psychopaths that Charlotte described. I saw a room full of decent, intelligent, cultured people who were excited about sharing a weekend of jumps, thrills, gross-out giggles and, most importantly, post-screening conversations and dissections (of the most acceptable kind).

I left the cinema jealous that I wasn't strong enough to join this throng of brilliantly smart and funny people in an annual weekend of thrills and friendship.

So, don't worry Charlotte, there will be no 'letter of film community dismissal' in the post. Quite the opposite. I'll instead extend an invitation to join me at Fright Fest next year. Don't worry, we don't have to watch the films, we can have a coffee while they do that, but come along to the Q&As and have a drink with the wonderful people who attend. I think you'll be surprised by the amount and quality of sane people and good liberals you'll meet there.


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