An unsavory topic for Sunday blog, I know. Or maybe not, since Sundays are traditionally days for reflection on humanity and the forces-that-be. I’ve talked before about the necessity of portraying evil in art, and this isn’t another discussion on that subject. Rather, I’d like to chat about the spiritual side of horror. “Is there one?” you ask. Of course. Good horror works insidiously and deeply on our psyches. After being exposed to something truly spine-tingling, we might check under our beds at night, sleep with a nightlight on, or feel our heart racing as we close our eyes. I love that about the genre: the ripple effect, the transition from art to emotion. Good horror teases forth our primal fears and makes us ask those big questions on life and death—and human kindness and evil.
I’ve read most of Steven King’s early works. I’m a big fan of Peter Straub and Dan Simmons, too. I used to be quite the horror movie aficionado. Mostly the gore-splattered stuff, since those films produced the most viscerally gratifying frights. However, after mom’s treatment and passing, my tastes changed. I didn’t need so much gore, I was quite immune to it. I’d seen worse things in real life, and movie-gore seemed a fake, plastic contrivance. So I stopped watching the genre—especially since so much of it had turned into torture-porn. That’s a real—and disgusting—term, and it’s not simply a label for dark and pornographic films. Instead, it applies to a sub-genre of horror with an almost erotic fixation on victims having the most gruesome acts performed upon them. At the end of the day, it’s pure sensationalist violence. Not my cup of tea.
Yet every now and then, I am struck with the urge to scare myself, to unsettle my equilibrium with disturbing images and/ or prose. Which brings us to last night, when some friends were over and we were surfing around for a “newish” movie to watch. We sat through several trailers, hopped every genre, and somehow ended up in horror. The usual suspects were there: torture-porn, college murder sprees, and a movie called—I shit you not—Zombeavers. There’s a zombie-coed lesbian kiss in the trailer, too. Seemed like a real treasure of a film. We watched Zombeaver’s sizzle reel in morbid fascination, and I was just about to turn off the TV when another, understated, title caught my eye. The Babadook, it was called.
On the surface, the movie’s premise seems to be that of a traumatized parent trying to save their child from the grip of supernatural forces. Only, it’s not that sort of tale at all. The narrative very quickly builds a sombre past and relationship between a mother and her son, wherein he was born at the cost of his father’s life. I won’t spoil the plot, since it’s best unravelled in the poignant, painful scenes between the mother, Amelia, and her son, Samuel. Overshadowing this great unspoken loss (some serious repression is going on), is Samuel’s propensity for fantasy. You see, Samuel believes in monsters. He’s convinced that one has come to roost in their house, and he’s determined to protect his mother from the beast. Samuel’s conviction has caused the lad to act out: making weapons, becoming violent, even having seizures in moments where the creature—invisible to Amelia—manifests its horrific self before him. Eventually, after a mysterious, Edward Gorey style pop-up book is discovered—one that Amelia doesn’t recall having acquired—we have a name and identity for the beast: the Babadook.
The slow-burn of terror in the film is masterfully done. The body count is non-existent—it’s exceptionally rare to see a horror story that doesn’t default to murder (although that act, and the theme of grief-driven vengeance, is explored). There are dozens of subtle, psychological barbs that I will need a second watch of the film to catch. The movie does what good horror should do: it makes you feel for the characters, it makes you believe in monsters, and it takes you on a journey that leaves your head full of the questions we fear to ask ourselves. What pains do we hide? What violent selves and anger lurk within us? To what far and wicked shores can love take us? And what would we sacrifice, what would we accept, if it meant we could be with our loved ones again? After watching the movie, my head is full of questions—and ideas. I’m more inspired than ever to get cracking on that horror manuscript I’ll be penning after Four Feasts Till Darkness. The Babadook has rekindled my love of the dark.
Having said that, if I find any creepy, mysteriously-manifested picture books on my shelf, I’ll just donate them to my local library. I think I’ve had enough spiritual growth through terror for the time being.
All my love,
P.S. Feast of Fates is now available at Chapters/ Indigo! Copies should be rolling out into retail stores starting next week, and if you can’t wait, here’s a link to order a copy online: