“It’s a tragedy/It’s a sad song/But we sing it anyway.”
-“Road to Hell” from Hadestown
Spoilers for a lot of Netflix horror films ahead.
I remember the exact moment during the coronavirus outbreak when I stopped thinking about how hopeless this whole thing is. It was as I watched Iván Massagué walk off into a dark underworld accompanied by ghosts after sending a mysterious child up to an unknown fate at the hands of a murderous, hypercapitalist regime.
The ending of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform (2019) is not strictly speaking a happy one. The whole movie takes place in a bizarre vertical prison were all the food for the inmates is arranged on a scrumptious feast on a descending platform. Those on top receive the best, and those on the bottom are often starved to death if they don’t end up eating their cellmates. Massagué plays Goreng, an idealistic young man who enters the prison voluntarily in order to stop smoking, finally read Don Quixote, and earn a free degree. After a lot of tragedy, cannibalism, violence, rape, and torture, he stages a rebellion where he will send one prisoner, a child at the very bottom, back up to the chefs and administrators as a message. He stays behind, presumably to starve in darkness.
Why in the name of all sanity would I watch that right now of all times? It has something to do with Aristotle.
The Ancient Greeks had some big opinions on theater, one of which was that plays existed specifically to purge the negative emotions that we feel such as hatred and anger. That was what Plato thought, but his student Aristotle had a different approach. He used the word catharsis to describe the experience of watching a tragedy, and catharsis also means purification. Quite literally, the point of theater was to let emotions flow through you like clean water washing away stains and germs. Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube expanded on this idea in a recent video.
“It’s not just sadness; it’s the fact that it’s contained within a story that gives it a structure and kind of feeling of closure,” he says.
Closure is exactly what I get out of my new routine of nightly horror films. Good horror is all about surviving monstrous circumstances, even when the survival in question is bittersweet. There is a power to stories that do not shy away from the visceral pain of situations and yet still end with someone standing.
Two of my favorites from this period, both on Netflix, are Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) and Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts (2016). Both are zombie films with what we might call endings involving adaptations to new paradigms. The first takes place after a 28 Days Later-style outbreak devastates Korea. It ends with a little girl (Kim Su-an) and a pregnant widow (Jung Yu-mi) just barely able to reach a military outpost after watching their loved ones sacrifice themselves to save them. There’s this incredible tense moment where it looks like they are going to be shot by the troops until the little girl begins tearfully singing "Aloha Oe,” a song she learned for her now dead father.
In Girl With All the Gifts, the ending is even more transformative. The titular girl (Sennia Nanua) ignites the spores of a world-ending zombie plague, deducing that she and other children who are immune to the worst of the effects should rise as the new leaders of Earth while the old system dies out. She lovingly preserves her cherished teacher (Gemma Arterton), who proceeds to instruct the new generation of evolved children from behind the safety of an airtight research trailer.
In all three of these cases, the concept of normal is obliterated. New worlds are in the process of being formed out of the violent pregnancies of the old. There is blood, so much blood, but there is also something different that is still life.
Right now we are watching a plague that is Biblical in its devastation. Estimates for American deaths alone range in some cases from 200,000 to 1.7 million, and the worldwide economy has ground to a halt or been set on fire. Everyone is sitting in the dark and praying for the resumption of things as they were — something that may not happen. Things might just be different from now on.
Horror movies teach us how to deal with that. In them, some people give up, some turn cruel, some die tragically, and monsters win an uncomfortable amount of the time. What I’m getting when I sit alone in the dark looking for scares, is a sense that the uncertainty and madness that we see on the news has been amply speculated upon by filmmakers. Plagues, greedy capitalists, ineptitude, preying upon the week… all of it has been foreseen in a legion of ways.
There are pleasant surprises, too. I caught Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (2019) based on Joe Hill and Stephen King’s short story of the same name. The original story had a completely bleak ending without hope. People are just eaten by the mysterious grass and its occult power. The film, though, left a few people alive. It added heart and a sense of family that wasn’t present in the short story and watching characters I had grown to love over the course of 90 minutes escape from the grass brought tears to my eyes. Sure, there was still a big pile of corpses and a honeytrap of immense malevolence out there, but sometimes all you can do is save a few lives in a fixed point in time. It’s better than saving no one.
The difference between horror and other speculative fiction is the tacit acceptance of the worst of possibilities. It lets us postulate that the devil really is out to get us (The VVitch) or that justice is a cruel as crime (Horns) or that we are the architects of a vast, oppressed underclass even if we don’t know it (Us). Horror is a kind of rock bottom by proxy where you’re free to consider the worst in a playground of the mind and within a safe narrative structure. The grooves that wears in our brains make paths for us to contemplate the real-life terrors around us.
I was in a very dark place until I started turning off the news and turning on horrors that couldn’t reach me directly. The answer to negative emotions isn’t in denying them, but accepting their place in the emotional spectrum. You don’t kill fear by relegating it to some dark corner or trying to wash over it with sitcoms. You purify it through the best of safe, controlled fictional atrocity. After all, what is horror fiction but a lesson in how to be brave against it?