The Bright Side of Horror


Author’s note: This article contains major spoilers for The Last of Us (video game), Supernatural (TV show), and Aliens (movie). Also, be advised that some referenced video clips contain strong language and violent content.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. —Frank Herbert, Dune

Halloween is again upon us, so it’s time for poorly written, ultra-violent slasher movies and drunken costume parties—or is it? Many people tend to think of horror-themed movies, games, and holidays as inherently depressing, nihilistic, or pointless, but none of that necessarily must be true. Done right, horror can be positive, fun, and pro-life.

The most obvious sense in which this is true is the sense in which scary movies and activities can remind us to not take evil seriously. Even the simple act of trick-or-treating can recast demons and monsters—things that children (and some adults) typically see as real dangers—as harmless, fictitious curiosities that ultimately bring laughter and joy. Of course, there are real evils in the world, but it’s never a bad idea to remind ourselves that these can’t triumph on any grand scale except by the failure of good people to confront them.

Younger children can benefit from learning that the world isn’t actually as scary as it’s often made out to be, whereas older children, teens, and adults can have fun by allowing themselves to be scared in situations where they know they won’t come to any real harm, such as by visiting gruesome haunted houses or watching scary movies. So long as adults regularly make clear for children the distinction between reality and fantasy, age-appropriate scary activities can further reinforce it, and that distinction often is helpful to bear in mind when dealing with real-life challenges. (For this purpose, I regularly repeat to myself this saying: “I have enough real problems to solve without dreaming up new ones.”)

There are other, less obvious senses in which horror can be pro-life. Great horror movies and games (both of which admittedly are rare) can cast heroism in high relief, show the impotence of evil, and demonstrate the importance of thinking rationally under duress. Well-written horror stories highlight positive values against a backdrop of events or people that constitute a (usually) concrete and obvious threat to human life.

From these totally unrealistic but easily understandable scenarios, we sometimes can extrapolate basic truths or principles that can help us solve real, more common problems. And when the characters in a great work of fiction have substantive values and are willing to fight hard to defend them against the darkest terrors imaginable, their actions can be deeply inspiring.

The video game The Last of Us, first released in 2013 for PlayStation 3, is an excellent example of setting the stakes high to clarify the moral consequences of difficult decisions and thereby make complex value questions easier to parse. You play as a man named Joel and experience his struggle to connect emotionally with a teenage girl named Ellie twenty years after his own daughter is killed during an apocalyptic outbreak. When a militia group discovers that Ellie is immune to a parasite that has killed 75 percent of humanity, they task Joel with escorting her across the country—on foot—through a devastated landscape infested with bandits and monsters. (Initially, neither Joel nor the player knows the exact purpose of this quest.)

Over the following year, Joel gradually comes to understand that protecting and caring for Ellie doesn’t mean he’s betraying or replacing his own daughter. During one of the game’s most terrifying scenes, Joel and Ellie must sneak quietly through a pitch-black subway station infested with monsters that are blind but have incredibly acute hearing. If any of them detects Joel, they’ll kill him in a truly disturbing fashion, but you—the player—are far more scared for Ellie than you are for him. (Joel at least can defend himself and stands a chance against the monsters, but the young and vulnerable Ellie relies entirely on him for protection.) The two of them have just started to bond a little bit, and the thought of what will happen to her without Joel to protect her is deeply uncomfortable to contemplate.

Near the end of the game, by which time Joel and Ellie more or less think of themselves as father and daughter, Joel finally learns the true purpose of their journey after having delivered Ellie to the militia group: They believe that they can create a vaccine for the parasite using Ellie’s brain tissue—but the procedure will kill her. Suddenly, a theme of individualism versus collectivism that has been subtle and implicit throughout thirty hours of game play takes center stage and becomes crystal clear. Knowing full well the implications of his decision, Joel makes a daring raid on the militia group’s headquarters to save Ellie before it’s too late. The game closes with an emotionally impactful scene that ruminates on Joel’s decision in a mature, nuanced, and thought-provoking manner.

Whereas The Last of Us primarily highlights heroism by contrasting it against horrifying monsters (and wicked humans), the hit TV show Supernatural (or at least its first five seasons) focuses on a related but different message: Even when evil is powerful and terrifying, it ultimately can’t triumph over regular people who fight hard for rational values. The show follows two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who love leather jackets and drive around America in a 1967 Impala slaying vampires and exorcising demons.

The premise might sound shallow, but the show deals with deep themes in tremendously effective ways that balance nerve-racking horror against some of the sharpest and funniest writing out there. In “Scarecrow” (arguably one of the first season’s scariest episodes), the brothers discover a small Midwestern town quietly ruled by an ancient pagan god—one that grants the town favorable weather and bountiful harvests in exchange for annual human sacrifices.

The few citizens who know of the god’s existence willingly appease it, but the Winchesters discover that they can kill it by burning a magical tree that gives the god its power. They defeat the deity in the nick of time, but not before it slaughters the people who had been sacrificing innocents in its name all along, thus simultaneously showcasing consequences of appeasing evil and the ability of (more or less) regular people to overcome it.

In season four, the brothers suddenly find themselves outside their comfort zone when they discover that the biblical apocalypse is nigh—and, apparently, only they can stop it. Time and again, angels and demons—both of which have reality-bending powers—are baffled by their inability to best two regular humans. Both sides repeatedly tell the Winchesters, in effect, “The apocalypse is going to happen. It’s destiny, and you can’t fight it; you’re just puny humans.” But Sam and Dean flippantly dub themselves “Team Free Will” and take on God and Lucifer in a heroic battle for the future of a secular, imperfect Earth.

The final episode of season five (which the show’s creator intended to be the canonical end of the series, though studio executives chose to continue it for an additional ten seasons and counting) is a real tearjerker that deals with the subjects of free will and values in a way that few recent works of fiction match. Sam allows Satan to possess him, believing that he can maintain control of his body long enough to cast himself into hell, thus putting the devil “back in the box” and averting the apocalypse.

Two full seasons’ worth of characters have hitherto made it quite clear that absolutely no one could resist possession by Lucifer himself. Indeed, Sam initially loses the fight inside his own head, but when Satan uses his body to nearly beat Dean to death, Sam wrests control back just long enough to finish his mission. Ultimately, God and Lucifer—nigh-omnipotent beings who consistently refuse to acknowledge what humans are capable of when they rationally exercise free will—are defeated by two brothers from “Podunk” Kansas and their misfit friends.

The importance of using reason when your first instinct is to panic is an implicit theme in most good horror, but it’s made explicit in James Cameron’s 1986 masterpiece Aliens. It’s a viscerally terrifying film, even now, thirty-three years after its release. (Its top-notch practical effects have aged better than the CGI in $100 million Marvel movies ever will.)

The titular aliens are stealthy, violent, intelligent predators that make Earth’s most dangerous wildlife pale in comparison. Having previously (and narrowly) survived an encounter with a single specimen, protagonist Ellen Ripley is aghast to learn that her former employer has since sent colonists to the asteroid where the alien was found. When communication with the colony abruptly ceases, Ripley reluctantly agrees to accompany a squad of marines dispatched to investigate, because she is the only person to have encountered the aliens and survived.

During one of the movie’s best scenes, Ripley takes control of a rapidly deteriorating situation and convinces the marines that they must think if they are to survive. Several of them have just been dragged into the darkness by aliens and brutally killed; the group is understandably demoralized and unwilling to go on. But Ripley calls on the marines to face the unpleasant reality of the situation and work together:

Ripley: How long after we’re declared overdue can we expect a rescue?

Cpl. Hicks: About seventeen days.

Pvt. Hudson: Man, we’re not going to make it seventeen hours! Those things are going to come in here, just like they did before . . . they’re going to come in here and get us, man, long before—

Ripley: [This eight-year-old girl] survived longer than that with no weapons and no training, so you’d better just start dealing with it. Just deal with it, Hudson, because we need you and I’m tired of your bullshit. Now get on a terminal and call up some kind of floor plan file. Construction blueprints, maintenance schematics, anything that shows the layout of this place. I want to see air ducts, electrical access tunnels, sub-basements—every possible way into this wing.

Ripley then goes on to devise a meticulous plan to fortify their position and use carefully placed automated turrets to take out dozens of aliens. The barely controlled chaos of the ensuing battle heavily implies that without her suggestions—if the group had simply retreated in fear without thinking—they would have been slaughtered.

Later in the film, a traitor who seeks to capture and sell the aliens locks Ripley in the infirmary along with two deadly facehuggers (an alien that implants embryos in other organisms’ chests). She first tries to call for help by frantically waving at the cameras—but the traitor has turned them off. Once Ripley deduces this, she then tries to break a glass wall with a chair, but it quickly becomes apparent that that won’t work. Again, rather than panicking, she keeps her cool and pauses to think. The facehuggers are somewhere in the room, stalking her from the shadows, and, at any moment, might pounce and subject her to one of the grisliest fates imaginable. Cleverly, she stands on a chair and holds a lighter to a sprinkler nozzle, tripping the fire alarm and alerting the marines to her plight.

Throughout Aliens, the stakes are dramatic and clear: Think and heed the facts of reality, or die. Granted, this is a negative framing of a point that’s more useful in real life when it’s framed positively—namely, that you must think in order to live and achieve values. But Ripley demonstrates the positive side of this point too, in one of the greatest rescue scenes in movie history.

To this day, Aliens, Supernatural, and The Last of Us remain among my favorite works of art. They all come readily to mind when I find myself facing certain kinds of challenges. For example, I recently made a major change to my career path, and it was one of the biggest risks I’d ever taken. Like the marines in Aliens, I could have stagnated in relative (and temporary) safety by choosing to believe that what I’d always done would continue to work in the future, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Instead, I recalled Ripley’s commitment to understand the facts of the situation, to come up with a plan based on those facts, and to execute it with courage. At first, my new career path was deeply uncomfortable (though not as uncomfortable as the prospect of having one’s face eaten by aliens, to be sure). But I powered through, adjusted my plan based on facts rather than fear, and achieved what I had set out to do.

Horror is just like any other genre in the sense that it has good and bad representatives. There are a lot of bad horror movies, books, and games out there—but if you take the time to unearth some of the good ones, to approach them with an open mind, and to look for life-enhancing lessons and stories within them, you just might find that they can make your life a little less scary.

There are a lot of bad horror movies, books, and games out there—but if you take the time to unearth some of the good ones, you just might find that they can make your life a little less scary. Click To Tweet
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