not in our stars, but in ourselves
The Birds (1963) just happens to be on TV today, and it’s gotten me thinking about the kind of horror movie that never fails to drive me almost insane with fear: the kind where the only reason the film’s protagonist(s) find themselves being so brutalized is chance. They didn’t venture out into a potentially dangerous situation. They didn’t go out of their way to antagonize anyone or anything. They just found themselves going about their normal routine – and BOOM. Some sort of aberration destroys, or threatens to destroy them. I don’t do very well with any horror movies – but this particular variety is a perfect expression of my worst fear.
Take The Birds, just to begin with. Oftentimes, in Hitchcock’s films, the “narrative obeys the law that the more a situation is somewhat a priori, familiar or conventional, the more it is liable to become disturbing or uncanny, once one of its constituent elements begins to ‘turn against the wind'” as Pascale Bonitzer says. But in The Birds, the uncanny becomes downright psychopathic: out of nowhere, for no discernible reason within the film’s narrative, every species of bird in Bodega Bay flocks together with one apparent goal – to kill the humans. The first time I saw The Birds was at university, on a Monday morning. It scared me much more than I was expecting it to – having seen snippets and scoffed at the early-’60s special effects – and I kept turning it over in my mind all day. I had work that night, finishing up at 11:00. While I was walking back home, I could hear a flock of seagulls somewhere behind me, squawking angrily amongst themselves – and I just about ran the rest of the way. Nothing happened, obviously, nor was it likely that anything would happen. But strange, horrible things like The Birds do happen – maybe not with animals, but with other people. That’s how the world usually goes mad.
For instance: The Strangers (2008). I have seen it once. I could not sleep that night. Every time I’ve thought of it since then, at night anyway, I haven’t been able to sleep. It is my very worst fear: a young couple is spending time in an isolated cabin, trying to get their relationship back on track without any distractions, and then a trio of masked murderers traps and terrorizes them. When Kristen (Liv Tyler) screams, “Why are you doing this to us?!” one of the killers replies: “Because you were home.” Nothing targeted, nothing really intentional – just bad luck. The couple just happened to be in the same place as three lunatics who felt like slaughtering whomever they met. It’s banal, it’s random, it’s sickening – and it happens. It happens all the time. The film was based on something that happened to the director when he was a kid, and on the Keddie Cabin Murders, and on the Manson Family.
For another instance: The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It’s not Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) who terrifies me. It’s Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). He just picks random girls, abducts them, kills them, and makes things out of their skin. It has nothing to do with anything they’ve done, anyone they happen to be: if they’re somewhat heavyset and by themselves, he grabs them. He’s based on real murderers, too. Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Ed Gein – and more. He’s not solely the result of Thomas Harris’s imagination. He has existed before, and will almost certainly exist again.
There’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), in which a rather naive young woman finds herself brutally gang raped simply for daring to be a city girl on vacation in a rural town. There’s M (1931), in which a sick loner lures random children to sickening dooms because he can’t help himself. There’s Funny Games (1997), in which two young psychopaths knock on any old door and force the family inside to “play” sadistic “games” with each other. There’s Peeping Tom (1960), in which a timid young man achieves sexual stimulation by filming himself murdering women – any woman, doesn’t matter who – with his camera’s tripod (!). There’s The Wicker Man (1973), in which a Christian police detective goes to investigate a disappearance on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland – and is burnt to a crisp as a Pagan sacrifice.
And there’s Jack the Ripper. There’s Albert Fish. There’s Fritz Haarmann. There’s Jeffrey Dahmer. There’s Fred West. There’s Josef Mengele. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of people throughout history who did horrific things to scores of people – just because they could. Just because they felt like it. If that inevitability doesn’t chill you to your very bones, then I don’t know what to say to you – other than stay the hell away from me.