By John W. Whitehead
“I know I’m human, and if you were all these Things, you would just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This Thing doesn’t want to show itself. It wants to hide inside an imitation.”—R.J. MacReady, The Thing
The great horror and science fiction monsters are considerably more than the sum of their mutilated body parts. Most of all, monsters represent societal repression, generally of the sexual and moral kind. In short, the horror film is a sign that the moral sources of human behavior have been either repressed or forgotten or never clearly acknowledged by the culture. This repression invariably involves the return of the repressed in a disguised form such as film monsters—creatures not bound by the laws of nature as we know them. Indeed, in times such as ours when the sense of moral distinction has faded, societal structures are breaking down and new evils are afoot, the proliferation of horror films and novels—as well as primetime television shows that focus on horror—is an indicator of a massive subconscious confusion.
And there are some definite subconscious themes that flow through such films. With the advance of science and technology, there is a clear and present threat to the very nature of what it means to be human.
There is a pattern reflected in these films that has roots in the culture. For instance, with the post-’60s films and especially those of the mid-’70s, the story of man’s desperate attempt to preserve his masculinity in the face of sexual liberation, emerging feminism and related issues such as abortion are pushed to the forefront in horror films. The ’80s films often delve into the sacrifice of the soul in the pursuit of pleasures and riches epitomized by the rise of Reaganism. The ’90s films onward are populated by ghosts and hobgoblins that follow us wherever we go and even crawl from inside our television sets to kill and maim. More recently, the films Shutter Island (2010) and Splice (2009) both used the sci-fi/horror format to comment on the breakdown of the family structure and its negative impact on society.
These films invade our minds, drawing on a vocabulary exceeding far beyond the language of the rational. They speak to us of the fears and desires which lie buried deep within the shadows of our subconscious.
The great films of this genre, however, are things of strange and terrible beauty. And although there are many bad ones, there are also films that speak to us in ways that nothing else can. Following are ten films that I rank as some of the best I have ever seen.
The Exorcist (1973). Director William Friedkin presents us with a truly terrifying story of a young girl possessed by a demon. It created mass hysteria when it was released in theaters. This film, as I have written elsewhere (www.gadflyonline.com), effectively halted the death-of-God movement that emerged out of the late 1960s. Very gory and violent.
Halloween (1978). John Carpenter’s low-budget horror classic is the most successful independent movie of all time. A deranged maniac escapes from a mental asylum and returns to his hometown to wreak havoc. The essential message here is that there is an evil so malevolent that it can’t be killed. This is a film that you feel more than see. Very violent.
The Shining (1980). Loosely based on the Stephen King novel, this Stanley Kubrick film focuses on a writer and his family snowbound and stranded in a huge hotel. Although they believe they’re alone, they soon discover that the place is haunted by bloodthirsty ghosts—ghosts that often reside within us. Violent and gory.
Alien (1979). Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic about an intergalactic spaceship invaded by a carnivorous alien is one of the most suspenseful films ever made. Scott does a masterful job of maintaining a tense, claustrophobic environment where the human crew is up against what seems to be an insurmountable monster. Very gory and violent.
The Thing (1982). John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 classic diverts from the original but maintains a similar storyline. A team of scientists at an arctic outpost discover that they are not alone. A spaceship buried in the ice has brought an alien presence among them. And once the alien invades their compound, it begins a steady process of first possessing and then eliminating each crew member. Very claustrophobic and an excellent foray into what it means to be human. Very violent and gory.
The Sixth Sense (1999). M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller about a nine-year-old boy who communicates with the dead challenges the perception of what our existence is all about. Well written with a great plot twist at the end. Violent.
Dog Soldiers (2001). A British army squad finds refuge in a cabin in the woods, only to be besieged by beasts. This is the best of recent werewolf films and provides a metaphor for the violence and destructiveness of modern warfare. Claustrophobic with quick-paced violence. Very gory and somewhat nauseating.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Freddy Krueger is a scarred maniac with a fingered, razor-sharp glove. A vision straight out of hell, Krueger kills teens in their dreams—and subsequently in the “real” world. This film and its sequels undermine the psychological and spiritual divide that supposedly exists between reality and the dream world. Very violent and gory.
Night of the Living Dead (1968). Radiation from space experiments causes the newly dead to return to life with a great hunger for human flesh. The focus is on a small group of people trapped in a farmhouse besieged by a multitude of ghouls. This film is in a long line of movies questioning whether our consumer-oriented world is turning us all into zombies. Violent and gory.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Pods from outer space invade a small California town and begin taking over human bodies. This film reflects the fear that the country was being taken over, or already had been, by alien forces that look just like human beings but were intent on destroying us. That same paranoia in different forms is with us today. Violent.
These films are more than a frightening foray into cinema. They express our repressed fears and expose us to the dark side of human nature—something so destructive that it cannot be controlled. And once it is unleashed, all hell breaks loose.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org
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