Horror, Again

I am always interested to see how horror movies treat exorcism, demons, priests (usually), and the threat of evil. So I started watching a Spanish-language movie called The Day of the Lord (Menendez Parte 1: El día del Señor; 2020, streaming on Netflix). I was willing to overlook some of the hyper-dramatized acting, but I had to turn it off when, in a dream, the crucifixes had unintentionally humorous CGI imposed on them. So I started a different sort of exorcism story, with Aaron Eckhart as a scientist who can, Inception-like, enter into the possessed people’s minds by being put into an artificial sleep—or something. The details on how it works are a bit hazy.

In Incarnate (2016; also streaming on Netflix), as the story is slowly revealed, Dr. Ember (Eckhart) has been chasing the demon who was responsible for crashing a drunken driver into his family and killing his wife and children. He explains to the representative from the Roman Catholic diocese that whatever the various religions call them (demons, djinn, etc.), they are actually parasites that essentially put the people to sleep and then feed off their energy. So the way that Ember is able to rescue them is by entering into that “sleep,” where the demon/parasite is holding them captive by means of what they most desire, and waking them up with a real memory.

It is all much more unbelievable (and sillier) than actual demon possession. This is one use of the horror genre: to tell the story of a person via his interactions with evil. Here it is Dr. Ember, consumed by grief and the desire for vengeance against “Maggie” (which is the name of the possessed drunk driver, but it is also, ridiculously, what everyone—including another demon!—calls the demon). Ember ultimately sacrifices himself (or attempts to do so) in order to kill Maggie forever. In this case, the movie, in spite of Aaron Eckhart, Carice van Houten, and Catalina Sandino Moreno (who have all been in far better films) is less than successful.

Some horror films settle for depicting evil and horrific events. The best ones do far more: they expose and unmask the horrors that we have accepted as typical and that we pretend are not horrible. This is related to the use of satire, I think, because satire pushes our assumptions, presuppositions, and arguments to their limits—and often beyond—in order to expose the absurdity of what we take for granted.

This sub-genre of horror causes us to see as dangerous, immoral, or evil something that we take for normal. For example, at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival, in the short block called Nightmare on Short Street, there are two films in particular that expose a sinister side to certain things we would consider ordinary. Mama Retreat takes the ordinary idea of pregnant women relaxing prior to giving birth, escalates it with an expensive retreat where one Hispanic woman is surrounded by white women spouting platitudes and speaking condescendingly about their pregnancies and their children, and turns it dark when the true intentions of the other women are exposed (a different take on the Rosemary’s Baby fear). The fears and anxieties associated with giving birth are enlarged in order to expose both presumptions about birth in general, as well as pregnancy differences in various cultures.

Rooted makes us reconsider visually the prevalence of genetic testing to uncover our genealogies. The main character’s white girlfriend (who studies anthropology) is more excited than he is about discovering his particular African ancestry. But the more prominent idea is that genealogy may uncover disturbing things about our ancestors and what was done to them or what they did. It may (literally, in this case) suck us in to a reality of which we were unaware. What are the implications of that for our lives here and now?

There is an infinite number of other examples, particularly when it comes to life and death (eugenics, genetic and social engineering, abortion, what it means to be human, immortality; e.g., Freaks, Dracula, or the various “incarnations” of Frankenstein’s monster); extreme religious enthusiasm (e.g., Saint Maud); as well as timely issues such as relationships between people of different skin colors or classes (Night of the Living Dead, The Hunt, and Jordan Peele come to mind); or the ubiquity of social media and how we project ourselves. (This theme probably has a lot more room for exploration. I haven’t seen it yet, but the NBFF is also screening the feature horror film Influencer).

But the point is that horror is not only about depicting these things (which can be problematic), but about unmasking the evil with which we are often happy to live. We might otherwise be content to be ignorant about evils around us, even if Christians may disagree with others about which are those evils, or which are most pressing. Horror can open our eyes when we would rather go on keeping them tightly shut.