So begins the list of the #30 best things to watch for Halloween (I by no means claim this is a definitive list and the ordering is rather arbitrary).
We start this month of horror films off with a TV show. But not just any TV show, the single greatest TV show in the history of human civilization (at least up to this point…Whedon could easily come out with something new that would surpass it in a few years). That show is of course Buffy The Vampire Slayer. High tragedy, high comedy, deep understanding of the human condition, skill in writing, acting and directing, and of course a hopeful view of humanity that forgiveness is possible and that people can grow and improve themselves. There is simply no show in the history of television that has dealt such profound philosophical themes without being heavy handed and with characters who were human and never just two dimensional cutouts who were allowed to followed a predictable pattern.
The reason such a great work of art gets put last in this list is that it’s really not a horror story. Yes there are vampires and werewolves and monsters of all stripes. But even though it has all the tropes of horror, it is not focused on death as any good horror story is, rather Buffy is focused on life, specifically the growing up part of life. And in this respect it works as a good counterbalance to everything that’s going to come after, but that does not mean it does not have its horrifying moments.
So let’s do a quick rundown of some of the more terrifying episodes.
“Hush”: Possibly the most horrifying episode of Buffy. Corpse like emaciated men dressed in 1920’s style suits come to town, steal everyone’s voice and rip out their hearts. It’s frightening for several reasons. The first is the villains, The Gentlemen. The scariest monsters are always the ones that look human but are just a slight bit off, the fact that they were so concerned with manners and courtesy in their actions toward one another just adds to the horror because it is so out of place when you’re about to cut out a live and awake person’s heart. The other reason that it’s such a terrifying episode is that it takes away from the characters something they take for granted: their voice. The idea of not having something we have been so dependent on that we take it for granted, like our ability to communicate brings up the simple question in our minds: “what would I do in that situation?” It’s not a pleasant question. We use our voice for so many things and the idea that we should have to live without it–not a pleasant thought. And of course there is the fear of death. Few episodes have shown people so helpless as this episode when being killed, they’re restrained almost immediately so they can’t run away; they have no voice so they can’t scream for help and then they feel everything as their heart is cut out. One of the things that frighten people so much about death is that they think it is something out of their control, that it will come in the night without warning or rhyme or reason and there is nothing they can do about it, and they are utterly powerless in the face of the unknown. It’s powerlessness against it that frightens them (it’s why waiting for the diagnosis of cancer is worse than the diagnosis itself, when you know what it is, you have a name, an MRI, an idea you can fight against or give into, it’s your choice—but when you’re waiting you still have no choice about anything). It is this powerlessness that the scenes of death in this episode capture so well, and remind most of us of our own fears of death.
Helpless: People run a lot in Buffy. But either they’re one episode’s extras whom we’re not really all that invested in, or they’re main characters and we know Buffy will save them. But when it’s Buffy who is doing the running because she has had all her powers taken away, that adds a lot more terror. The safety net of “Buffy will save the day” is gone, and being Joss Whedon, we never had any reassurance that he isn’t willing to kill main characters, so there’s not that usual safety net either.
“Restless”: There is something terrifying about the unknown and the bizarre to most people. If they can’t understand and make sense of it, it frightens them. So putting our four main characters in a rather symbolic and random dreamscape with an unknown assailant killing them, is quite terrifying. Oh and there’s cheese (if you’ve seen the episode you’ll get that).
“Fear Itself”: Finally my favorite Halloween episode in Buffy. The Scooby Gang faces off against a demon who makes them live out their worst fears and then face the fear demon itself. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This episode shows how foolish that is. Why? Because the fear demon is three inches tall, which is possibly the most insightful and genius representation of fear I have ever seen in of all of literature. Fear is something small, something insignificant, and something if you use reason isn’t worth worrying about…yet we let it control us because we refuse to look at it. If we did confront it head on we would probably find that most of our fears are so small and so insignificant that they can just easily be squashed and ignored.
None these are exactly great films (not that the top 30 are all Oscar Winners) but they get trotted out every Halloween and I would say they do meet my criteria of an unhealthy obsession with death.
Constantine: An epic battle between good and evil with a poorly executed story of redemption. Fun but ultimately pointless.
Stigmata: It’s not exactly a horror film, (and I’ll probably deal with it later in my blogs about movies for New Agers) but with all the blood and suffering it has many of the tropes of a horror film.
Bless the Child: Certainly not as dense and preachy as the novel it’s based on, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still just a little preachy. And then there is just the rather low quality direction.
The Shinning (TV movie 1997): You know the Nicholson/Kubric version of the film is actually well done, the problem is that it seems to completely ignore that there is actually a great book that it’s supposed to be based on. The TV movie, while not without its flaws was more true to theme and characters of the book and thus I prefer it to the older version.
Fringe: Again it’s not really about the fear of death, but there are some truly horrifying moments. Like in the first episode where everyone’s skin is melting off, that’s frightening at levels I can’t begin to describe. And that 3rd season episode where they guy is playing with a corpse and through levers and pulleys make it dance ballet, that’s disturbing at a level I seldom see.