Many years ago, Stephen King wrote an essay declaring, “The horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary.” He did not mean that horror movies promote conservative or reactionary political ideas, but rather that they “re-establish our feelings of essential normality.” In other words, watching ghastly or gory cinema makes us feel grateful for the real-world status quo.
King himself is a left-winger, as are many of his fellow horror mavens. In fact, Asawin Suebsaeng of The Daily Beast has argued that “the godfathers of modern horror cinema were almost entirely liberal peaceniks,” which accounts for the anti-war and anti-capitalist motifs embedded in their work. Suebsaeng did allow that “the boobs-and-blood-filled slasher films of the 1980s” deliver a more conservative message: “These largely apolitical movies — packed with exploitative carnage and sex — nonetheless have a common theme that Moral Majority types can get behind: If you’re a kid who has premarital sex, does drugs, binge-drinks, and parties like a fool, you will be severely punished.”
On a more serious level, the horror genre presents a cold-eyed and fundamentally conservative view of human nature. This view is encapsulated in a scene from The Silence of the Lambs — not from the 1991 Oscar-winning film with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, but from the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris.
During her first visit to Hannibal Lecter’s dungeon-like prison cell, FBI trainee Clarice Starling asks the cannibalistic serial killer to fill out a questionnaire, explaining that his answers will help researchers understand “what happened to you.” Lecter’s response is like a thunderbolt of moral clarity:
“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants — nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?”
“I think you’ve been destructive. For me it’s the same thing.”
“Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s that simple. And we have fire, and then there’s hail. Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.’”
In short: The “nurturist” view of humanity gets you only so far.
We often hear it said, after a mass shooting, that the crime was “something out of a horror movie.” And yet, we insist on ascribing social and/or political “meaning” to each one. That misses the implicit point of the analogy: Whatever the specific grievances nursed by homicidal lunatics in real life or on the big screen, their violence tends to reflect either extreme nihilism or extreme narcissism (or both). As Mark Steyn wrote a week after the December 2012 Newton school massacre, “The central meaning of these acts is that they are without meaning.”
The best horror films challenge us to recognize the fragility of civilization and the hollowness of moral relativism; to appreciate the existence of evil as a permanent, ineradicable feature of our world; and to respect the need for decent, law-abiding people to remain vigilant and, yes, armed. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no pacifists in a room with Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. To borrow one of George Orwell’s famous lines: “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”
The continued threat posed by real-life monsters — monstrous individuals, monstrous organizations, and monstrous regimes — runs counter to the notion that human beings are perfectible, or that governments can create Utopia. Indeed, while Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes a strong case that violence around the world “has been in decline for thousands of years,” we cannot eliminate the darker impulses that affect human behavior. In their own way, horror movies remind us of that.