IDGAF About These Jerks: Horror’s Perennial Problem

Warning: contains spoilers for ‘The Mist’ (film and series), ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘The Fly’, ‘IT’, and ‘Martyrs’, as well as peripheral discussion of rape culture.

Frank Darabont’s ‘The Mist’ is a brilliant film.

Sure, it’s not a masterpiece. The acting is sometimes a little ropey, the religious satire more than a little heavy-handed, and the idea of big, scary monsters is always going to be a difficult topic to suspend one’s disbelief over… especially when those monsters include giant-ass uberlobsters which treat the square-cube law with the same respect that Brock Lesnar treats his opponents, that is to say, none.

But come on, what a goddamned film. That tentacle attack? And the face-melting spiders? The oppressive claustrophobia of that supermarket? It’s just so consistently great. Not to mention, Toby Jones is fucking magnificent. I dare anyone to watch that film and not cheer for him all the way through.

Now, I just finished watching Netflix’s ‘The Mist’ TV show, and by ‘finished watching’, I mean ‘gave up around episode nine when the relentless homophobia just became too disgusting’. Even ignoring the despicable handling of its one and only LGBT+ character, it is just reprehensibly bad. The goofy, awesome gribblies of the film are replaced with heavy-handed, uninspired ‘visions’ which can, like Freddy Krueger, kill. Because why be original, eh?

On top of this, the series includes an ugly, atrociously mishandled storyline about rape front-and-centre; one which does nothing to forward the discussion about rape culture within society, serving  instead to make a rape victim look like a lying slut who wanted it, her mother seem like a vengeful shrew who is too annoying to be listened to, and, by having the rapist revealed to be the weird queer kid…

Christ.

It is a terrible, terrible series. Everything about it is dreadful and everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

The thing is, though, ‘Game of Thrones’ has had similar issues with both its portrayal of rape, as well as with its handling of gay characters… yet I don’t despise it anywhere near as much. Sure, it’s annoyed me; made me angry on a few occasions. But the thing is, ‘Game of Thrones’ has characters that I truly, genuinely care about… and that’s a powerful thing. Powerful enough to make me decide to consciously overlook the gross Jaime Lannister/Cersei rape scene, the gross repeated casual rape of Craster’s daughters which served as, basically, set dressing, and numerous other revolting and unnecessary moments which weren’t horrifying, but the television equivalent of what we wrestling fans call ‘X-Pac heat’.

Put simply, I want to see what happens to Brienne of Tarth. I want to see what happens to Tormund Giantsbane. I want to see what happens to almost every character in that show, and I’m prepared to overlook any number of other deeply problematic story elements to do so.

‘The Mist’ by contrast, is a total piece of shit series without a single redeeming feature. I couldn’t care less if a single character on that show lives. In all honesty, I hope they all die… which is why I’m less willing to forgive its deplorable representation of my people.

Thing is, this shit-ass series isn’t the only one to fall into the trap it has. Sometimes, it seems almost every horror film does so.

Despite how easy the good ones make it look, horror is actually a really difficult genre to do well.

Why We Have The Face/Heel Distinction

I’ve spoken numerous times about the Face/Heel distinction which the art of wrestling uses to elicit audience reactions.

Wrestling is a gloriously simple theatre. Its primary goal is this: asses in seats. No asses in seats means no ticket sales. No ticket sales means no-one gets paid.

The thing that puts asses in seats? An audience which cares about what’s happening in the ring. And that’s it. An audience which doesn’t care doesn’t come back. An audience which does brings their kids. Those kids bring theirs, and the money comes in forever.

Now, you can put asses in seats with a great display of athleticism, sure. That’s how other sports do it. But wrestling can do something ‘real’ sports can’t: it can control the audience’s responses to the action by having a goodie fight a baddie.

In wrestling, having one worker play the goodie and one play the baddie aids both wrestlers in ‘getting heat’. ‘Heat’ is a simple, almost visceral concept, and it is this: get a reaction. The difference between the goodie and the baddy is ludicrously simple: we boo the heel and cheer the face. If the audience is making either of those noises, boos or cheers, the wrestlers are said to be ‘getting heat’, which is the best thing they could do. Heat puts asses in seats.

But wait Yorkie, even the boos?

Fuck yes even the boos.

You see, what wrestling understands is that it doesn’t matter why the crowd is getting hot. All that matters is that they are… because a crowd will pay to see one of two things happen: a wonderful Face win, or a deplorable Heel lose. The very best of matches feature both of these things happening simultaneously.

What’s interesting about modern wrestling is that it’s bizarrely close to Ancient Greek theatre in this. You see, for all their myths, the Ancient Greeks didn’t have heroes the way modern stories do. Heracles murdered his wife and kids after all; can you imagine a story where Tony Stark butchered Pepper Potts?

The Ancient Greek word for the main characters in their story was ‘protagonist’, or ‘the one who struggles’, and what’s important is that they didn’t have to be good, as in morally virtuous. They could be abject monsters. All that mattered is that they were interesting. If that seems weird to you, you could consider a modern example in the form of the film ‘Scarface’. Tony Montana is a wretched, hateful, weak, incestuous, treacherous piece of shit… but he’s absolutely fascinating to watch. In point of fact, it’s his despicable nature that makes him so interesting. He might be vile, but he’s never boring – and he’s endlessly quotable to boot.

The series ‘Game of Thrones’ demonstrates the way the Heel/Face dynamic can make a show a huge success. Joffrey Baratheon is the most wretched Heel that TV’s had in years: spoiled, cowardly, sexually sadistic, murderous, weak… He has literally not one redeeming quality, and we kept coming back over and over again to see if this week was going to be the week he got what was coming to him.

Likewise, Brienne of Tarth is noble, decent, pure. She’s also the series’ most dominant badass. People tune in again and again to see what happens to her: will she survive? Thrive? Eat chicken sexy-style with magnificent lunatic Tormund Giantsbane?

(IF THERE’S ANY JUSTICE, YES, OBVIOUSLY SHE WILL.)

Ahem.

Anyway, you get my point. Heel, Face, it doesn’t matter. We’ll tune in to watch a Heel get mashed, or a Face emerge victorious. In many ways, the Face/Heel dynamic is all that matters in storytelling. Even if the story makes no sense, even if we can’t really suspend our disbelief because there’s dragons, or giant tentacle monsters, or whatever else, it just doesn’t matter. If we’re invested in seeing a character we cheer for succeed, or a character we boo fail, we’ll put up with literally almost anything.

The Problem of Heel vs. Heel.

Most matches are Face vs. Heel, and this isn’t because wrestling is unoriginal.

It’s because Face vs. Face matches are really fucking difficult to do well, and Heel vs. Heel matches are almost impossible. The reasons why are obvious.

A Face vs. Face match is, in theory, awesome. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is probably the best recent cinematic example of why. I mean, are you Team Cap or Team Stark? Everyone wants to know that their hero is the greatest, and the Face vs. Face match is a great way to settle that.

But the problem is that either someone’s got to be the loser, or that the fight ends in some bullshit DQ where there’s no real resolution. If one hero loses, well. Any of that hero’s fans in the audience are going home sad. But if there’s no real resolution, well… what was the point? Anticlimax can be a powerful storytelling tool, but the sense of disappointment and missed opportunity can be difficult to handle well. Consider ‘Civil War’s ending, where Cap quits and the Avengers are broken. It’s emotionally powerful, but a very bleak ending, and not to everyone’s taste.

Face vs. Face is hard. Heel vs. Heel is so difficult as to be pointless.

You see a Heel isn’t just a baddie. They’re not like The Punisher, some antihero who might be a horrible monster but who we secretly love because he’s so awesome; antiheroes are always Faces. No, the Heel is a douche. We boo them because we hate them… and in a Heel vs. Heel match both of them are dicks. So sure, it’s great seeing a Heel lose, but that loss is kinda irrelevant, because no matter who loses, someone we despise wins.

Which means we just don’t care.

There’s literally nothing at stake. Whoever wins, the audience loses. Now, having said that, it is possible to make Heel vs. Heel match work. Usually (and obviously), it involves one of the Heels turning Face, at least for one match. Apart from that, though, the result of booking Heel vs. Heel is a match no-one could possibly give a shit about, or a story that just doesn’t matter. Sure, in theory Joker vs. Green Goblin sounds awesome… but imagine that story without any hero to balance it out, and with both of those characters at their absolute worst. Who do we cheer for? Why do we care? At the end, one of them’s dead and a whole bunch of innocents died and…

You get the idea.

Now, notice I’m not saying it can’t work. ‘Scarface’ works. But any story where one person we don’t like goes up against another person we don’t like, honestly, it’s hard to give a shit.

And this is why horror is so goddamned hard to do well.

In Which We Cannot Bring Ourselves To Do What We Must.

In his work, ‘The Little Book of Movie Cliches’, Roger Ebert joked that if aliens tried to learn about human culture through watching films, they’d come to the conclusion that humans worshipped dogs as gods.

See, until a few years ago, dogs NEVER died in films. No matter how towering the inferno, no matter how powerful the earthquake, that dog’s going to survive. People just can’t bear watching dogs die. Men, sure. Women, definitely. Kids? The precocious little fucker’s a terrible actor, good riddance.

But a DOG?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Movie audiences are perceived to be quite fragile by producers, and this is what has created the central problem of mainstream horror films. It shouldn’t require stating, but here it is: we watch horror films to see awful things happen to people. If I’m clicking ‘play’ on a horror, it’s because I want to see someone die. Not necessarily gorily, but if so, then that’d be a lovely bonus. I don’t watch horror to laugh or to cry or be excited. I watch horror to be freaked out. To be disturbed. To be shaken to my core. To be horrified.

(N.B.: As a side note, the reasons for why we enjoy this feeling are far too complex to go into here. If you’re interested by the seemingly paradoxical nature of seeking out such an obviously unpleasant experience, you should totally read Noel Carrol’s ‘The Philosophy of Horror’.)

However, at the same time, while we’ve come to be horrified, we don’t like it when awful things happen to people we like. Which means that horror directors will try to make the characters that are going to die before the credits roll… well. Unlikable. They’ll be the arrogant jock, or the guy who brags about his guns, or the girl who was mean.

Makes sense, right? I mean, we didn’t come here to see bad things happen to good people. That’d be far too close to the real world to be fun.

The problem of horror – and especially modern horror films – is that in a film, like say, anything with Jason in, where there’s going to be LOTS of deaths, this tends to mean that every character is an unlikable asshole.

This has a tendency to turn many – perhaps most – horror films from powerful, disturbing stories into something… less. They become highly structured, and every one of them proceeds the same way: a tedious first act where we spend ages with a bunch of boring Heels, before turning into a second act which is little more than a collection of violent moments where the main Heel kills all the other Heels, and which would probably work more effectively as a gore-filled gif set than a narrative, before finally closing with the Final Girl killing the killer.

TV Tropes refers to this tendency towards mediocrity as the ‘Developing Doomed Characters’ trope, or, its more appropriate original name calls it, ‘Twenty Minutes With Jerks’.

As TV Tropes puts it:

All right, you and your friends are hitting up that new monster movie at the theater. You’re ready to see some carnage. Some destruction. Some crazy special effectsThis film is sure to be packed full of it.

Except you have to wait to actually get to that part. No, the director has decided to spend the first 20 minutes of the flick introducing you to a ragtag bunch of hip kids aged 16 to 27 who are all experiencing relationship drama and personal issues and family problems. The idea here is to use Character Development to try to make the audience identify with the future victims more, so the audience will be more affected if and when they die. In-Verse, it accounts for why the characters would want to act the part of the hero, or the villain for that matter.

Problems often arise when the audience simply doesn’t care about said personal issues. Some viewers are Just Here for Godzilla, in which case they have to sit through the tedium of introductions for characters they know are going to start dropping like flies. (After all, viewers are going to be able to guess which characters won’t make it through anyway, so why should they care about them?) Other viewers might actually like to see some character development, but they tend to be disappointed too, because the development here is usually pretty sloppy and rushed. If the characters aren’t very likeable, it’s going to be twenty minutes of impatient waiting for the monster to come along and start killing off the insufferable jerks.

This, in a nutshell, is the main problem confronting horror today. So, how do we solve it?

It’s Better To Look At What Works Than What Doesn’t.

As I’ve already mentioned, the film of ‘The Mist’ works really, really well, and a huge amount of that is down to Toby Jones’ Olly. Thomas Jane’s in there too, along with nearly the entire cast of ‘The Walking Dead’ season one, but it’s Olly who’s really the hero of the film. It’s not just the fact that Toby Jones is clearly the best actor in the film, and nor is it due to the fact that Olly actually has a personality, as opposed to Thomas Jane’s character of the Generic White Father. No, Olly works because he’s engaging, and interesting, alternately nervous and assertive, blackly humorous and powerfully brave. Where Tom Jane’s father character could be switched out for Rick from ‘The Walking Dead’, or Agent Myers from ‘Hellboy’, or any one of a billion tedious dumbass white male characters whose only purpose is to serve as a proxy for a presumed straight, white male audience, Olly is something else: a nervous little mouse who roars louder than the monsters, and dies saving the day. When the Uberlobster finally shredded him, I genuinely screamed ‘No!’ at the screen, because I was so completely invested in him getting away. Sod the old geezer, the kid and everyone else – Olly was the whole f’n show for me.

Although, even with that said, the ending of that film is just savage beyond words.

Leaving ‘The Mist’ aside, there are other superlative films out there which have the courage necessary to be truly horrifying: to make me honestly care about a character, then utterly destroy them.

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of ‘The Fly’ is probably the premier example of how to tell a truly tragic horror romance. For those who haven’t seen it, the concept is simple enough. Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall deeply in love. Girl’s jackass previous boyfriend isn’t over her, and pulls some possessive bullshit; girl goes to confront jackass. Boy doesn’t realise what girl’s doing, and, drunk and sorry for himself, uses his untested teleporter without checking for flies. Boy gets fused with fly at genetic level and spends the rest of the film turning oh-so-slowly into a monster as his lover is forced to watch.

‘The Fly’ might be famed for its gruesome body horror – and make no mistake, it is horrifyingly gruesome – but unlike lesser films, all that gore serves a purpose. At first, it’s tragic: we see a character who doesn’t deserve it physically rot. We feel his fear, feel his lover’s utter desperation at his degrading condition. We cheer for them to find a solution, even as the narrative reveals that there isn’t one. After this, the gore serves to show how far he’s fallen; how far from human he is.

At the end, when he’s first attacked, then utterly wrecked the jackass boyfriend – a jackass who’s been revealed to be not the possessive dick he at first seemed, but a vulnerable, heartbroken loser as well – the film reveals that it’s not about good guys or bad guys; it’s only about victims. It’s about what’s it’s like to watch a loved one die by degrees, unable to help them in any meaningful way.

The final shot of the film, where the protagonist’s lover is knelt over his mutilated, utterly inhuman body is so emotionally devastating as to be beyond words. So much so, that a planned happy ending was dropped after test audiences found it too twee. After seeing true love torn to pieces by cosmic happenstance, any ray of light felt false.

Another, more modern horror which gets things completely right as far as audience engagement is concerned is ‘IT’ – both the original, and the remake. The Losers’ Club is, quite simply, a masterstroke. With their collection of personal, unique underdog traits, every member of the Losers represents someone pissed on by society. Someone we can cheer. The disabled kid, bullied for his difference; the black kid, bullied for his melanin; the woman, bullied for the temerity of her sheer existence, and so on. Their disproportionate vulnerabilities mean that all of them likeable to some degree.

The modern remake then takes this a step further by going out of its way to make the characters funny, in the way that we all are as kids, and therefore both recognisably real, and, more importantly, the kind of kids we’d have liked to have been friends with. When Eddie explodes at his mother’s despicable abuse, he calls his pills ‘gazebos’ rather than ‘placebos’, and it doesn’t undermine the drama of the act at all. We laugh at his mistake, but cheer on his courage all the same. So it is with all of the Losers, our admiration for them only growing as they slowly rise to the challenge of defeating a monster who is, once all the superpowers are stripped away, nothing but a schoolyard bully. Pennywise loves to scare kids for the sheer fun of it, and when they finally overcome her, there’s something truly primal about the narrative. It’s a story of empowerment in the face of an oppression delivered at the most fundamental level, and there is no more universal human feeling than joy upon the recognition of our own, unrealised potential.

‘IT’ also works to engage the audience through its overt and deliberate use of nostalgia. As we watch the Losers, we’re watching ourselves as kids, remembering all those childhood joys and failures. As we watch the Losers grown old, we’re seeing ourselves again, remembering the distinctly beautiful pain that comes whenever we dwell on our lost youth. Sure, that youth may have been bad, but there were good days in there too, and ‘IT’ is clever enough to use this sense of loss to make us empathise for characters whose spectacular and disproportionate success in adult life might otherwise have made them deeply obnoxious.

And yeah, there’s some deeply problematic shit regarding the presentation of Bev – especially in the modern version’s ugly decision to make her a survivor of sexual abuse who is then relentlessly sexually objectified by literally every male character she encounters throughout the film. But, taken as an object lesson in engaging audience empathy, ‘IT’ is almost peerless. The Losers manage to be underdogs, points of audience identification, and symbols of repressed minority groups without it ever feeling heavy-handed, and whilst holding our sympathies throughout.

If ‘The Fly’ is an example of how to have a horror film which includes character’s we’d cheer for without ever falling into ‘good guy/bad guy’ clichés, and if ‘IT’ is an example of how to have ‘everyperson’ characters without falling into the trap of the ‘Generic White Male lead’, then the final film I’m going to look at is how to have relatively lightly drawn characters whilst still telling an engaging, profoundly upsetting story.

‘Martyrs’ is my favourite horror film, and if you can make it to the end without being in bits, then you’re stronger than I am. Using a three-part narrative structure, it begins with two protagonists: one, Lucie, who’s a woman who may be murderously crazy; the other, Anna, her friend and carer, who’s genuinely sweet. The film is so much more powerful because of this.

As the narrative progresses, we learn why Lucie, who seems at first to be the main character, murdered a family of four. We learn she is justified in her crime, and are shocked by her sudden, mid-film death. When the film’s villains show up and announce their plans to do to Anna what they did to Lucie, I don’t think I’ve ever known such a gut-tugging sense of anxiety from a film.

Over the remainder of the film’s duration, in excruciating, horribly slow detail, the film purposely goes about showing graphic, appalling violence happen to Anna until we’re as desensitised to it as her tormentors. By the end, I was shaking, sickened and near tears at what had happened to a character who absolutely did not deserve it.

‘Martyrs’ works because rather than having well-developed characters like ‘The Fly’, or underdogs like ‘IT’, it is simply relentless in its savagery. It doesn’t hide anything, doesn’t flinch from showing the sadism of its villains, and isn’t afraid to do truly awful things to its heroes. In a world where everyone seems impressed by ‘Deadpool’s 15 certificate, ‘Martyrs’ looks over, says ‘Hold my beer’, and shows us just how bad things can get when you don’t give a shit about making a film for kids.

And unlike more critically deplored fare like ‘Hostel’, or the films of the ‘Saw’ series, the awful violence of ‘Martyrs’ never feels like it’s simply happening for the sake of it; instead, the film uses it to make a point about the nature of violence – and our inherent human weakness in that we stop caring about it.

Making Better Horror.

At its most basic level, what’s true for all stories is true for horror. If we care about the characters, the narrative is more effective… and, more importantly, the horror itself is more effective. Directors and film-makers who want to make truly powerful horror need to understand this. They need to understand that to make truly powerful, enduringly horrifying imagery, they need to inflict horror on the kind of characters they don’t want to see suffering.

There’s an immediate drive in creative people to make narratives karmic. To ensure that those who die are also those who deserve it; that those who are damaged are damaged because they have it coming. But as much as it’s about fear, horror is about one of the things audiences don’t like to acknowledge: that bad things happen to good people. That it’s entirely possible to suffer unjustly.

That’s why it remains my belief that if you’re going to tell a horror story, you need to be prepared to hurt any of your characters… especially the ones who really don’t deserve it.

If you don’t, if we’re laughing at someone as they get hurt, well. It’s not horrifying, is it? It’s grue for grue’s sake. If you want to make that, maybe just make a gif instead? After all, it’ll have exactly the same minimal emotional impact.

‘The Mist’ doesn’t fail because it pisses on the LGBT+ community, or because it insults rape survivors. While it might be hateful, as ‘Game of Thrones’ demonstrates, a show can make mistakes while doing other things well. When it comes to ‘The Mist’, I read its errors as coming from a place of deep fucking stupidity rather than actual malice. Later series could correct that path, and retcon the errors which paint vulnerable communities as being worthy of the violence meted out to them.

‘Game of Thrones’ has, by and large, achieved that. After some awful misjudgements, it seems to finally have its shit together, and even discussed its mistakes in-series.

But when it come to ‘The Mist’, honestly, it doesn’t deserve a second series. Without a single character worthy of attention, it’s wasted its duration, succeeding in nothing more than being harmful, badly-made trash. Because it’s not horror. There is not one moment in the show is horrifying, scary, or even mildly tense, because the only reaction any of the characters elicit is ‘Christ I hope this one gets eaten by an uberlobster soon…’

Overall, it serves only as a useful reminder of the most important rule of stories: the only thing that matters is character.

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