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Reflecting upon the Horrors: Reel vs Real

An insight into how reality is not so different from the horrors we see on screen

By- Ashima Pargal

After watching a horror movie, most people can’t help but feel like the characters have traveled with them and are all around them— in the dark shadows, in the empty corner of their room, and right in front of them each time they shut their eyes. Most would remind themselves that it’s their imagination playing tricks and can only hope for them to disappear.

It can be difficult to empathize with a ghost and understand their story, especially when they look like monsters with the power to rip your soul in just a glance. However, what lies beyond the rather distressing aesthetics is not too far from the world we’re living in. Seems like even fictional demons couldn’t escape human constructs.

In the early 2000s, ghosts used to be depicted as abstract forms, often in a gaseous-vapor state. Recently, horror cinema has begun to allocate bodies to ghosts, mostly female. Even as ghosts, these female characters tend to have long hair, skinny bodies, and usually have makeup on, not necessarily appealing, but it’s present even if it’s smudged.

Even in a movie series like ‘Hotel Transylvania,’ where the horror element has been reduced to the bare minimum to make the content suitable for children, the female counterparts of popular characters from horror cinema like Frankenstein, werewolves, and vampires, are seen to have been designed with hourglass figures, enlarged breasts, heavy hips, skinny legs, perfect jawlines and with pretty makeup. Do you see the problem yet? If not, imagine kids playing Pacman with these ghosts. What’s more distressing is that adding these features was not an attempt to emphasize the horror of growing up around the objectification of female bodies, but rather seems like a way of making the scary content seem more comical.

Gender roles are just as concrete with women idealizing marriage and looking after their kids, and men being employed. Well at least nobody looks at female horror figures and tries to measure their worth by replacing them with male counterparts. It is unlikely that someone would consider replacing or comparing Anabelle or the girl from ‘The Ring’ with male figures presuming that they would do better and hence rank them higher. Measuring performance based on gender than on merit seems simply unnecessary, doesn’t it?

Female spirits returning to avenge being cheated, robbed, murdered, exploited, hunted by serial killers, and abused, seems like a rather common storyline. Even then, the banality of violence has made us so accustomed to these incidents that what defines ‘horror’ and drives our hate are not always the atrocities of the crimes but the characters and their appearances. While believing in the paranormal is a personal choice, such violence unravels every day. As per the National Crime Records Bureau of India, more than 4 lakh cases of crimes against women were reported in 2019, which is a 7.3% increase from the year before. Their association with horror seems reasonable, but the idea of spirits having to return to seek justice has a deeper meaning. Perhaps a hint towards the need for a stronger justice system and the creation of a safer environment.

Even while dealing with animation, it’s not hard to find living examples that are just like the plots from many films. Zombies survive by eating away the human brain and in the process, morph humans into their species. This lifestyle, when looked at metaphorically, translates to fit our behavioral patterns. Well, you wouldn’t find people chewing human body parts today, but we did have to come up with mechanisms to stop it from happening. More philosophically, majority-minority politics and the subsequent brainwashing to suit various capitalistic agendas, as can be seen in many dam construction projects, is one such example. Sacrificing the culture, individuality, and thinking potential of a group and assimilating them into the larger group of people driven by a single-minded objective is common in both cases. Vampires suck blood from humans to keep living just like capitalism sucks the hard work out of the bottom tier to keep the economy going. A lot more silent, but poses outcomes that are just as scary.

A single scene has the potential to evoke multiple reactions from the public. Some would probably be screaming, some might find it cringe-worthy, some might associate it with something that they have seen before, and some might not be affected at all but might still appreciate the scene. Regardless, people interpret, respond, and critique it in a manner they seem fit. There is a possibility that there would be a variety of opinions which they would potentially discuss. Not everyone has to agree with the other’s point of view, but we listen to how they’ve interpreted the story and happily create our fandoms. Moviemakers often wait for the reviews to come out which are then debated and worked upon.

Healthy criticism when heard and accepted is a tool for improvement. Nobody bans the people who disagree with the majority opinion from watching movies just because they spoke against a scene, or labels them as anti-movie-viewers, or physically assaults people because they aren’t into the horror genre. But what if people added their elements, like slogans, phrases, symbols, actions, and plots, and altered the original just to build their argument? It would be absurd to add additional layers of material or connections which weren’t there in the first place, to make a point, wouldn’t it?

It is easier to categorize something as scary when it comes packaged with thousands of labels, titles, and images. It’s not surprising to see projections of elements from our current socio-political sphere present in the narratives of popular horror cinema but it’s hard to locate them. Often, the most horrific and terrifying incidents are happening right next to us but we fail to identify them then. Murder, sexual harassment, controlled dissent, racism, communalism, the domination of minorities, and lots of other incidents happen off-screen every day. The villains don’t walk around dressed like demons nor can we hear the creepy warning music while interacting with someone dangerous. It’s the subtle horror that has crept into our lives. It’s so evident, yet we refuse to see it.

Edited by Vedangshi Roy Choudhuri, Priyam Sharma