Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Heath Holland On...Horror and Belief

by Heath Holland
Scary Movie Month is finally here!

I’ve been waiting precisely 11 months for October to arrive. This is my first ever column during a Scary Movie Month, so I’ve been thinking a long time about what I wanted to write and how I was going to approach it.

I love horror movies and I love the month of October. I’ve dedicated the entire month to scary movies for years. As a result, I’ve watched a LOT of horror movies in my lifetime, but rarely do those scary movies actually scare me. I mean, sometimes a movie will make me squirm a little, or will throw out a particularly gooey bit of gore that takes me off guard and grosses me out.

But every now and then, a scary movie squeezes through my defenses and really gets under my skin. The movie that we’re all going to be talking about this weekend, Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, really did a number on me. It scared the ever-lovin’ pants off me, and I really wanted to figure out why got to me. It’s not in the same vein as Zombie’s other movies. There isn’t a cast of quirky/trashy characters who argue and yell all the time. There are no torture scenes. So why did it bother me so much?
I started thinking about other movies that some of my friends find to be very scary and upsetting. The Shining, The Ring, Paranormal Activity and The Amityville Horror come to mind immediately, but none of those movies have ever had any effect on me. They’re fun to watch, but they don’t scare me.

I don’t believe in ghosts or real haunted houses. The odds of someone putting on an animal mask and terrorizing me in my own house are pretty slim. If they did, I’d cut their head off with my Highlander movie replica sword. The odds of someone in a hockey mask coming back from the grave to kill camp counselors are even slimmer. A man who haunts kids in their dreams? Now we’re just getting silly.

I don’t believe in any of those things, and for a horror movie to work there has to be belief. Without the power of belief, watching a horror movie is like walking through a fright house at a carnival. Things will jump out at you and there will be some loud noises, but you know everything is really going to be okay. It’s a fun ride, nothing more.

But when you add belief into the mix, things get a little bit more intense.

I was raised in a very religious household. The beliefs that were instilled in me throughout my entire childhood have taken deep root in my brain. Even things that I’ve questioned and eventually challenged and eschewed still seem to be in there, way down at the ground floor of my psyche. Push me to a certain point, past reason and past logic, those basic religious views are still in the basement like skeletons that pop out to haunt me when I least expect it.
That’s why The Lords of Salem was able to affect me in the way that it did. Rob Zombie designed his movie to push some very different buttons than his other movies push. He was going for more psychological horror this time, and it worked for me. It hit me where I lived…or rather, where I didn’t even realized I lived. At the end of the day, the movie affected me the way that it did because it exploited my belief.

Another movie that deeply affected me was Hostel. I’m still trying to come to terms with my thoughts and feelings on that movie. I used to think that it was pointless and cruel. I used the title “torture porn” and said that the movie had no purpose other than to show the depraved depths that humans are capable of descending to.

I was missing the point. That’s exactly why the movie works. It shows us humanity at its absolute worst. The reaction that I had against it was a symptom of my being horrified by it. Hostel does exactly what it was supposed to do: scare the crap out of me because I believe that people are capable of what that movie presents.

And that’s what horror does when it’s really working. Horror shouldn’t be comfortable and breezy. I’ve come to appreciate the genre all over again. When a horror movie really works, it’s horrifying. I’d even come to take the title itself for granted because it’s been a long time since a movie has horrified me. Lords of Salem is responsible for pushing me outside of my horror movie comfort zone and reminding me what I love about horror. I’ll be honest: I have no urge to watch it again ANY time soon. Even the thought of revisiting it raises my blood pressure. It has done its job well, and I respect it for that. Maybe that’s the highest compliment you can give a horror movie: not enthusiastic affection, but respect.
And now, for the motivational conclusion (I’m wearing a sweater, Dockers, and a headset microphone).

As we enter into another Scary Movie Month, I hope that each one of us watches at least one or two movies that are informed by something we believe in. If you believe in ghosts or demons or the people under the stairs, watch a horror movie about that. Get scared. Pee your pants. Sleep with the lights on. That’s what Scary Movie Month is all about. If there’s ironic distance in your mind between what you are watching and the safe place that you put yourself in, remove that distance. Expose yourself to your fear. I think you’ll be scared, but you’ll be happy that you were.

Happy Scary Movie Month!


  1. Hmmm...I'm struggling with this one because philosophically I'm kind of an open-minded skeptic. There are very few "out there" things I believe are TRUE/REAL, but I am open to nearly all things being POSSIBLY true/real. Does that make sense? e.g. I don't really believe there are ghosts, but I believe there COULD be ghosts. I don't believe there are monsters in my closet, but I believe there could be monsters in my closet (actually, I'm going to go double-check right now...I'LL BE RIGHT BACK).

    At first I was thinking that lack of any concrete beliefs precluded me from partaking in your experiment BUT when I think about it, I might actually be MORE susceptible to belief-based fear because I'm generally willing, for at least a couple hours, to buy into whatever freaky thing a movie is throwing at me. I too was pretty freaked out by Lords of Salem and I don't put ANY stock in Judeo-Christian mythology (and never have) but, you know, at the time, Satan's Witches and their creepy, creepy vaginas scared me good!

    Great article, Heath - I think you're definitely on to something - I look forward to hearing from people with more specific beliefs and whether this holds true for them.

  2. Great column, Heath. I realized recently that supernatural horror like Lords of Salem and haunting/possession movies work on me because they fit into my belief system. I get why some people shrug that kind of thing off as too unbelievable to be scary, but that stuff is way more terrifying to me than slasher flicks. It's why I walked through the dark hallway to my bedroom faster than usual last night after watching Insidious.

    1. Thanks, Erich. I'm of the opinion that we all believe in SOMETHING, even if that something is science. And science can be scary. There's horror for everyone, regardless of what they believe.

      Of course, a good movie can reach across the aisle and make you scared of something you don't even believe in in the first place. Those are rarer, but far more special movies.

  3. Halloween and Scary Movie Month are equally-large and expansive enough to include both the hardcore side of horror as well as the lighthearted stuff. Like you, Heath, horror movies tend to overwhelm and amuse me more than scare or truly shake me to my core. When one of the latter comes around, whether good (Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly") or bad ("Cannibal Holocaust"), it's so rare and infrequent compared with the former ('fun' horror is practically what the genre is made of these days) that I tend to treasure the experience by not watching that film too many times.

    The best example of this is Friedkin's "The Exorcist." Whether as a God-fearing, deeply-Catholic young man growing up or the Atheist middle-aged man I am today, that movie to me holds up the power to scare me deeply precisely because of the way it walks that fine line between Hollywood BS and religion-based facts. That Friedkin shot it like a documentary (minus the shaky cam) is part of its appeal. And yet I know people who think this film is just shy of being a silly cartoon, the spoof of possession movies by taking itself and its subject matter too seriously. And these aren't morons or idiots, but people that do love and appreciate cinema and horror movies with a burning passion.

    It takes all kinds of people to appreciate a movie. Your "Lords of Salem" and my "Exorcist" will be someone else's fun movie, the same way to them "Urban Legends" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake are the one's that shake them to their core. I say: the Scary Movie Month tent is big enough for all taste, sizes and new and old comers. Bring it on, britches! :-)

  4. I'm not a believer in anything faith based, and I alternate between referring to myself as an atheist and an anti-theist. Which makes me think you might be onto something HHH, as I tend not to get too scared by the possession/ghost/religious/supernatural elements of horror movies (beyond "jump scares"... because deep down im a little bitch). Im really interested and fascinated by those topics, so I do tend to gravitate towards religious based themes at times but not because they scare me, more out of interest.

    The things that really make my stomach churn, like you mentioned in the article and your comment above, are the real world things, the mutilations, deformities, the twisted and brutal nature of humans. I never watch medical shows on TV, and Ive steered clear of "torture porn" far.

    Last year I watched a lot of 80s horror franchises for SMM and my aim for this year has changed a few times, but so far Im trying to watch more recent movies so I can end SMM with a greater familiarity with the state of horror today....and to do exactly what you are talking about HHH, to expose myself to the things that scare the living shit out of me.
    Dont know if Ill go as far as Hostel.....but thats the direction im heading in, I think.

    Great article :-)


  5. My only fear is of living a long, boring and comepletely unremarkable life. Scary movie that. :P