Cover Story

THE CULT OF HORROR

Lawrence O’Toole July 16 1979
Cover Story

THE CULT OF HORROR

Lawrence O’Toole July 16 1979

Bloor Street, Toronto. A balmy summer evening. A long line snakes its way around a theatre where Alien, the monster horror hit, is playing. Tittery, nervous laughter. Dissociated small talk to pass the time. Shuffling impatience and jittery little dances of anticipation. People have been known during showings of Alien occasionally to vacate their seats and vomit. “I hope you didn’t snack up, ” one man says to a woman. The woman, who has the gaunt grace of a model, rubs the silky dress clinging to her midriff and says, “Oooh, I can't wait. ” The line begins to move. A serpentine, scared procession.

North America is hell-bent for horror. The hottest ticket in every town is terror. In a society splintered by cults and stunned by crises, remembering Jonestown and awaiting Skylab’s shower of metal, the cult of horror has metamorphosed into the biggest cult of all. The terror trade has made a killing everywhere—books, movies, Broadway, kids’ toys and cereals, pop music and television. The malignancy of each medium is now the message, mirroring a malaise that can’t be shrugged off by the pleasures of self-cleaning ovens in spotless suburban homes or the assurances of good and steady careers in bustling urban centres.

The times are palpably paranoid. The old memento mori—reminder of death—hangs in the air. There are global energy crises, threats of nuclear meltdowns, rising rates of teen-age suicide, bubonic plague in California. A few months ago snow fell in the Sahara—for the first time in recorded history. Nice people are rioting over gas for their cars. Cancer is still generally uncontrollable; all kinds of additives may be dangerous to your health. It takes no gift to be a 20th-century Cassandra.

Instead of avoiding the fearful— whether it be a description of the flutter of curtains in an insomniac’s dark room or a visualization of a deformed birth—people are embracing it, finding romance (Dracula), orgies of death and dismemberment (Dawn of the Dead, Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), cheap graveyard thrills (Phantasm), old-fashioned chills (Ghost Story) and even laughs (the vampire parody, Love at First Bite). What’s happening may be a loose definition of decadence.

This summer the movie industry isn’t releasing horror movies—it’s unleashing them. All, even cheapies like Halloween and Phantasm, are hits. And the best, or worst, is yet to come. Booming in books as well, the terror trade finds a big audience in the extremely accessible paperback market. Horror is the grassroots genre: getting scared is the great equalizer.

George Romero, 39, who directed Dawn of the Dead and Martin, planted the seed of the current craze with the 1968 zombie cult movie Night of the Living Dead. He says that since The Exorcist made the horror movie venerable, not to mention lucrative, “you can get any script past the studio executives if it’s in the genre.” From the shower in Psycho to the beach in Jaws, horror has undergone a radical transformation. It has come out of the closet of the old dark house and moved into the wide open spaces—even space itself. It has taken the old genre and, in Romero’s words, “bared all the nerves,” showing a world out of control. And if the world is out of control, psychologically it may be easier to revel rather than worry.

The state of the art in Hollywood is such that audiences can escape into horror—be totally drawn into it, be alone with it, yet know they have control over it. “Horror movies reduce you as a member of the audience to nothing,” says Romero. “The rationale is, ‘Since this is the way we’re going why not celebrate it?’ Audiences want the film to come to them, to expend as little thought and effort as possible.” Technology has made that possible—manufacturing an incredible split-second reality in movies: you believe for the moment that a serpent-like infant is bursting through a man’s stomach in Alien or that a zombie is tearing away a chunk of someone’s flesh in Dawn of the Dead. Nobody has to suspend his disbelief— the movies suspend it for him. “And in the darkened theatre,” says Romero, “it’s every man for himself.”

Alone—that’s the operative word in horror right now.

“We live, as we dream—alone,” wrote Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness in 1902. Not surprisingly, Conrad is enjoying a popular, as well as intellectual, revival (the heart of darkness theme in The Deer Hunter, the upcoming Apocalypse Now based on Conrad’s novella itself, naming the spaceship Nostromo in Alien). With innocence apparently truncated at a very early age and the family fizzling as an institution, Conrad’s notion of man as an island has never held such sway. And, in the four o’clock of the morning of the mind, prey to all kinds of disturbing persuasion, people look out for themselves first and foremost.

Alone. Birth, the first and most painful process in life, plays a large part in modern horror, eliciting fears that are primal and ineluctable. The monstrous infant ripping through the man’s stomach in Alien looks around at the crew members of the spaceship as though to mark them for vengeance (and by the end has taken on more and more a human shape). An audience can’t help but react on a deeply subconscious, disturbingly primal level. In Prophecy, the fetuses created by environmental tampering are unbearably malformed. They are our product. The reproductive system has become the repository of foulness, as in The Brood.

“The body is the wellspring of horror,” says Brood Director David Cronenberg whose earlier, similar movies, Shivers and Rabid, have found ready audiences. “When you look in the mirror and your body is aging or rotting away with disease— that’s real horror.” Seldom has a culture had such an intense, microscopic look at how the body can be mangled: teeth sinking into necks, zombies tearing flesh, heinous births, genetic mutation, telekinetic bloodbaths. And instead of revulsion, the trend has induced the fascination that is born of fear.

Onward from the insidious impregnation of Rosemary by the Devil in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby (to Beyond the Door, It's Alive, The Exorcist, The Omen), horror has chronicled the breakdown of society right at the core of its atom—the nuclear family. “Probably the family is where we all learn about horror,” muses the author of Ghost Story, Peter Straub. “Most of what I’ve been writing seems to hinge on the mechanism of buried guilt.” Robin Wood, the organizer of more than 40 films for a horror festival scheduled for Toronto’s Festival of Festivals in September, considers the horror film the most subversive genre of all: “In the ’70s, virtually every horror film of distinction has been centred on the nuclear family, with the monster identified as its product.”

* * *

Fifth Avenue, New York. A blindingly bright, perfect spring day. People with money to spend and time to kill are swept along by the purling momentum. The mood is magnanimous. A thousand faces are on the verge of a giant smile. But, detouring the friendly traffic, a crowd is milling in front of a bookstore’s window display. Inside, impaled against a charcoal grey backdrop a ''woman wearing a crimson necklace is draped, lifeless, over a gravestone. The sun splashes against the window, reflecting the staring faces, frozen, caught in a spell. The book being advertised is Peter Straub’s best seller, Ghost Story.

Horror writing had its beginnings in the Gothic novel of the late 18th century, with Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto) and Mrs. Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho), moving into the 19th century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. It was a reaction against rationalism, but the romance has become nightmarish. The new delight in the drama of dread feeds off a blind faith: readers and audiences believe in the monstrous, or are willing to believe. The world of reason shut out, the experience becomes pristine, total, religious.

“Fear is a religious feeling,” Philip Kaufman, director of the recent remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has suggested. “Religion isn’t as strong as it once was, so there’s a demand for scary films by people who miss the old fears.” That old thrill of accepting the inexplicable—Dante’s “fear in the blood”—has been shrill throughout the ’70s. Devilish spectaculars paraded religious symbolism: The Exorcist, The Omen and their sequels. The killer in Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice is a repressed religious fanatic. Carrie’s mother, a fanatic as well, drives the teen-aged girl to wreak her telekinetic havoc.

“Horror,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe, is “the soul of plot”—escapism in the extreme. With the world going out of kilter, some adhere to the afterlife, somnambulant before Billy Graham, Ernest Angley, David Mainse or Garner Ted Armstrong. For others, chaos inspires going to horror movies or reading horror stories. “We’re in a period of outrageous uncertainty,” explains Bob Kaufman, who wrote Love at First Bite, “and definition works. People don’t want to think anymore. It’s nice to go away for a few hours into a genre ... the unreal is becoming real because there’s a predictability about it. There is a beginning and an end, as opposed to our lives which go on and on.” The less people can handle day to day, the more they look for escapism. “I think everybody has a lot of free-floating anxieties,” says Stephen King, the 31-year-old writer whose last name perfectly describes his preeminence in the horror writing field. “One way to get rid of them is to externalize them. Horror stories almost always put their finger directly on what’s bothering people in the real world.”

With society a circus of sensations, anything truly terrifying (by definition, truly surprising) is saliva for a jaded palate. Audiences are becoming desensitized to scares, perhaps because they live with so many, and because, visually, technology makes earlier ones quickly archaic. That’s why motivation and logic don’t often enter the movies anymore: people apparently want pure terror. Consider Alien’s success: “This monster kills to survive and it survives to kill,” says H.R. Giger, the Swiss designer who created it; Director Ridley Scott describes his movie as “pure, linear horror.” (People aren’t totally desensitized yet, however: when Scott first screened the movie for a group of about 70, mostly families from an air base in England, Alien ran 11 minutes longer. Some of them fled vomiting. “It was just too intense,” he admits.) Pure, linear horror: the crew of a spaceship alone with the ultimate carnivore.

Down to earth, another lonely crowd, teen-agers, their lives often a stretch of tedium battling for sovereignty over frustration, have been forefront in modern horror, victims of unnatural forces: Carrie, the boy and girl in The Fury, the bloodsucking title character of Romero’s Martin, the malcontent pubescent girl in Alice, Sweet Alice. In a song by Toronto punk band The Poles, called Cannibal Kids, a young suburban girl named Lisa borrows dad’s car and winds up queen of the cannibal kids at the local shopping mall. With teenagers, the nuclear family suffers its final split. Stephen King proposes an odd but reasonable theory of The Exorcist’s success: the book and the movie came out during the widest perceived chasm between generations, when the younger one seemed out of control; subconsciously, there was an explanation for the behavior of dirty, stringy-haired kids—they were possessed by the Devil.

Seventies’ pop music for the teen-age lonely crowd, particularly punk and New Wave, is also full of the stylized violence of the horror phenomenon. Performers such as DEVO, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, Blondie, Elvis Costello, the now defunct Sex Pistols—even Meat Loaf—have used images of old monsters and new technological ones to advance their message. Punk hasn’t been a protest, but a party aboard a sinking ship, parasitically feeding off common fears and using the iconography of horror as statement of style. From The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil through David Bowie through Kiss, pop music has always had a soft spot for celebrating the ghoulish. “You listen to punk and it’s a little bit like walking into a rock ’n’ roll elevator with the doors opening in hell,” remarks Stephen King. Now, discos’ move into the mainstream has fostered a night-life culture in North America. “I love the night life,” sings disco-discer Alicia Bridges in a paean to the decadence of dancing in the dark. The cosmetic fashion fuelled by it has been vampiric: pallor in the faces, highlighted bones, blood-red lips. Avant-garde fashion opts for your basic Dracula black.

The current cult of horror began with teens and the college crowd—midnight showings on the werewolf circuit nurtured the necrophiliac fantasies of a young, restless audience, one that had grown disillusioned and angry, or just bored, with the broken promises of the ’60s. They went to see Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, the daddy of them all, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Now in its fourth year in Toronto, the story of a deadly dull middle-class couple coming upon a castle populated with transvestites and lovers of old horror lore sends its audience into paroxysms of joy, allowing them to disport their own personal fantasies in the theatre.

Having gathered momentum throughout the decade, the lore and feeling for the genre has planted itself firmly in common consciousness. Witness Love at First Bite—the top comedy hit of the year—or the Count on Sesame Street, who does numbers instead of blood counts. With the Alien around, the vampire has grown slightly benign, but is still a drawing card. The longawaited movie version of Dracula is, intriguingly, R-rated and advertised as a “love story.” Sex still sells, and the vampire offers a new twist to it. Asked what he thought love was like when he was human, the vampire in Anne Rice’s brilliant novel, Interview With the Vampire, answers: “It was something hurried . . . seldom savored . . . something acute that was quickly lost. I think it was the pale shadow of killing.” With the missionary position considered about as exciting as taking tea these days, new sexual frontiers are not scoffed at. “Vampires have always had charisma and a kind of sexual dominance,” boasts Stephen Kaplan, 39-year-old head of The Vampire Research Center in New York. “We recognize the times are super-hot.” He claims to have interviewed more than 200 would-be and actual vampires (always with an assistant) and claims further to have documented 12 cases. “You know most of this fang stuff is passé. [Romero’s Martin slits his victims’ wrists.] People can operate with syringes, needles, that kind of thing.”

To where does the terror trade point? Apocalypse, soon, it would seem to say. There’s too much cynicism around to allow good to triumph over evil; now it’s often the reverse, and if good triumphs it is increasingly marginal, increasingly temporary. Will Sigourney Weaver of Alien make it back to earth? Will the woman in Prophecy give birth to a mangled fetus? Will the surviving couple at the end of Dawn of the Dead make it to Canada in their helicopter? When horror shows don’t end in destruction, they whimper away into a big question mark of a sunset. Someone’s always left alone, in the dark.

“Lady,” said the bum in Hitchcock’s The Birds, “it’s the end of the world.”

Lady, it just might be the beginning of the end.

With Rita Christopher and Ann Johnston