Horror movies: Fantasy lessons for the real world

I avoid horror movies for the same reason I avoid roller coasters. There are enough things to be frightened of in the real world that I have no desire to scare myself more than is necessary. But this is Halloween, the time when we Americans recognize our mortality, or at least our desire for “fun-size” candies and “sexy” costumes. So, we like to celebrate by watching horror movies. (Well, others besides me.)

I do like some horror movies. Those movies do more than freak or gross me out. They actually say something valuable and have moral lessons. Some are deeply touching. Here are my favorite horror movies and why horror movies have value in the modern world.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu is a classic. Even though it’s a knockoff of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu set the standard that other vampire movies have followed (even the ones with sparkly vampires.)

What I saw in Nosferatu is the way people look at the “other.” The vampire Count Orlok came from “uncivilized” Romania and had smuggled himself into a “civilized” German town. He immediately started causing death and havoc. The only way this evil foreigner could be defeated is if a virtuous young woman seduced him with her purity.

Nosferatu depicted all the fears of the “other” — that they would infect civilized society with their disease, social unrest, and sexual energy. That they are less than human, and they could be destroyed without guilt. (And if you look at what Germans would do to the “other” over a decade later, it becomes clear who the real monsters are.)

Modern vampire movies continue the theme of the “other.” True Blood and The Twilight Saga show the “other” trying to fit in with society, struggling to overcome their natural urges to fit in with the mainstream. How do we treat people who are different, especially those who have beliefs in opposition to ours? This is the question raised by vampire movies like Nosferatu.

The Fly (1986)

The 1986 remake of The Fly may be considered Grand Guignol, but it is also great tragedy. It shows what happens when someone makes a hasty, unfortunate choice, and how that decision can destroy his life and the lives of people around him. Some critics and academics consider The Fly an allegory of the AIDS epidemic, but AIDS is not the only thing that can cause tragic consequences. Driving under the influence, having unprotected sex, cheating, committing fraud, using dangerous drugs — all bad decisions made in an impulsive moment that ruin people for the rest of their lives. Even with the gory special effects, The Fly remains a cautionary and heartbreaking story.

Child’s Play (1988)

Some of the creepiest horror movie villains are children. From Children of the Corn, the unnerving twin girls in The Shining, and Billy Mumy’s character in a Twilight Zone episode — all of them question our belief of the innocence of children. (If those aren’t enough, there’s Lord of the Flies.)

Child’s Play (the original 1988 film, not the obnoxious sequels or the upcoming unnecessary remake) continues the theme: Can we really trust our children? Although the toy (or the voodoo-adept serial killer possessing it) causes the evil, the boy is blamed for it. No one believes kids when they say their dog ate their homework, so how would you believe one who said his doll committed murder?

As any parent knows, children are capable of doing terrible things. There have been recent cases of bullying that has driven children to commit suicide. Parents, despite their best efforts, don’t know that this is happening until it is too late. And when they do know, they don’t know what to do about it. The myth of the innocence of children gets in our way. Adults don’t believe children are capable of such cruelty, and they may not believe their children when they say such cruelty is happening.

Fantasy Lessons for the Real World

Lessons like the ones in Child’s Play show the value of horror movies. They provide fantasy lessons for the real world, such as respecting those who are different, avoiding hasty decisions with lasting consequences, and seeing children realistically.

We should remember that the original purpose of horror stories is to teach moral lessons. The folk tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm, which are more like R-rated splatter fests than Disney cartoons, were to warn people about the consequences of bad behavior. If you are vain and greedy, meddle with things you don’t understand, disobedient, or act dishonestly, you will pay a horrible price. Horror movies, just like celebrity gossip, are morality plays for the modern age. They show how frightening real life can be if we make the wrong choices.