Saturday, October 31, 2009

Don't Go In There!!! 10 Lessons From Our Favorite Horror Movies

Scary movies are fun. You're safe, after all. You may be snuggled on your sofa with the lights off, but the door is surely securely locked, and you know there's nothing hiding under the bed—and you've got enough ice cream to get you through whatever may come your way. If you're in a theater, well there's safety in numbers, isn't there? In scary movies, only foolish people who dare to wander about alone are ever targeted—and you would never go anywhere desolate alone, would you?

Scary movies can teach us important survival tips. (There's also a good, albeit typo-ridden, list here. But hey, in a horror movie no one really cares if you can spell. All that really matter is how fast you can run.) It's thanks to the careful studies of horror movies that we have emergency planning tips for surviving a zombie apocalypse. I, for one, am glad that these models have been mathematically tested and I suspect you probably are too—you wouldn't want to find out that your planning was for naught. It would kind of be like learning that the whole deal about garlic and vampires is a myth. Come to think of it, maybe some of the panic over H1N1 could be alleviated with this kind of planning and testing.

Well, being a social scientist, I had to add my own analysis to this growing body of literature. Here are 10 ethnographic lessons we can take away from our favorite horror movies:

(Special note: These are all rather old movies, but I do include some plot information, so proceed with caution. If you're concerned about spoilers, you may just want to read the bold text. Also given the huge number of remakes, its likely that you've seen a preview for an upcoming release based on a few of these, or you've seen them recently as a re-release.)

1. We all want to belong—it's not nice to make fun of others. In Carrie, the socially underdeveloped girl for whom the movie is named has a run-in with the resident school clique. The resulting anxiety causes Carrie to develop telekinetic abilities. The clique plots to get her to prom, and set her up with the clique leader's boyfriend. At prom, members of the clique manage to get Carrie elected prom queen. During her moment on stage, hardly daring to believe that she's been accepted by her classmates, the clique dumps a bucket of blood on her, and the crowd laughs. Big mistake. Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to punish the crowd in various ways. She finally seals the gym as an electrical fire breaks out, and returns home for a confrontation with her mother.

Carrie reminds us that high school can be a lonely time. It also marks the last stage of the "playground" where we learn socialization skills. No one wants to be excluded. No one wants to be the joke. People haven't yet fully realized their potential at this stage. So that geek in science class you made fun of but secretly copied off of during the midterms could go on to be successful as movie lore teaches us. So be nice. With this economy, you never know when you'll need a job.

2. The private domain, the household, is important to the proper socialization of individuals. The household is a very special place—it is where we learn the rules of our society, where we learn to navigate the social roles we will occupy as adults within the networks that make up social organization. The Halloween series shows us the dangers to the individual when the household fails to work as it should. [Image right: Abandoned house on Eastern Long Island.]

All six-year-old Michael Myers wanted was to go trick-or-treating. He got dressed in his clown costume and waited for his older sister. But she had other plans. Charged with watching Michael while her parents went to a Halloween party, she instead invited her boyfriend over to relieve the frustrations inherent to raging teen hormones.

Michael's sister did not act to preserve the private domain. Her responsibility was to ensure that Michael had access to a childhood rite—trick or treating—which would have exposed him to social interactions with others. The result was that a little boy felt as though he did not belong the to the larger social order—he became a ruthless killer. (Think back to all the times you tortured a younger sibling, and be glad that things turned out okay.)

Interestingly, in the Rob Zombie remake of this movie, Michael's home life is actually fractured: his father is dead, his mom works as a stripper, and her boyfriend makes lewd comments to Michael's older sister. The explicit broken home metaphor sends the same message as the subtler messages in the original: home is important to shaping the individual, and if the home (i.e., the private) does not function as it should, the individual will never be cemented with society.

FYI: Michael is such a successful killer that he spawned his own survival guide and a rather cultish following.

3. Sleep is important to your physical and emotional well-being. The benefits of sleep have long been recognized by scientists: Sleep allows your body to recharge. Without sufficient sleep, memory, mood, and judgment suffers—we may even be more susceptible to illnesses. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, a group of teenagers are terrorized by a the ghost of a child serial killer named Freddie Kruger. The first hint that Kruger means business occurs when Tina Gray dreams she is being stalked by a figure with razors on its fingers. She wakes just as the figure catches her, finding that she has cuts where the figure grabbed her in her dream. She learns that her friends all had similar dreams. It is ultimately revealed that Kruger was prematurely released from prison due to an administrative error, and an irate public murdered him. He is now stalking the children of the people who killed him.

The teenagers cannot go to sleep for sleep resides in the realm in which Kruger is the most powerful, and yet without sleep, the characters appear to become increasingly hysterical. Kruger plays upon our need for sleep. We have  to enter this vulnerable state. Nancy Thompson, the only remaining teen to escape Kruger's murderous onslaught, must reclaim the ability to sleep—and dream.

The Elm Street series blurs the line between the imaginary and reality. It reminds us that we need a balance of both to function as human beings.

4. Pay attention to erratic behavior— it generally signifies that something is very wrong. It's great to be passionate about something, but there is a fine line between passion and obsession. If a good friend of loved one begins to act obsessive or possession about a particular object, as Dennis did in Christine, get help for the person immediately.

Dennis is a fairly plain, but nice, teenager. He decides to use his money—against his parents wishes—to by a clunker. He lovingly restores the car, becoming increasingly possessive and jealous of anyone who expresses an interest in it. He loses all interest in anything but the car. He alienates his best friend and girlfriend, believing that they too want to take his beloved car away. This type of behavior signifies a break with society. Dennis needed help—though perhaps you also loved your first car and can sympathize.

5. Reserve judgment about people who spend extended amounts of time in costume. Why do we wear masks? To pretend to be someone else. Masks allow us to suspend responsibilities and bypass appropriate behaviors because when we are masked, we aren't ourselves. Clown makeup takes this further: because clown makeup is applied directly to the face, it transforms the individual instead of temporarily suspending the individual's own beliefs. With clown makeup, the individual becomes another entity entirely, not just an individual pretending to be something or someone else.

Clowns were historically comical fellows. They likely evolved from court jesters. As a class, they elicit laughter and even encourage it. But can any group accept being the basis of the joke all the time? Perhaps if the humor were innocent, but there are mean-spirited people who enjoy derogatory humor. This presents the opportunity for jokers to turn the tables. Pennywise the Clown from It pretty much sums up the fear quotient of clowns—watch what you laugh at around them lest they think you are laughing at them instead of with them.  [Image Right: Pennywise the Clown © Warner Bros. Television.]

6. It's important to play with others. I've written before about the importance of the playground and free play to a child's social development. Having an overbearing, jealous, and abusive mother who will not let you socialize with others can be detrimental to your well-being as Norman Bates of Psycho can tell you. Bates' mother particularly demonized women, making it impossible for Bates to have a normal relationship with someone of the opposite sex. He ultimately kills his mother, but having had limited to no contact with the outside world and having had her run his life, he is incapable of living by himself and resurrects her via a dissociative personality disorder so she could continue to guide his actions. He was so wracked by guilt about even talking to women that he would be driven to kill them. Again, this is why it is so important that we all get a chance to spend some time in the sandbox—we need to learn how to navigate social situations and essentially run our own lives.

7. One day, Mother Nature is going to fight back. Fido may be humankind's best friend, but even Fido has a limit for how many times he'll fetch the paper. Movies like The Birds and Jaws suggests that if animals and fish ever decided to launch an orchestrated attach on the human species, we'd be royally screwed. We've evolved bigger brains, sure, but we've lost our "animal instincts." For all of our fancy technology, if all the birds in the world decided they were going to methodically dive bomb populations, we might find ourselves quickly isolated under a self-imposed quarantine. Sharks are built to be predators. Humans? Without the trappings of modern weaponry? Not so much. Really.

8. We need variation. Jack Torrence, a writer, takes a job as a caretaker for The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. He believes the off season, when the hotel is closed and snowed in, will be the prime opportunity to work on his book. The snow settles and Jack has a bout of writer's block, begins to drink, and starts to see things. The hotel's past begins to manifest. He fights with his wife, and is encouraged by the ghost of a former caretaker to "correct" his family. He sets out to murder them.

While Jack had a good idea, and sometimes getting away can help a writer, we need the spontaneity that accompanies human contact. The same routine day-in and day-out dulls the senses. You know, it's kind of like that job where you sat and stared at your computer screen blankly until 5 p.m. 

9. It's important to know your local history. A quotation carved into a pillar at the National Archives in Washington, DC reads, "The past is present."  With each moment, we move inexorably forward. But that doesn't mean that all that has happened has magically disappeared. We leave material traces of ourselves in the world (see A Tale of Progress for the Sake of Progress for further discussion on this point). For example, just recently a gravestone from 1799 was found in Washington Square Park, which was once a potter's field.

According to one story concerning a family from Amityville, the DeFeos might have been better off if they had taken some time to learn about the land their house stood on. Ronald DeFeo Jr. was convicted of murdering his entire family in their beds because voices commanded that he do so. One explanation for the voices DeFeo heard comes from the allegation that the house was built on an Indian burial ground. In The Amityville Horror, which is supposed to be based on the true story of the DeFeo murders, if the Lutzes, who purchased the DeFeo's home after their untimely deaths, had done some more digging they would have thought twice about the bargain price they they were getting for the house. When paranormal events drive the Lutzes from their home, they are forced to abandon everything. See, the past can come back to haunt you. [Image Left: A babbling brook—legend has it that evil spirits will not cross running water.]

FYI: Since the Amityville story is partly based on real events (though there is controversy surrounding the entire affair), there are many places on the web with information about the house and the paranormal activity that was supposed to have occurred there. This site gives an interesting overview if you want to learn more.

10. There are truths hidden in the strangest places. In The Gate, the lyrics to a rock song are actually the words to a spell that opens a portal to another world. The past survives in unusual ways, and sometimes history can be appropriated without fully understanding its context. But this is perhaps the most important "lesson" from this genre that anthropologists can take away: there are interesting histories still waiting to be uncovered—you have to open your eyes and be willing to think outside of the box. We are an inventive species. We recycle ideas (the amazing number of scary movie remakes I uncovered writing this post attests to this). And each time we reframe something we give it new meaning and life, creating another means of viewing our society. Folktales can be particularly enlightening in this regard.

Well, there you have it. I hope you've enjoyed this week's look at Halloween. In the coming weeks, we'll return to daily life. See you soon—I heard a noise I should probably check out.

Do you have a "lesson" you'd like to share? Or know of another "classic" scary movie that would help explain any of my lessons? Share below.

Technorati Tags: Halloween, 10 scary movies, horror, Michael Myers, The Shining, Carrie, It, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Gate, The Birds, Jaws, 10 lessons from scary movies, Pennywise, Freddie Kruger. Christine (movie), Psycho, Norman Bates, Amityville

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