The Fear that Fuels Us

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I don’t have the sort of nightmares that most other people have. Instead of my dreams containing the horrors of monsters and murderers, my nightmares contain the dreadful terror of running late for a plane flight and showing up to a class not realizing that it’s the day of a midterm. A lot of my life is riddled with mundane fears and the anxiety of a certain loss of control.

Fear is a strange emotion. Unlike happiness or sadness, it is an emotion we often feel over something that has yet to even happen. I once read that “terror” is the anticipation of what we fear whereas “horror” is a result of what we fear, and both can seem to work in tandem. I have found that it can be easy to live in a vicious cycle of fear, caught in the vortex of anxiously trying to avoid what I am terrified of and reacting to the horrors of what I have already seen happen.

Fear can do weird things to us. It can cause us to live in a state of perpetual avoidance and anxiety. It can cause us to be chronically suspicious of certain people or groups. It can cause us to lose sleep, to act defensively, and to shut our doors. And it can also drive us to reactively rage against anything that may seem to be a potential threat to us, our family, or our tribe.

I’m convinced a large part of why we live in a culture of outrage is because we are deeply, deeply afraid.

We take to social media with our arguments and heated opinions because sometimes we find ourselves afraid that others don’t agree with the future we see to be the best. Other times, we take to it out of a fear of our own loneliness. We want retweets to know our voice means something. We want likes to know we are being heard because the alternative is too hard to stomach. What if we really are all alone and our voice doesn’t really matter?

We see it in our homes and without. A fear that we won’t be or aren’t loved. A fear that the outside world will corrupt us or hurt us. A fear that we won’t be able to provide for ourselves or our families. A fear that we are losing power or balance. A fear that we are insignificant. A fear that we will die alone. A fear that we have no control.

So many of these chronic fears breed anxiety and paranoia. Sometimes we may find ourselves afraid when we have no reason to be, or at very least we seek out something to dread because we’ve gotten so used to it. We are drawn to sensational news headlines and hit-pieces like a moth to flame because often times it fuels us or legitimizes our anxieties.

Sometimes our fears are reasonable, and other times they are not. Sometimes our fears are helpful for our own safety, and other times they are not.

If you’ve read this blog before you may know that I like particular sorts of horror films. As I watch them, I’ve begun to realize that the best horror films in the last couple years have been the ones which force you to sit in terror rather than constantly bombard you with horror. So often these films force you to feel the weight of everything the characters are experiencing in a way that often makes you forget the anxieties you are currently experiencing in reality. There is a build-up which is often met with a horrifying climax in the final sequences of the film. In this final moment of terror (and perhaps catharsis), all of your attention is directed at one thing. All of your senses and thoughts are forced to interact with one thing which so immediately presents itself and forces you to have to address it. All the mundane fears I have going on in the back of my mind seem to lose focus on the greater fear before me during those films.

Of course this doesn’t rid horror-goers of fear. All of us leave that self-contained place of approaching fear and go back home to the mundane and existential fears that tend to breath down our necks. A life without fear seems like an impossibility even for those who try to confront it.

John’s vision of Jesus in the book of Revelation (1:9-18) and the Transfiguration account in Matthew (17:1-12) have intrigued me lately. I’ve been curious to see how those present with Jesus react to him in his glorified state. In the Revelation account John sees a vision of Jesus beaming, radiant, and powerful, and as a response John collapses “as though dead.” Peter, James and John similarly see Jesus transfigured and then hear the voice of God and subsequently “fell on their faces” in fear.

We’ve been tuned to think that only things that are evil or destructive are things that we should fear. Despite knowing Jesus, John still fell in fear of him. He knows he is wholly good, that he is not evil at all… but he still collapses. In that moment, all of his attention was on him and he was overwhelmed by his holiness and power. In a moment of horror, he collapsed before someone infinitely more powerful and good than him.

Yet in that moment we see Jesus (unlike the axe-murderer or xenomorph or demon showing its ugly head and striking down a character in a horror film), in all his glory and power, reach down and touch him in kindness. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters which drive humans to despair and insanity simply by being in their presence, we see Jesus touch his friends in their moment of ultimate horror and proceeds to tell them told not to fear.

To be met with kindness by someone with more power than ourselves is an unusual thing to our human sensibilities.

On one hand I think many of us moderns want to not have to fear anything because we want to be in control of as much as we can. But here it seems to me that Jesus is saying, “have no fear,” because he has ultimate control and power. As he proceeds to say, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” 

Often we tend to fear that which is out of our control or that which has more power than us. And sometimes we attempt to acquire control and power so that we can avoid the very fears that plague us. But here Jesus is saying that he has ultimate power and ultimate control, and thus deserves to be feared, yet, unlike so many of the things and people we meet in this world with a lot of power, he meets us with a gentle and merciful touch.

We can attempt to find enough control in our lives to suppress our fears, but we will always find ourselves fearful when the cracks over our own illusions of control begin to show. We can’t make our fears disappear completely on our own. Rather, in a paradoxical sort of way, the only resolution to our fears is by surrendering control over to one who has infinitely more power than us.

Fear doesn’t cast out fear because a bigger fear will always replace a lesser fear. Thankfully for us, the greatest thing we could possibly fear shows us that he loves us and tells us not to fear.

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A Disease Worse Than Death: A Review of “It Comes at Night”

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The modern horror genre often does not leave much up to the imagination when it comes to stirring up fear in its viewers. Whether it be a crazed killer with a machete, a grotesque demonic figure, or a flesh-craving alien, most pop-horror films leave you only a short amount of time until you can see in vivid detail what is wrong and who or what is committing that wrong. Unlike most of these films, Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” leaves almost everything up to the imagination, and it is every bit as terrifying  as most pop-horror films without relying on jump-scares to rattle its audience.

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with a disease which is left intentionally vague besides a few details: it is spread through touch and it comes at night. The opening sequences involve the main protagonistsa husband and wife and their sonpreparing to euthanize the plagued grandfather of their family. We are told there are probably only a handful of people left in the world, and that those remaining have turned violent and desperate for survival. This family does not take any extra risks of their own survival as evidenced by there only being one way in and out of their carefully boarded-up home. It’s not long before there’s a bump in the night, and something is found lurking in their house. It turns out to be a reasonable and likable man trying to find water for his family. The intruder tells them that his family is 50 miles away and in desperate need of food and water, but something still seems off. Something always seems off in this filmjust *off* enough to get under your skin.

From the very beginning til the very end of the film, the fear of the unknown is at the center. There are no ghosts or demons to buffer this fundamentally human fear instead we are left to experience each aching moment of paranoia that these protagonists must deal with in their frightening world.

Many techniques are utilized throughout the film to help produce an atmosphere just haunting enough to leave you emotionally shaken and deeply confused: eerie lighting, visual illusions, maddening dream sequences, oddly-paced dialogue, and claustrophobic, alternating aspect ratios . This is not your normal pop-horror film. You do not get jump-scaresyou get dread. You do not get a wholly evil villainyou get people like yourself. You do not get a disturbing answer as much as you get a horrifying silence.

This fear of the unknown is everywhere in this film and in so much of our world today: in strangers, in the dark, in the disease, and in death. There is a real threat though, and it is not a film that pretends there is an easy solution. Distrust, fear, anxiety, and paranoia are understandable responses to the worlds in which we and these protagonists live, but this horror film does not let you naively assume that “survival of the fittest” is an easy pill to swallow. Instead it makes you slowly choke on it. You can board up your house and live in defensive isolation hoping for the extinction of everyone else, but what happens when those inside start to show signs of not only an external disease but of an internal and even more heinous disease?

Self-preservation may get you an extra day or month or year in a diseased world, but it is hard to imagine a life without hospitality, trust, vulnerability, or friendshiphowever costly these things may be. Is it the length or quality of our lives that matter? “It Comes at Night” simultaneously rejects a sentimental altruism or a glorified egoism. Each character’s decisions come at the expense of their physical life or their own soul. Hospitality may bring a disease inside your home, but Xenophobia may reveal an even more serious disease emerging from within your own house.

There is very little redemption within the universe of this film. In a diseased world, everything dies, and that darkness is coming for each and every one of us. Thankfully from a Christian perspective, the disease doesn’t have the final say. The words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew have been ringing in my head since I watched the film’s sober ending, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I realize this must bear eternity in mind with the temporal, yet this film has no sense of eternity or afterlife. All that is is what will be and nothing else. Bodies are burned, and no funerals are given.  Death is the end of all things in this film, and it’s everywhere. Without a promise of a resurrection or a world fully restored in the life to come, open doors, open tables, or even open hearts are a risk many may deem not worthy of being taken in light of death’s creeping imminence. 

This film doesn’t pull any punches in revealing the deep fear and anxiety many of us have in making the most of our fragile, little lives especially as it is expressed through humanity’s neurotic control-issues and distrust of the unknown. But in turning in on ourselves and turning toward our own individual survival, we see that these characters are perhaps just as sick as those outside their house despite having much more than most in their world. Ironically, in pursuit of a full life, they had been losing theirs all along. 

“It Comes at Night” is a despairing film but uses that despair to tell us something. Its observations on humanity, survival, and inhospitality hit deeply. And seems to pound its audience with a question repeatedly from beginning til end and even on the car ride home:

Is avoiding what is in the darkness for more life and less love better than embracing what is in the darkness for more love and less life?

 

Where Our Fears Reside

It’s Halloween again. A holiday with a lot of baggage, yet a holiday that allows us to all get together and experience fear together without being frowned upon.

There are few things that I love more than getting together with a couple friends and watching a horror film or wandering through a haunted attraction. There is something to experiencing a common fear with them and processing it together after the fact. Sometimes we need to be able to point at something common and say out-loud, “That scared the hell out of me.” Too often are we left to process our fears in the isolating darkness of our own hearts and minds.

Ever since I was in middle-school, I have always been drawn towards darker films and books. I could not have placed a finger on why at the time, besides maybe just experiencing something curious. But if I would have to guess now, I think I enjoyed them because I found an ironic solace in the darkness of these stories. Stephen King once wrote that, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” And for me, knowing someone has experienced something painful enough to want to put it into story, is actually surprisingly consoling.  It makes me feel connected. It reminds me that I am not alone in my own particular terrors.

It is no surprise that Mr. King often uses the scary clowns, vicious dogs, demonic shopkeepers, and reanimated corpses as means to really discuss the true horrors. In almost all of King’s books are characters with deeply human stories that often involve trauma, abuse, loneliness, and other human afflictions, and to be honest, these characters’ stories are far scarier a thing than the more tangible nightmares. And one of King’s best gifts is helping his readers enter into these character’s stories while simultaneously not letting them avoid their own stories in the process. King forces me to deal with my own horrors if I am to really understand the horrors of his characters.

I do not think it is any surprise that when I have talked to many of my friends who have been hiding secrets (like their sexual orientation or a past abuse for example) their whole lives to discover that often they have some connection to the horror genre. For many of us, including myself, the horror genre has been a way to help alleviate the anxieties of being alone with our fears. Watching Sigourney Weaver’s character alone in space with a terrifying Xenomorph in “Alien” let me understand that isolation and the fear of never getting help is a real and legitimate fear. Watching “The Babadook” let me understand (to a certain degree) the horror of losing someone you love and having to deal with a sadness that may never go away in this life (whatever the sadness may have originated from). And reading Stephen King’s “It” reminded me that the horrors in our past and present are in need of being addressed together in community.

The horror genre surely has a lot of garbage within it, no doubt, but horror done right can be a great gift to its viewers. And for many of us, it has allowed our own private fears to escape the festering context of our own hearts and minds. Like a loud lament inviting others to bring their own laments with them, good horror can invite us to bring your own fears to the surface and to hopefully enter them into a larger, more communal context.

The Hidden Purpose of the Horror Genre

It’s October finally, and there’s something to the brisk air, change in colors, and taste of human flesh pumpkin spice that just feels right to me. And if you’re a particular brand of weirdo (like me), October means you get to watch or read as much horror as you’d like without feeling guilty about it.

I find it interesting that I’m writing this post only a couple blocks away from the home (in Providence, RI) of the creator of Cthulu: H.P. Lovecraft. I owe him a great deal of respect for influencing some of my all time favorite horror authors and for much of the premise of this post. He and several other authors have shown me that horror can serve a purpose by expressing truth to an audience that has a hard time seeing it.

To give you some of his background, in Lovecraft’s worldview we exist in a materialistic universe, and we are thus meaningless and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and his stories typically convey those beliefs pretty well. His stories, typically consist of some character(s) stumbling upon the existence of an increasingly more powerful, intelligent, and malevolent creature than man. And when his characters become aware of these creatures, they are often driven to insanity. The recognition of these other “gods” drives these human characters insane because it would seem to prove that humans are essentially nothing in comparison to a creature that could (and will) simply wipe out humanity in the flick of its wrist. In Lovecraft’s mind, humans are simply a product of a chaotic universe, and he rightly shows that the implications of that are a horror in and of themselves. His worldview bleeds into these “cosmic-horror” stories, and although I profoundly disagree with his worldview, he does something incredibly well with the horror genre which I think modern horror-authors have typically failed to do.

Essentially, Lovecraft uses terror to present what he believes to be true. I’m not just deducing this either. Listen to him, “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” Lovecraft struck gold in presenting his worldview through the means of horror. Consider this approach to horror in contrast with the modern horror trend of simply desiring the audience to be startled or grossed out for the sake of being startled or grossed out. And he’s not the only one who’s done this with the genre.

Another notable (although she’d never want to be described this way) horror writer was Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor was known for her disturbingly subversive stories and grotesque characters. She also was a Roman Catholic who once said about her own writing, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” Speaking of remarkable utilizers of horror… O’Connor may very well be one of the best.

Arguably one of the greatest things about O’Connor was how well she understood both the religious and irreligious culture that she was speaking to through her stories: “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.” With an audience like the one she describes, is it any wonder she chose such a disruptive medium of truth-telling? Or to contextualize a bit, is it any wonder she chose to write deeply disturbing and troublesome stories in a culture similar to our own — one that James K.A. Smith recently described by saying, “[our society] wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat, tunes we can dance to. We live for the “hook,” that turn that makes it all OK, that lets us shake it off and distract ourselves to death.”

I’m not saying that romantic-comedies are bad or that the newest Netflix comedy is utterly devoid of truth, but I do think the “upbeat” medium is the one our culture can most easily shut off their minds and use to tune out of reality. O’Connor goes on to reaffirm this, “when you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

I believe this to be horror at its finest. To a culture that is hard of hearing, nearly blind, and content with distraction, truth must often be expressed in an unsettling manner for it to sink in. 

This is not at all to say that every horror story is truth-telling nor is it to say that everyone should watch horror. As I said before, much of modern horror likes to draw the “large and startling figures” but for no other reason than feeding off a particular audience that simply wants to see the “large and startling figures.” But to those who are intrigued to partake, I want to at least suggest a good place to start among modern horror.

**Minor spoilers ahead**

Of recently, The Babadook by Jennifer Kent has stolen my attention. Not only is it truly scary, but it’s well acted, well produced, and well written. It’s a quality film all-around. But that’s not quite why it stood out to me among other horror films. Why I loved it so much is because of how it helped me see into the life of another and helped me understand myself in a way that I probably could not have through any other genre of film.

To summarize the film, The Babadook is an allegorical film personifying grief as a monster. The protagonist in this story is a wife whose husband got killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital to give birth to the second protagonist – her son. The first quarter of the film centers around the difficult life of a coping widow and her difficult son who (in her eyes) was the indirect cause of her husband’s death. The wife can hardly sleep, can hardly get out of bed, can hardly continue to deal with the well-meaning but unhelpful words of friends, and can hardly take care of her own son who is preoccupied with the existence of an imaginary monster. The stress, anxiety, and despair just seem to keep piling on and piling on until one night the son asks the mother to read him a new book called “The Babadook.”

And I won’t give away much detail, but the book is not a pleasant book. It’s a book that opens up a whole new kind of grief, a whole new kind of despair, a whole new kind of nagging oppression. The book opens up to the readers an unpleasant visitor known as… the Babadook.

And the Babadook isn’t your typical horror monster. He’s far more terrifying. He doesn’t just appear at night. He doesn’t just show up in the haunted house. He’s everywhere and encountered even with just the thought of him. And even after the disposal of the book, the book soon reappears with words claiming that things will only get worse with further denial of the creature’s existence. Worst of all, there’s an insistence that you can’t get rid of him. He’s there to stay.

I won’t spoil the ending too much because I really do want you to go watch it if you think you can handle it, but I’ll let the director’s own words speak into it, “You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it.”

I’d highly suggest after watching the film to go read Jennifer Kent’s interview about it. It’s profound into how she uses horror to portray her own experiences with grief. For instance, she articulates, “I’ve lost people, I’ve lost my dad, I know what that feels like, and it feels like it’s never going to end. So I think it’s important to have stories that can help you through…Can you imagine this story as a domestic drama? It would be so melodramatic and stupid. I like films where I’m forced to feel something… If cinema can be visceral, then it’s great. And horror allows that to happen unashamedly.

Yet again, horror demonstrating something that no other genre probably can.

These types of horror stories may be hard to come by, but I assure you, there’s goodness to be found in this genre… though that goodness may be unsettling and may urge you to leave the lights on.