This month, and this essay, is for the adults only. The subject matter may be very upsetting;
at some point it will be very upsetting. I strongly recommend the following only for
mature readers. Discretion is advised for sensitive individuals.
It's a question that's been asked time and again: how much is too much?
It's not simply asked in our genre, but in other forms as well. In music: how loud is too loud? In theater and literature: how much ‘reality' is too real, in terms of subject matter and language, among other things?
But for us, the question is: how scary is too scary? And the corollary: can something really be too scary?
The answers depend on where you're standing, most of the time. Those who are not aficionados of the Dark Fantastic are apt to find anything distressing and disturbing ‘too' scary, while genre admirers with a long-time affection will loudly proclaim absolutely not! The scarier the better!
But is this truly the case? The genre, admittedly, has a history of not only confronting taboo subjects but in fact taking them arm-in-arm and dancing frantically with them until they drop, exhausted. Because of this, those who don't understand the dynamics of fear and catharsis often label the field ‘subversive' and ‘immoral', exploiting tragedy and terror and indulging in conduct inappropriate in civilized society.
Some fans scoff at that notion; others defy it by embracing the anarchistic nature of Horror.
But is it an invalid question? Are there standards that shouldn't be breached, lines that shouldn't be crossed? And what of those who cross them?
Let's begin the discussion by agreeing that this is far from a recent argument. Ever since the first author put pen to paper, image to stage or screen, or simply told a frightening tale around a fire, there have been those who've stood ready to pillory him for unsuitable material.
When Bram Stoker first wrote his classic “Dracula” , many critics were aghast. Although most praised the effort for its rich imagination and imagery, some issued warnings that, “ The book must be carefully kept out of the way of anyone with weak nerves…” and “…the ordinary reader will have to take a nerve tonic after its perusal, especially if inclined to timidity…” The same fate met Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein” ; the “Quarterly Review” called it, “ a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.”
In 1894 Oscar Metenier created Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol (“The Theater of the Big Puppet” – Guignol being the name of a famous Punch & Judy-like character) in Paris, France. Holding only 293 seats, it was the smallest and most intimate theater in Paris. It was dedicated to presenting naturalistic theater with utter realism, and it soon became famous for its one-act Horror shows. The stories were brutal, and featured naturally horrific elements of sadism, madness, rape, and graphic, uncontrollable and senseless violence. Special makeup effects created realistic illusions, heightened by the use of disabled actors (performers missing limbs or other body parts) who could actually have their arms cut off and eyes gouged out in simulated butchery.
Audiences would attend, in the words of some critics, because they wanted to be filled with strong feelings of some kind. Some patrons were aroused by the violence, and private boxes beneath the main balcony for patrons to ‘excise' these desires. Members of the audience would often faint of vomit during a particularly vivid performance; one director declared the shows a success if an average of two people passed out per evening. The evenings were considered decadent and avant-garde, and celebrities and royalty often attended incognito. (For a fine example of the Grand-Guignol experience, I recommend the “Theatre des Vampires” section of both the novel and film adaptation of Anne Rice's INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE .)
The experience no doubt had a direct effect on some of the more explicit literary works of de Sade, Poe and others, and can be traced to the violent films of today. The theater's run came to an end in 1962, although some touring companies still exist today, attempting to recreate the experience. The reason the theater closed, according to its final artistic director, Charles Nonon, was the actual events of the Holocaust some years earlier. “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”
When the Hammer films first hit the theaters back in the 1950s, the outcry was immediate. Genre historians railed against the garish colors and melodrama, condemning the violence, bloodshed and sensuality. Ivan Butler, author of “Horror in the Cinema” , criticized DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS as, “a nasty dwelling on the repulsive” and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN with “lurid sensationalism” . The Hammer movies immediately received an “X” certificate in England (where no one under 16 was allowed in to the theaters) and many decried the loss of the “subtlety and atmosphere” that marked the Universal Horror films – conveniently forgetting that the Universal films had come under some harsh scrutiny themselves. (Boris Karloff's FRANKENSTEIN had lines removed about “feeling like God” because of their blasphemous import, and removed the scene of the monster accidentally drowning the young girl as ‘too upsetting'.)
Other films of terror, now considered classic today, were met with shocked disbelief on their original release. LES DIABOLIQUES was called “vulgar, nasty and French” (the last adjective obviously meant as a truly devastating insult, for some reason); Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO was intensely disliked by many when it was released, with reviews ranging from “a blot on an honorable career” and questioning the director's taste and judgment, to one reviewer being so offended she not only walked out of the film but resigned her position with the periodical “The Observer”!
With the coming of the 1960s and a new age of permissiveness in cinema, stage and literature, artists began to take more advantage of the freedom suddenly available to them, and their efforts were often quite controversial. There were the grindhouse/splatter films of Herschell Gordon Lewis such as BLOOD FEAT and 2000 MANIACS that featured graphic carnage and nudity. “Variety” reviewed BLOOD FEAST and called it, “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences.”
Perhaps the most infamous (at that time) Horror film that reflected this new liberalism was George Romero's classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD . Except that upon its initial release it was considered far from a classic; “Variety” (again!) tore it to shreds with its commentary:
“Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism...” (Wow.)
The most famous review came from Roger Ebert, whose critique was reprinted in “Reader's Digest” . Although admiring the movie, he reflected on its effect on sensitive and impressionable audiences.
“The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying... It's hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that's not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It's just over, that's all.”
(Interestingly, two of the critics who recognized the film's worth at the time were Pauline Kael and Rex Reed, critics known for being particularly hard on the Horror genre. Ms. Kael wrote, “…one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made – and when you leave the theatre you may wish you could forget the whole horrible experience. . . . The film's grainy, banal seriousness works for it – gives it a crude realism…” , and Mr. Reed said, “If you want to see what turns a B movie into a classic [...] don't miss NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD . It is unthinkable for anyone seriously interested in horror movies not to see it.”)
1973 brought one of the most infamous films ever released by a major film studio: of course, it's another classic, THE EXORCIST . Its graphic nature went through both the mainstream and genre press like white-hot shrapnel. Never before had a movie revealed in its blasphemous sensationalism. Vincent Canby called it, “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap ... a practically impossible film to sit through ... It establishes a new low for grotesque special effects ...” Andrew Sarris said, “... THE EXORCIST succeeds on one level as an effectively excruciating entertainment, but on another, deeper level it is a thoroughly evil film.” Jon Landau in “Rolling Stone” wrote the film was, “…nothing more than a religious porn film…” And although Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review, he mused at the end of his essay, “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won't be one, because what we get here aren't the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience. Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”
Inside the genre there were opinions similar to Jeff Rovin, author of “The Fabulous Fantasy Films” ( “Clinical gore and tastelessness are as freely exploited as contemporary mores allowed; in a way, we deserve THE EXORCIST .” ) and William K Everson, author of “Classics of the Horror Film” ( “It is perhaps a symptom of our unhealthy times that audiences flocked to THE EXORCIST wanting to be scared, intending to scream, coming away haunted and sickened by it, yet somehow proud of having forced themselves to endure it…If this is the new trend in horror films, we may be in for grim times indeed.”) . Celebrated writers of the Dark Fantastic such as Richard Matheson ( THE TWILIGHT ZONE, DUEL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE ) and Robert Bloch ( PSYCHO, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, THRILLER ) both lamented the turn of the genre towards the graphic and visceral.
There were admirers such as Forrest J. Ackerman of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and filmmaker William Castle ( THE TINGLER, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, ROSEMARY'S BABY ), but in many cases critics simply didn't know what to make of a work as powerful as William Friedkin's effort. Many, however, conceded that perhaps things had gone too far, a cry that would be taken up again in two years with the release of another extremely aggressive piece of moviemaking: Steven Spielberg's JAWS .
The 1970s brought a new type of Horror film to the front; with the success of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (which, to be fair, was far less graphic and much, much more stylish than the imitators that were to follow) the psychological thriller featuring the Masked Killer With A Sharp Implement became the archetype. First out of the starting gate was FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH , with its extremely graphic violence, and the glut of Slasher Movies was a phenomenon. (In the interest of fairness again, understand that I despise this subgenre of Horror, and only find one or possibly two efforts worthwhile.)
Again the critics had their say: things had gone too far. The audiences reveled not in suspense and mood, but simply in enjoyment of sadism and gore, and the classic Horror film had been reduced to the parameters of the so-called “snuff film”, where a Roman-Arena type bloodthirstiness of celebrating death and dismemberment could be indulged. Some of this, of course, was hyperbole, but some of it came from genuinely concerned voices in the field itself that were dismayed at seeing the legacy of Poe, Lovecraft, James and Machen cheapened and coarsened in such a way in the minds of the general public.
The outcry has continued to this day. Now the controversy centers around the “Torture Porn” subgenre typified by movies such as HOSTEL, SAW, FUNNY GAMES , and the AUGUST UNDERGROUND films. These are movies that feature few to no supernatural elements but concern themselves with detailing physical, sexual and psychological abuse of a captor towards his victims. Usually, if not primarily, the victims are women, and the details of their abuse quite graphic and excessively photographed and recorded.
There are those that defend these films as being a realistic reflection of the violence and lack of reverence for human life in modern society. Others find them hypocritical, pretending to condemn the activities presented while capturing them in full bloody color and closeup, playing to the fantasies and fetishes of those in the audience who thrill to this type of misogyny and degradation. (Allow myself to declaim again, in the interest of fairness, that I am firmly in the latter camp.)
Again, perhaps never as emphatically as before, the question is asked: how much is too much?
Is it possible for something to be too scary?
H. P. Lovecraft, who mastered the ‘cosmic terror and awesomeness' school of Horror fiction would often write of some nightmarish and phantasmagorical being or circumstance and warn, “If I told you further details or described them fully, you would go mad! ” Mr. Lovecraft, no fool in his knowledge of human nature, understood that the imagination of the reader, working overtime on their own, would conjure up something far more fearsome and frightful than anything he could categorically describe.
Other authors in the field, and not a few filmmakers as well (I'm thinking particularly of producer Val Lewton, who movies – CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN – were marvels of suggested instead of blatant horror; one of his directors, Jacques Tourneur created his masterpiece CURSE OF THE DEMON in this vein, and another, Robert Wise, went to direct the classic adaptation THE HAUNTING from Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” ) have followed the Master's lead and used this technique to create shadow fears that the readers and audiences would magnify in their own fancies. It was a literary allusion, and its subtlety works wonders in the Dark Fantastic.
But could Horror, or something so horrible, really have that effect on someone. Stephen King, for one, disagrees. In his marvelous textbook “Danse Macabre” he writes:
“The thing is – and a pretty good thing for the human race too, with such neato-keeno things to deal with as Dachau, Hiroshima, the Children's Crusade, mass-starvation in Cambodia, and what happened in Jonestown, Guyana – the human consciousness can deal with almost anything… [Discussing the scene in THE HAUNTING where something bangs on the door but never enters] …‘I cannot describe it', protagonist after protagonist tells us. ‘If I did, you would go mad with fear.' But somehow I doubt that. I think both [Robert] Wise and Lovecraft before him understood that to open the door, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, is to destroy the unified, dreamlike effect of the best horror. ‘I can deal with that,' the audience says to itself, settling back, and bang! You just lost the ballgame in the bottom of the ninth.”
Far be it from me not disagree with one of the modern Masters of Nightmares, but I think Mr. King may be too optimistic in his assessment. I believe it is possible for someone to go mad from too much fear, but perhaps not in the gibbering, white-haired and wide-eyed manner that Mr. Lovecraft implies.
My human companion Bob remembers seeing a film many years ago called THREADS . It's a very well-made movie, impeccably acted and filmed, concerning a nuclear war and its effect on London. (It was made during the time of great concern over nuclear proliferation in the late 1970s and 80s; several films were made with the same theme, including THE DAY AFTER, TESTAMENT and a little-known low-budget gem called MASSIVE RETALIATION ) One of the producers was author/scientist Carl Sagan, who was a vocal participant in the anti-nuclear movement, and he promised that THREADS would be the most realistic and unblinking version of what would happen to society in the aftermath of a conflagration.
Mr. Sagan's, and the filmmakers' efforts were very sincere, and make no mistake, it's a very good movie. However…the stories it tells, and the uncompromising way in which they're told, make the film a truly harrowing and downbeat experience. And while it was meant to be that way, at some point all the misery, horror and tragedy took its toll on Bob, and while watching, he simply shut down emotionally. He felt numb and uninvolved, and stopped caring about the people on the screen and what was befalling them.
When the movie was over he turned it off, unable to say anything, and spent the rest of the evening in absolute depression. He's never seen the movie since, and won't watch it again. He's glad he saw it, and admires its honesty, but he can't recommend it.
And I think that's a good definition of the madness Mr. Lovecraft was talking about. THREADS had been so terrifying, all too much , that at least one viewer had lost his mind, at least temporarily. Yes, the mind can accept anything, but when humanity loses down and the apathy and numbness of the horror sets in, madness is present. Loss of humanity can be the greatest madness of all; I think even Mr. Lovecraft would agree.
(Ironically, Mr. Sagan had criticized the movie THE DAY AFTER as having good intentions but not going far enough in its depiction of the horrors of nuclear annihilation, and promised THREADS would be far more explicit. While he may have had his point, THE DAY AFTER , as horrible as it was, seemed to know how far they could go in shocking and pounding the emotions of its audience, and stopped just before they had gone too far, making it, in Bob's opinion, a more successful movie.)
And I think it endemic of American society that, worth all the tragedies being broadcast nightly on the evening news – random acts of violence, shootings, protests, terrorism – that more and more people are finding it harder and harder to care about those suffering around them. It all becomes too much, and first the emotions are switched off, then the news itself.
I believe this is true of the more graphic and horrible (as opposed to horrifying) movies and books today. Filled with excessive violence, sexual and otherwise, it reduces the humanity of those viewing or reading it. I won't go into the old argument of whether violent movies, books and video games influence people to commit these acts – I think that's a false premise; many watch, read and play without committing atrocities – but I do believe it makes such actions far more acceptable in the real world. It takes away some of the humanity and empathy that's so important to day-to-day living.
And so we have men threatening women on the Internet with rape and death simply for disagreeing about a video game. We have children who believe that the only solution to conflict is the gun or the fist because they've seen that rationale so many times in entertainment growing up, and the being strong means being ruthless and heartless. We see youngsters watching the worst degradations performed on women in the most horrific circumstances, and they ask for more and more with bloodier effects. There is no thought to the victims, or the families and friends of the victims; they're simply characters in films and video games, and if they're raped and butchered and mutilated, so what? It isn't real.
And there is the loss, and the madness. And when the real thing does occur, the reaction is far more muted than it might or should be.
I recently watched an episode of the television series HANNIBAL , based on the novels by Thomas Harris, concerning the iconic villain Hannibal Lector. I didn't care for the show; I won't go into all my reasons, but one of them was my disturbance at the continued elevation of a sociopathic cannibal into a modern folk hero. (And no, I don't care to debate this.)
The show had begun adapting material from the novels, particularly “Red Dragon” , the first of Mr. Harris's books. In the book, there is a confrontation between the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, also known as ‘The Tooth Fairy' , and a reporter for a tabloid, Freddy Lounds, who'd been covering the killer's crimes. Mr. Lounds had written something the killer hadn't liked, and so he kidnapped the reporter and, in a powerful scene in the book, terrified him while he was tied to a wheelchair. After eliciting a confession on his activities from the frightened journalist, Dolarhyde informed him of his future plans, then, inserting a pair of metal teeth (his signature) into his mouth, bit off the lips of the reporter.
The book “Red Dragon” is one of my favorite Horror novels; impeccably paced and written. That scene in the book is properly horrifying and unforgettable. When the movie was made into a film in 1986 named MANHUNTER , the scene was preserved in all its terror, and it also was unforgettable. The director and screenwriter, Michael Mann, staged it beautifully, with misdirection; we saw Dolarhyde insert the metal teeth, he spoke a chilling line – “Let's seal it with a kiss” – and the camera watched from a full screen wide angle behind Dolarhyde as he approached the terrified Lounds. The camera pulled back slowly and away from the two as Dolarhyde bent over his captive, and we heard the screams of the wounded Lounds – and we saw nothing. All was suggested, and our imaginations portrayed more than could ever be shown. The scene has remained with me as much as its source in the novel.
On the recent episode of HANNIBAL , the same scene occurred, more drawn out because it was part of a weekly series instead of a film or book. There were more histrionics and ranting, far less subtlety in the performances than the excellent Tom Noonan brought to Dolarhyde in MANHUNTER , and as the scene drew to a close we saw the killer insert the metal teeth, move over to the captive Freddy Lounds, clamp down on his lips as he began screaming, and tear them from his face, pulling them away in a bloody, gory mess – all in loving closeup. I turned off the television.
What to say? Well, I am long past the age when simply gory makeup effects make me clap my hands and squeal with glee, or nod admiringly at the artistry. It was needlessly graphic, needlessly explicit; worst of all, it was dull . Dull, dull, dull . It wasn't the least bit frightening or heart-stopping; it wasn't haunting n the lightest the way Mr. Mann's version was. It was imply violent. And I didn't care.
I can understand why the producers did it this way. As I've written before, when even medical dramas such as HOUSE MD and police procedurals such as CSI broadcast the most graphic carnage, disease and bloodshed that wouldn't have passed network standards twenty years ago, the makers of Dark Fantasy seem to feel the need to go one better and push the envelope further. But if pushing the envelope simply means to become more graphic and lave nothing to the imaginations of the viewers, I think it become pointless.
Many people think Horror is easy to produce. It isn't. By the nature of its manipulation of emotions and taboo subjects often unexplored, it is the most challenging material to write and film, as challenging as comedy. It requires all the skills of the creators and artists involved to successfully pull off their intentions. But just as today we see so many witless, humorless comedies, we see far more tepid, unfrightening Horror films. More and more filmmakers seem to think that all that's required to make audiences laugh is bodily function humor, and I suppose in the lowest common denominator they succeed. Equally familiar is the Horror film where blood is thrown haphazardly at the camera, limbs are torn off, and more money is spent on latex gore than the script. And while preteens may find these efforts nightmarish, I think far more sophisticated viewers, even lifelong fans of the genre, respond with a yawn and a slow clap. It doesn't really frighten or disturb.
So more blood is thrown, more brutality is featured, more loving closeups of screaming women are featured, more limbs are severed, and the battle is lost before it even began.
The audience is left viewing a corpse, in more ways than one.
Some of you are aware that for many years I've been involved in the haunted attraction industry. I started with the late, lamented Haunted Theater in Norristown, PA, just 45 minutes outside Philadelphia, one of the premiere haunted houses in Pennsylvania. For the past two years I've been a member of the Haunted Mill Tour at Blue Ox Millworks here on the Lost Coast in Eureka, CA. I've made special appearances at various haunted houses across the United States, most notably Netherworlds in Atlanta, GA, annually voted one of the Top Ten haunted attractions in the US. And I spent ten years as a featured performer, along with my fellow Patient Creatures, at Six Flags Americas October Fright Fest event outside Washington DC.
While haunted houses have much of the same criteria as a good film or book, there are differences. Haunted attraction are live, so the experience is often more visceral and immediate. There is more of an emphasis on the “jump” scare without the narrative buildup of a book or movie, and the experience is often fragmented into various sections – a classic Gothic crypt, a SF flavored apocalyptic wasteland, an industrial zombie-filled urban environment.
It still requires all the skills necessary for a great filmic experience, with top performers and technical people, but unlike the movies listed above, the question most often asked isn't “Is it too scary?” but rather, “Is it scary enough? ” The target audience, usually teens to young adults, have preset expectations of the thrill-ride live theater experience, and are looking to jump, shriek and shock as many times and as often as possible, and the creators and producers of the best attractions want their customers to get more than their money's worth.
To accomplish this, in addition to the months of carefully planning, building and rehearsing these events, there are test runs where customers are sent through and their reaction gauged very carefully by all involved. If there are parts that don't work as well as planned, they are either adjusted or, in some extreme cases, scrapped completely and new ideas are hurriedly submitted. I've taken part in these as well and offered my advice on improving the presentation.
In many ways, this is analogous to out-of-town previews on Broadway or special sneak screenings for upcoming films. Comments are solicited, and often films and plays are edited to audience specifications. (Stanley Kubrick, famous for his visionary and very independent visions and approach to filmmaking, was also quite dependent on audience previews to help with the final edited, moving the pace of the films along and taking out sequences that bored or seemed superfluous or out-of-place.)
Of course, one can't completely know if an attraction has succeeded or not until the paying customers arrive, and once this happens there can be an almost fanatical desire to make certain that the event is perfect – forgetting for the moment that nothing in the world can be perfect. And any criticism, actual or perceived, is turned over obsessively by the staff. “Some people said this isn't scary enough! Some people didn't like it! What went wrong? What do we need to change? How can we fix it?!?”
I speak honestly – unless it is quite clear through a genuine consensus, or unless something physical detracts from the experience – say that a particular tight corner of the attraction is slowing down the flow of customers and becoming congested – I tend to take all criticisms after opening with a huge handful of salt. I think if enough care and planning has been put into the event beforehand, post-attraction critiques are, for the most part, negligible.
Why? Certainly not laziness on my part, or defensiveness on something that has been worked on for months through valiant effort. No, it's because, after years of experience in haunted events, I'd learned some basic truths. First:
In the words of the great Doctor Gregory House: “Everyone lies.”
This is absolutely true, especially in the fear industry. I've personally followed men and women through a haunted attraction, watched them peek hesitantly around a dark, foreboding corner, watched them approach empty doorways with trepidation, seen them jump at sudden movement to the right or left, observed them flinching or screaming at loud noises around them, only to emerge into the bright lights after the exit, take a deep breath and proclaim, “That wasn't scary at all!”
I don't know why; perhaps a need to assert bravado, or to appear unaffected by art in the worst hipster/iconoclastic manner. Perhaps they're embarrassed, or feel a need to assert control over a situation that unnerved them. For whatever reason, I know this happens more often than not, and can be safely discounted.
Mind you, as I said before, if there is a clear consensus on a shortcoming, and the criticisms are specific – if there's too much fog in a certain section and it's difficult to navigate, or if a particular performer is jumping too late to be effective or too soon to another scare to minimize the effect desired – these should be taken seriously and corrected accordingly. But, as usually happens, if one individual says, “The zombies weren't scary enough,” and another proclaims, “The vampire didn't scare me,” or a third mentions, “The skeleton jack-in-the-box was stupid!” you can safely ignore the comments. As Stephen King says regarding writing, not everyone will like every part, and if there's no specific unified opinion, all ties go to the creators.
The second reason is even simpler: Some people simply will not be frightened of anything .
I've found this to be true as well. Just as some people will sit in the front row of an audience for a comedian, arms folded, with a go ahead, make me laugh! expression on their faces and not crack a smile once; just as some people will sit through an exhilarating concert of either classic or contemporary music and not get caught up in the melodies at any time; some people will attend a Horror film or event and yawn throughout the most intense, unsetting moments.
Again, I have no idea why they choose to do this. Why would you want to submit yourself to an experience that is predetermined to disappoint? And to be fair, perhaps some people are simply unable to suspend their disbelief and look beyond the karo syrup blood and plastic entrails, are unable to ignore the papier-mâché gargoyles and painted flats and surrender to the fantasy, or have ice water in their veins and don't scare. (These people would probably make excellent test pilots.)
In that case, no amount of fixing will make the event more palatable, and you can safely discount them as well. If you've given them an entertaining evening, if you've populated the haunted attraction with fascinating sights and sounds and given them interesting things to look at and listen to, you've done all you can humanly do, and all that's required. All drama, especially interactive theater like a spookhouse, is a collaborative effort between the players and the audience, and if the audience doesn't want to hold up their part of the contract, the loss is theirs.
For a final time, I'm not excusing poor showmanship or sloppy presentation; I'm simply observing that most creators of haunted attractions approach their work with enthusiasm, talent, creativity and, in the words of the sage, clean hands and composure. They've used all their skills to the very best of their abilities, and if there is any failures along the way, it must simply be chalked up to the vagaries of the public's tastes.
To paraphrase Cassius, the fault may not lay in themselves, but in the stars. It could be a particularly rainy night, or the crowd may have had a bit too much celebrating before they've arrived (I've seen this happen more than a few times and have been dismayed each time it occurs); the customers may have had to wait in traffic a long time to drive to the event, or they may have had a particularly tiring day at work. For whatever reason, in most cases, the question of “Is it scary enough?” can be dispensed with without any sense of culpability on the conscience of the producers and performers.
Which brings us to the topic of “Extreme Haunted Experiences.”
For the past few years I've been aware that there are certain haunted attractions across the United States that are promising absolute, uncompromising terror, subjecting their patrons to abuse and degradation that would shame the creators of the most vile Torture Porn, all in the name of Halloween entertainment. I've sat aghast and astonished at the trailers run online, and come away deeply saddened not only for the individuals experiencing such an event, not only for the dark, sick minds that are capable of creating such an environment, but for the haunted attraction industry in itself for sanctioning such practices.
Let me state my opinion completely up front, without any attempt to be politic or tactful: I find these events shameful, obscene and pathetic, and consider the creators of these horrors the same. I think they're an insult to the time-honored haunted house industry and tradition, and although I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and the pursuit of whatever entertainment you enjoy without interference so long as it harms no one else , were it within my power I would ban these events, so much do I despise them.
For those staring in disbelief at that last paragraph, not the italicized phrase: so long as it harms no one else . For I believe that these so-called ‘entertainments are inherently harmful to their customers, to their performers, and in the long run to the industry.
Rather than expend another thousand words describing these experiences, I offer the following trailer video as an example of what these places inflict on their patrons. Please note I certainly do not endorse the event being presented; it is merely an example. I also very highly recommend that those with sensitive dispositions and delicate sensibilities refrain from viewing this, and absolutely no children should watch this for any reason.
You have been dutifully warned. Click on the image below at your own discretion. (For those who choose not to watch the video, I recommend THIS LINK to a fine article from the “The Week” by Charles Moss giving an overview of the phenomenon.)
What to say?
I suppose the logical question to ask is, what kind of individual would want to submit to this kind of treatment? For myself, however, I ask what kind of individual would want to inflict this sort of abuse on another human being?
This isn't a simple pop out from behind a door, shout boo! And make somebody jump slightly. That' a harmless scare, a fun scare, like fireworks suddenly exploding overhead. This isn't simulated torture, with the blood and gore supplied by latex makeup, fake blood and manikins. This is the genuine article.
Electric shocks, immersing someone's head in water, flashing lights, imprisoning them in a cage filled with snakes – this is actual torture . This is what people were convicted of and sent to jail for at Guantanamo Bay. This is what is condemned by every human rights organization on the planet.
Look at the photo below of an actual political prisoner, and tell me what the difference is between the two. Because one group is paying for this privilege? Because they're signing waivers? That makes everything all right?
What in heaven's name will happen that fateful night when something goes terribly wrong? And something will go terribly wrong; that's only human nature and the way the universe operates. Someone will miscalculate, or get too caught up in the power play, and someone will be genuinely, seriously injured. What then? An apology? A refund?
The brutality of another human being is far beyond anything in the canon of the Dark Fantastic. We're now in the darkest aspects of human nature that produced goose-stepping fascists and genocidal persecutors. Am I speaking ludicrous hyperbole? I don't believe so.
There is a dark side to human nature, and the darkest aspect that has been recorded is the compulsion to injure others if a) it is part of a mob mentality or b) if there is an element of power that one group wields over another. This is what makes some police officers abuse and kill their perpetrators, what makes some prison guards brutalize their inmates, and what makes some soldiers commit atrocities such as those found at My Lai.
In 1971, a college professor at Stanford University, Phillip Zimbardo, conducted a famous social experiment. He asked for student volunteers, and 24 were selected. The volunteers were divided arbitrarily into two groups; one was to represent prisoners, and the other to represent guards. They were closed into the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building for what was to be a period of seven to fourteen days. The students were filmed and observed at all times, and the experiment was simply to see what would happen in this situation.
The students were well aware that this wasn't a ‘real' prison; they knew very well that they weren't really ‘guards' and their charges had committed no crimes, and weren't actual ‘prisoners'. Everyone was free to quit and leave whenever they wanted to; it wasn't ‘real', any more ‘real' than the extreme haunted houses are. (As you see, I'm already anticipating that argument from the defenders of these attractions.)
But the experiment had to be terminated after only six days, because in six days – six days! – because the experiment had succeeded beyond Dr. Zimbardo's wildest dreams. Because after only six days, the students portraying the ‘guards' had begun asserting a tyrannical authority over the ‘inmates', had actually begun abusing them physically and psychologically. Their power over another human being became absolute and all too real, and they asserted it without thought or conscience. (In fact, several of the ‘guards' were upset when the experiment was stopped after only six days.)
A photo from the actual Stanford experiment.
(There have been several films based on the research, including a 2001 German movie titled DAS EXPERIMENT and a film released just this year titled THE STANDFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT . You might want to check them out for further information.)
The students who played the guards were not ‘evil', any more than those participating in the extreme haunted attractions are ‘evil'. But having such power over another human being in a terribly enticing and exhilarating feeling, and it is the extraordinary individual who can resist these impulses. (How many news reports have we witnessed about an individual who was once honest and sincere becoming involved in corruption and illegal activities offer the excuse, “It just all got away from me; I don't know how it started, but it just got out of hand?”)
In an issue of “Rue Morgue” , a magazine that examines the culture of Horror, some readers took exception to the recent trend in Horror and Torture Porn in featuring sexual brutality and rape as a plot device. In a later issue, another reader (male) responded that these movies weren't harming anyone; they weren't ‘real'! And then he added, “I enjoy watching Rape Movies; there's nothing wrong with them!”
I enjoy watching Rape Movies . Here is the madness Lovecraft described. Here is the subjugation of the value of human life and dignity through constant exposure to violent video games, films and books. Someone who honestly can't see anything wrong in that pronouncement, and proudly and without self-consciousness proclaiming “I enjoy watching Rape Movies.”
What can be done, besides hoping that someone will catch up to that individual and get them the help they need before they do damage to anyone? I don't know. As the article noted above concludes, “And while they may go too far someday, the high prices and long lines are proof that wherever the line is, hardcore horror fans don't think it's been crossed yet.”
Hardcore Horror fans? I don't know that I'd label them as such. I don't know what reverence they hold for the traditions of the genre. I don't know that they have any experience with this rich tradition whatsoever, which saddens me. And I echo the words of Mr. Ebert above, “ Are people so numb they need…this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”
I hope not, sincerely. But I'm deeply disturbed, deeply offended, and fear troubled times are ahead, and the questions “How much is too much?” and “How scary is too scary?” may be becoming moot.