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Why is the horror genre obsessed with our mortality?

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As supernatural horror Here Comes the Devil prepares for release in the US, what is it about psychopaths, zombies, vampires and demons that fascinate us?

As humans, we are obsessed with death. Perhaps that’s hardly surprising, as we are all destined for the graveyard, but the level to which it fascinates is interesting. Ancient European folklore has been drawn on for centuries with ideas about death and the body emanating from here and then changing shape throughout the ages. With the US release of Here Comes the Devil imminent, why do we find death – and what happens after – so compelling?

Zombie movies represent the part of us that fears we don’t have enough feeling, that we are too driven by desires

Murder mysteries on TV are ten-a-penny, with Luther, The Killing and The Bridge usually seeing a pretty, young female being murdered in a monstrous way. The juxtaposition of youth and beauty versus death and gore is chilling. The success recently of murder mysteries in urban, modern settings have much to do with the fact they reflect our own fears, as we picture ourselves being followed down a dark, narrow alley and murdered brutally with nobody to hear us scream.

What Remains caught this perfectly: a young woman is murdered inside a city house and nobody even notices (a metaphor for modern life, perhaps?). These programmes also explore the psyches of psychopaths, which could be a metaphor for that dark part of human life that we don’t want anybody to see. We like to see what makes these nutters tick, and perhaps a part of us fears we may be like them, too.

A death-associated sub-genre is the zombie movie. Zombies have undergone a (literal) revival of late, though they have always captivated the imaginations of our predecessors (Night of the Living Dead, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, White Zombie). Zombies are a hybrid between humans and animals; they are the unthinking human, a body that just destroys. Zombies are the opposite to the psychopath – they have no thought but, like the psychopath, no empathy. Zombies represent the part of us that fears we don’t have enough feeling, that we are too driven by desires.

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The Walking Dead has captivated modern audiences’ imaginations and received critical acclaim in a genre that’s now becoming very crowded. The Walking Dead mixes realism with horror: the characters in it are seen as coping with such traumatic events in the same way we would cope in, say, a nuclear war situation. The Walking Dead, like all other zombie films, uses the infection to ‘turn’ the subject. Zombies bite – like vampires – and once the fatal bite is delivered, it’s lethal – they will soon turn.

It’s not just losing loved ones or death that scares us, but the ‘turning’ of a soul after death

In the Victorian period, this bite was equated with desire. Based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the 1992 film adaptation pulled this strand out of the text with a modern twist. Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) flirts with the male and female characters, and his bite is certainly predatory. This bite post-1980s has taken on a new meaning: not only does it equate with desire, but with the AIDS/infection angle it takes on a new level of deathly fear.

Like in Here Comes the Devil – written and directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano – it’s not just death that scares us, but the ‘turning’ of a soul after death. As if it’s not horrific enough to lose the one(s) you love most near some caves on a family trip, these ‘ones’ are the ones who you would die to protect: your children. This is a modern day, real-life gothic horror of its own (tales of Madeleine McCann-style disappearances frighten us all). But cinema always goes one step further to the realms of the unthinkable; the children in Here Comes the Devil have been changed. Our thirst for all things gothic forces cinema to go one step further.

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Here Comes The Devil resonates with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw: it works within psychological parameters and, like the best horror, is ambivalent – you’re not sure what to believe. It combines modern, indie filmmaking with old-fashioned storytelling. After a family mountain hike goes terribly wrong and the children go missing, they re-appear the next morning, to their parents’ hysteric adulation. It seems this adulation is misplaced, however, as the children begin to seem not like their children anymore. Something has happened to them that is beyond their parents’ comprehension (fitting in the current climate of child abuse, both physical and mental: this is a real modern gothic horror story). As their parental instincts to protect and look after their children grow, the children’s behaviour becomes more mysterious and more disturbing.

Zombies, vampires and demoniac children frighten us, but at least they promise something more than nothingness after death

Religion, folklore, storytelling and popular culture have all had interesting, differing ideas about death. Ideas about death are subjective: we fear death, but we also want to embrace it, as we know there is no escape. Cinema and the small screen can prove cathartic: zombies, vampires and demoniac children frighten us, but at least they promise something more than a bleak nothingness. Death will continue to compel human beings forever – our endings have already been decided, but the ‘turning’ before or after death will always reflect that particular society’s fear. After all, the more realistic the fear, the more frightening it is.

 

Featured image: Magnet Releasing

Inset images: AMC; Columbia

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