film

Perverting the Pious

When Sean Hall talks about symbols in This Means This This Means That he reflects on how meaning is tied to them: In one case, he calls to mind the swastika, a symbol that once stood for goodness, but was later perverted (and flipped) for use by the Nazi party during WWII. Although still used in India, across Europe and the Americas it’s easy to see why the swastika is a no-go in terms of using symbols.

In less severe ways, this idea is mimicked in horror film, where religious imagery is often used to degrade, shock, or insult audiences and/or characters. Surely one cannot forget the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed girl Regan violently masturbates with a bloody cross:

(Viewer Discretion Advised)

While less vulgar as the above scene, the cross is also often inverted in horror film. The Petrine Cross (or the Cross of Saint Peter), in Christianity is actually a religious symbol, not an anti-religious one. But horror film, novels, television and other culture likens it to Satanism, demons, animal (and human) sacrifice, and anti-Christian doctrine. This concept in and of itself is so pervasive anymore, one could argue more people consider the Petrine Cross anti-Christian than Christian in nature.

Of course, the perversion of religious symbols is not restricted to Christianity, although other religious issues often go past the mere idea of subverting religious iconography and often border on being culturally and racially offensive. Two especially popular concepts of this can be seen in the handling of Native American religion and Haitian Voodoo in horror.

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Going past the more obvious choices of Pet Semetery and Poltergeist, we have The Amityville Horror, which goes beyond being casually problematic in its creation and story (by incorporating actual murders and being marketed as a true story), but goes one step further by implying these murders and the subsequent hauntings are caused by mystical possession in the form of crazed Native American spirits. And if we are to be truthful, like the Petrine Cross, what does the idea of Native Burial Ground signify to you: Years and years of subjugation of the Native Americans whose holy grounds (and otherwise) have been forcibly taken, or evil curses plaguing innocent (and often white) families?

I think you know what the answer to that question really is.

Haitian and Louisianan Voodoo have received much the same treatment: Voodoo is referenced in everything from children’s horror series Goosebumps and kids movies like My Teacher Ate My Homework to the popular horror film (or at least popular enough to always be on television) The Skeleton Key, where voodoo ideals, symbols, and concepts are appropriated to have an evil couple take over the body of Kate Hudson. There are also voodoo dolls in books by Dean Koontz, voodoo zombies in Wes Craven movies, and voodoo priestesses in American Horror Story: Coven. Despite all this, it is safe to say, most of the people viewing these movies probably have no real concept of Voodoo as a religious practice. Instead, voodoo is a catch-all for exotic and ethnic flavored evil.

Using powerful, religious symbols can make a statement in horror–or any–film. Which is undoubtedly why it is so popular, and why it works: But also why it can be offensive and even dangerous.

 

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White Bright Lights

Think about the last few movies you’ve seen, and think about color: Adventure movies are all cool and blue, fast metallics and flashes of red-orange. Dystopias are gray smoke and dirt, and horror calls to mind dark nights and blood reds (and actual blood) to create the tense fearful atmosphere we come to expect. But horror also unabashedly does with visual imagery what many other genres will not do, whether for fear of losing money (and lets be real: Most horror is not a cash cow), or fear of alienating the audience (again, not the biggest concern in a genre that features tree rape in one of it’s most classic films), which is deviate from expected color themes and imagery to craft something even more unsettling than an abandoned old house or hostel.

House of 9

House of 9 (2005)

Oftentimes I joke that my favorite type of film is “people trapped mysteriously in a room together movies” and part of that falls into one of my favorite contrasts in horror: Clean, white rooms or clean-cut families providing a conflicting backdrop to the acts of violence that will undoubtedly occur. The most evident of this is in these “people trapped” films: The Killing Room, Breathing Room, House of 9, among others. They provide almost scientifically clean areas in which atrocities take place, creating a canvas for horror that can make even cliche actions seem that much more difficult to watch.

Take the trailer for two comparatively similar films, such as the aforementioned Breathing Room and the dark and dirty Nine Dead:

Sean Hall tells us that “stories always change in the telling” and while both these movies ask their trapped characters “why are you here?” it’s in the telling that makes one better than the other: The visuals in one are powerful in their contrasts–the darks, lights, and reds, make up a story that is lacking in the dull consistency of Nine Dead‘s cinematography. But there is more to this contrast than relying on setting and cinematography. For this, we look to Lucky McKee’s films, Sick Girl, and, in particular, The Woman: McKee (and by proxy Jack Ketchum, who wrote the film) gives us clean not only in setting, but in characters. The Woman features the Cleek family, who, for all intents and purposes appear to be not just normal but a good All-American Family. They are the family you expect to have atrocities committed against, not the ones to be committing the atrocities: But that is what make the film successful.

The Woman

The Woman (2011): Father, business man, keeps a feral woman as a pet dog

The power in horror lies in unchecked fear, tension, and the things we do not expect. To seen beauty and light intermixed in our deepest fears is unexpected, and often unused in big-budget Hollywood horror. It’s powerful, and it is, to some extend, perfect.

On a final note, reflect back to a film we are all probably familiar with: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The setting of the “games” is a lush forest hidden under the same dystopian filters of the previous movie. But how different, how powerful, could things have been if it opted for the unexpected and gave us this tropical forest in full Caribbean Cruises-esque color as the backdrop for brutal murder? The answer is very, because there is something wonderful about the brutal beauty of color, and unexpected light in the face of the darkest realities.