The Common Good
April 2005

Creep Fest

by Richard Vernon | April 2005

The attack of the chiller flicks.

Even if you digest popular culture only via NPR and the osmotic seepage from billboards and tabloid headlines,

Even if you digest popular culture only via NPR and the osmotic seepage from billboards and tabloid headlines, you’ll have noticed the profusion of mainstream horror movies oozing out of Hollywood. Alone in the Dark, Hide and Seek, Boogeyman, Constantine, White Noise, Cursed, The Jacket, and The Ring Two have all hit the screen since the end of January. These are movies with big budgets, high production values, and A-list stars - not the schlocky B pictures of yore.

Critics have long held that our most unspeakable fears are given voice in science fiction and horror films. Where does America go to understand how it feels about communism, atomic science, immigration, AIDS, or terrorism? Where it always has - the back row of the movies. Moviemakers deal in images and metaphor, and in film they give form to the darkest of our terrors.

The vengeful ghost of some sooty-eyed child patrolling a staircase, a curtain-haired anorexic crawling stilt-legged out of an otherwise innocuous TV screen - these images and others like them are common currency in recent movies. That the screens of our multiplexes are filled with shaky footage of ashen-faced spirits tormenting the newest people to move into their house speaks to deep-seated Western insecurity in a post-9/11 world.

Back in 1954, Them, with its giant ants, dealt with the consequences of atomic testing. Most films are more metaphorical: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) featured aliens possessing the bodies of regular Americans, and is usually seen as addressing the then-rampant paranoia about "reds under the bed." In the wake of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, the idea that one’s friends and neighbors might be communists masquerading as decent, upstanding citizens was extraordinarily potent. Of course, the movie also worked for those Americans worried about McCarthy-ist infringements of their civil liberties. The strength of the film lies in the fact that it can be "about" New-Agers, Republicans, liberals - whoever it is you deem to be the powerful conspirators bent on destroying your way of life. It’s been remade at least twice, and yet another Invasion of the Body Snatchers is scheduled for a 2006 release. Its new relevance? How can we know who on our block might actually be a terrorist?

The strength of horror stories lies not in their ability to turn a specific cultural anxiety into myth; rather they address through myth a general fear that has a contemporary specificity. The thousands who died on Sept. 11 were ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Going to work that day involved no conscious risk. Like the unsuspecting innocents who move into the Tokyo house in The Grudge, we become fit targets for vengeance - simply because we live here. Such a situation is too fearful to contemplate comfortably without being mediated through myth.

It’s not that nobody makes other kinds of horror films anymore. Alone in the Dark, currently in theaters, is a monster flick; Pitch Black was a slasher in outer space - with monsters! - and Van Helsing and Underworld had vampires and werewolves. But the box office receipts tell us that a particular flavor of ghostly spookers is what America prefers right now. Hollywood is a finely tuned money machine, not given to risk-taking or artistic adventurism. Making movies such as Hide and Seek (2005), in which a spooky little girl forms an alliance with a murderous ghost, is big money. The Forgotten (2004) is largely a slow-paced exploration of maternal love, utterly devoid of supernatural happenings, yet it was marketed as though it were a pulse-raising supernatural chiller. It did nonetheless share with the genuine ghost stories the concept of protagonist as innocent victim at the mercy of some larger, sinister scheme.

The success of this basic plot - the ghost is furious, it’s not your fault, but the ghost is going to kill you anyway - is arguably dictated in large measure by Western angst over terrorism and American terror of being misunderstood and hated abroad and divided at home. We are searching for someone to blame. And the darkest fear we nurture is that we are The Blamed.

ANOTHER ASPECT of the now ubiquitous ghost movie is that the larger spiritual context is no longer even loosely Judeo-Christian and far from monotheistic. The sci-fi "creature features" and alien invasion stories of the ’50s promoted a scientific worldview in which a gritty, all-American combination of technology and courage would save the day - a cheerfully agnostic extension of the Protestant work ethic. The British studio Hammer House of Horror’s heyday in the ’60s naturally presupposed that a Satanic Black Mass was evil. In pre-Sept. 11 horror movies, the crucifix had power, maybe not because Jesus has vanquished Satan, but at least because the idea of the self-sacrificial God was bigger than the idea of the vampire - even to the vampire. Salem’s Lot took this idea a step further in 1979: The priest’s crucifix was talismanic as long as the priest’s own integrity and faith held fast. The demonically themed horrors of the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s - the Omen films, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby - as unpalatably occult as they might be for most Christians, definitely operate within a dualistic version of Judeo-Christian theology. To a greater or lesser extent, these films relied on the talismanic properties of good intent and innocence to ward off evil.

Contemporary chillers, though, are set in a largely a-religious environment or, increasingly, are remakes of successful Japanese films that are largely derived from Shinto. A dominant element of Shinto is the role and appeasement of the spirits of the dead, of the ancestors. Ringu and Ju-On, for instance (remade in the United States as The Ring and The Grudge), are based on Japanese ghost stories. And in Japanese ghost stories, the ghost almost always wins.

In this latest cinematic trend, innocence affords no protection against evil. Neither does good intent. One of the more terrifying aspects of Ringu/The Ring (2002) lies in the central character’s belief that she is bringing peace to the spirit of a murdered child. In fact, she’s unleashing the dead girl’s full malevolence. That she had no involvement in the child’s murder does not make her any less a target. Her innocence is no defense; neither is the innocence of her own son - nor is protecting him the wisest course of action. She has fulfilled the ghost’s basic requirement (watching a VHS tape with occult properties) and followed the embedded clues to disastrous ends. Now only by making copies of the tape - to spread the evil like a virus - can she save herself and her son. She has to sin to save.

Following The Ring came The Grudge (2004), the DVD of which enjoyed a heavy marketing push. The Ring Two is scheduled for a March 18 release, and next year will come The Grudge 2. In Japan there have already been three Ringu movies and four in the Ju-On (Curse/Grudge) series, so we can only assume more of the same is on its way to these shores. In all of these movies a good deal of the terror derives from the protagonists’ slow gain in knowledge. There is never enough information, nor is it trustworthy. Even when all the clues are assembled, information is not the source of the solution. Science does not offer an answer in these films; neither do reason nor faith. Paucity of intelligence, ill-conceived responses, good intention paving the road to destruction…bells should be ringing. Maybe the movies are telling us more about our current situation than even their creators intended. Perhaps we should think twice before presuming our own innocence, or arming the next insurgent likely to hold a Grudge.

Richard Vernon, a former Sojourners intern, grew up in Scotland and now lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

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