Horror has always been suspect.
What kinds of people watch, write, or put on film and in our minds such awful images? What kinds of people like that sort of thing?
Since it first emerged as its own genre, Horror has been blamed for being the cause or the effect of mental derangement, of moral impropriety and religious slander. Hidden behind the guise of the immaturity of adolescent boys, everyone has intentionally overlooked the real origins and depth of the genre, trading it for gratuitous sex and violence and wielding it like a magic wand to explain the irrational behaviors we have come to embrace as “evil.”
Most recently we had the Slender Man girls. And now we have the Scary Movie-Watching Florida middle school girls who planned to murder smaller classmates in the girl’s restroom…
As a Horror writer, I feel we must brace ourselves for the interrogation of the genre that will surely come next because it has already been inferred: does Horror cause people to commit sordid crimes? Worse, does it cause or divulge mental instability? And do creators of Horror have any responsibility for subsequent audience behavior?
If you hear the creak of the attic door, you are not alone…
Evil As a Modifier
We are living in tumultuous times. With globalization comes the questioning of individuals as to how much responsibility any of us have in either causing, enabling, or allowing bad human behavior to unfold and have its way with innocent other people. The pressure can be phenomenal.
Because even if we sense, feel, or believe we have some level of responsibility for such events, or even feel compelled to do something about what common sense tells us are indeed bad things and that therefore the people who do them should be brought to heel, the facts are that we feel equally powerless as isolated individuals to prevent such human behavior. And the greater the guilt we sense we should shoulder, the more frustrated we become – all too often looking to blame anyone and anything else we can to absolve ourselves from having to address the issue so we can rebury it and get on with our comfortable lives.
We want so desperately to shut the images and their truths off.
It’s how we got here to this place of isolationism in the U.S…It’s how we got caught up in the idea that if we could only turn back the clock to “simpler times” we could all finally….breathe.
Yet the reality is isolationism does not work: ask native tribes that were living blissful lives until boatloads of Europeans floated ashore…Sooner or later the world comes for you and the trick is to be ready to embrace the facts that cannot be changed – not blaming yet another strata of people and superficial issues.
One particularly unsavory fact needing a hug is that human beings are flawed.
And none of us are exempt from those flaws, which include any number of mental and personality disorders. Why do you think psychologists and psychiatrists burn out? Can you imagine the horror of realizing most of humanity is not completely sane?
But because humans are also not entirely stupid, we realize that things are askew and we haphazardly seek to fix them ourselves or find explanations for why it is ok these little deficiencies exist. They disturb us. They make us doubt ourselves in ways that make us seek out others of our own kind and similar thinking (for how else will we get a fair shake?)… For a while, religion filled this function nicely.
Yet if we look at the evolution of the Horror genre, we see that humanity has always had questions that are not so easily put to rest, questions religion could not or would not answer directly. Through Horror we have pondered the Big Questions about the existence of God and an afterlife, we have poked corpses in the attempt to understand the differences between life and death and that mysterious road that leads from one to the other. We have asked where consciousness and life begin and end, we have recoiled from the many ways the human mind grabs onto sanity by buffering itself in insanity.
When religion fell short or its leaders were exposed to be just as human as the rest of us, we held God at fault. And we punished Him by running away into the dark forest, using our cellphones for light.
Horror is so brain science, so philosophy, so religion, so psychology…but it is also superstition and sociology. And to our endless Horror – history.
In our fear and trepidation, we manage to scoop everything we do not understand but fear immensely into one word: evil.
We like to think God abandoned us, not the other way around. And so we set out to clearly delineate what is God stuff, and what we can actually change. What is God stuff is all mystical and indistinct – anything that upsets our daily, ghost-free lives. So when two little girls act in ways that had clearly been banished from view, we need tools to make our world right again.
It was those darn violent, Satan-worshipping movies… It was those bad parents…It was all the Church scandals… It was those negligent teachers…
Or maybe it was just the devil. Because then none of us have to do anything. It all becomes no one’s fault – not even the little girls’ unless we want to make them into the personification of evil, but first we will have to look into the matter…do the criminal court thing…toss them into a pond to see if they float…
It is somehow easier to envision all manner of demons and devils rising from Sulphur-lined pits to test our faith and resolve than it is to admit that we all too often just get it wrong, or that we make decisions from ignorance or unsound minds.
It is an excellent, totally encompassing word that explains all and clarifies nothing.
It is a Band-Aid for a bullet wound.
And best of all it is a dehumanizing word. It gives us permission to act in irrational ways to bury the problem that scares us the most: mental illness in children.
Whether we are talking terrorists, serial killers, political opponents or middle-school kids… when we toss the word “evil” into the mix we give collective societal permission for everyone to nod in unspoken understanding, to shrug and walk away, to stuff the “evil ones” into the attic of social choice and call it a day. If the doer is evil, we are not only absolved, but elevated for being more moral, more ethical, more superior…less flawed…
Yet if Horror has taught us anything, it is that evil never dissipates – it merely changes form…
Two Little Maids From School Are We
When the Slender Man attempted murder story broke, there was ample discussion of what the girls had been into.
Fortunately for Evil-spotters everywhere, the newest culprits have supplied us with exactly what we need: they are admitted Satanists.
Forget for a moment that middle school kids no matter how “sophisticated” haven’t a clue what that means. This is a godsend. Clearly it was no one’s fault but the devil. We now have permission to proceed, but heads must roll.
Surely the watching of scary movies is of importance. Where on earth else would innocent children even learn the term “Satan worshippers”? Become “tainted”? “Infected”? Turned…
Obviously not from this election cycle…
The reporting uses words like “chilling” “disturbing” “childlike drawings” “planned killing” and “suicide”…It was emphasized that the plot was “hatched” while watching scary movies during a sleepover… https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/video/girls-stopped-carrying-deadly-school-assault-police-58738128
And every subsequent report reveals ever more sensational allegations – the intent to drink the blood of their murdered class mates, of being found with a goblet, planning to dismember the bodies and commit suicide…of being confessed Satanists. ..
Of course it is shocking. Of course we want to know how did this happen?
Because we so desperately want to believe it would be so simple as watching a few scary movies…that dreaded mental illness has its root in merely viewing what your parents told you not to watch, that you can save your children by banning exactly that.
The news reports reflect all of our responses…a certain and desperate need to believe this anathema appeared from nowhere to possess innocent children.
Of course it must be the Horror movies. It has to be the Horror movies. Because that way it becomes its own Horror movie and all Horror movies have formulas to follow and supernatural entities to blame…
And what about all of those horrible movies? That awful Stephen King? Those clearly twisted individuals who like and propagate the kind of psychotic drivel that is the Horror genre?
But these questions are not so simple. And contrary to the beliefs of questioners who will most certainly come forward, Horror – like video games – do not cause human behavior as clearly as both reflect it.
Horror is a mirror. Horror writers and filmmakers pull nothing from the air; they are not magicians. They merely report what they observe – pulling at loose threads because the questions of what causes human beings to do the terrible things they do to each other bothers them deep down…
Most certainly there is a spectrum upon which Horror creators fall. Some are more observant of some parts of human nature than others, some revel in the shock of human behavior and its implied consequences… Others thrash about in the darkness of the human mind, desperate to understand where all of the real lines are…But there is one common denominator: the determination to make their audience think, if not think twice.
Any balanced person who reads a Horror story or watches a Horror movie receives the warning in exchange for riding the roller coaster to the end. And the warning is always the same: tinkering with things you don’t understand can get you eliminated from normal life or life itself. Worse, it can drag you into hells you have never imagined and from which there is no hope of return.
Horror is fire and brimstone. Death is just the beginning.
So where do two middle school girls fall into this?
They fall into the category of like attracting like, of one more charismatic mind manipulating another eager to please. They fall into the category all of us dread – the mentally flawed, the psychotic or the wide range of antisocial personality disorders…And they did so with our social memories of movies like Children of the Corn and The Omen so vivid in all our adult minds…
Nothing terrifies us more than a child that seems to have preternatural, predatory awareness as shaped by mental illness.
It is so wrong, an anathema to our expectation and dreams of innocent childhood we all hope for our children.
It is an unforgivable unsettling of our little ordered worlds. And we wonder where this horrible disease might hide – that it hides being a whole different terror.
But in the end it is just illness. In the end, parents are busy and hopeful and rationalizing and maybe uninsured. Just like teachers. Just like neighbors. And even pediatricians. Signs get missed. Signs get subverted. Signs get blissfully, ignorantly overlooked. And sometimes they get hidden.
How do we know there is blame to be assigned? Owners of personality disorders and many mental illnesses learn early to hide their irregularities; many are astute observers of the normal so that they might imitate it, innocently trying to fix their own problems before embracing their differences. They can be very difficult to spot, even when you live among them – maybe more so because you live among them and desire better truths…
If these two cases of murderous little girls teach us anything, it is that we are none of us perfect – not in mental health, not in social behavior, not in being armchair psychologists…
We cannot hide our blindsiding dreams for our children that cause us to miss important signs, or underestimate the savviness of ill children to disguise their illnesses. But we should also stop believing that all things have a simple, black-and-white fix, that life is so easy we can patch the holes in the boat with an assortment of potent labels.
Horror does not cause mental illness. Horror creators as a group are not mentally ill, and no amount of binge-watching scary movies or reading urban legends and stories of Horror monsters cause crime or mental illness. That is not to say criminals and the mentally ill are not drawn there. Idiots dressing up as scary clowns to terrify strangers is the perfect example. But so are the imperfectly sane drawn to the important messages in the genre.
We have to stop calling people evil, using the word to modify any behavior we cannot or do not want to explain and take responsibility for.
We need to look at these two young girls as what they are – misfits, and unfortunates plagued by an unbearable illness — one that draws out the lifeblood of its victims and their families hope first.
We need to do better than wax poetic for the good old days.
We need to fix the broken ones we are living in now. And we do that by admitting we missed the signs…that we allowed ourselves to be distracted by easier or more garish problems. We owe these little girls that, we owe their parents and families that if we are to begin to fix the problems we have saddled our children with as a species and as a society. The weight of that burden is too great to bear alone.
It takes a village for a reason…