Horror show hysterics

WE should be weeping at horror movies. Never has there been a time more ripe to say this: we should have Kleenex ready as we wail our best Steven Tyler impressions, tears flooding down like the Niagara Falls, snot falling like typhoon rain on your best person’s shoulders.

Now I don’t think our culture is particularly resistant to crying, but it’s always called for in appropriate context. You need to cry at the right place and at the right time. The most appropriate time to cry is when you’re in private. But the act of crying in itself—an expression of pangs so deeply ingrained in the walls of our hearts that we have to do something that feels like scraping them out—often makes a recipient necessary. That’s why I say you need your best person there, whoever it may be. There’s also a special kind of release that comes from crying at the movies, one that’s made possible by the fact that we see things happening to people, that we’re supposed to feel some kind of intimacy with them.

We cry a lot at drama movies, romance and family films, especially. We’ll cry when Mia accidentally walks into Seb’s club and Seb, upon spotting her, plays the secret chronicle of their temporary romance. We’ll cry when Andy tells Bonnie why Woody is the best toy.

In horror movies, crying doesn’t feel like an obvious reaction. Should we cry because we’re scared? Or because we’re running for our lives from the monster onscreen? I mean, those people really have something to weep about. Their lives are in danger! Why should our grief be more important here, more useful than concern or base-level sympathy?

I recently saw Midsommar and while many people have talked about it as a “breakup film,” I haven’t heard much about it from the perspective of people who have recently gone through breakups. Dani (Florence Pugh) is someone with a lot to grieve for, we find out, and she’s in a relationship with a guy who can’t be there for her emotionally. That sucks. But because she can’t bear to be alone, she hijacks her boyfriend’s summer vacation plans. It’s annoying for some, but the motivation is clear to anyone who’s grieved—she can’t bear to be alone. As the movie plays out, it’s clear that the village they’re visiting is harboring some kind of sinister secret and Dani experiences the horrors on very visceral level. But what does she really find in that village? What do they do to get her smiling at the very end of the film? In a strange, perverse (and I think mostly accidental) way, they respond to her sadness. They tell her that the very obvious, immediate things she feels as a result of what happened to her aren’t wrong or invalid. She’s been holding her grief inside for so long, without anyone or anything to receive it, and when the village crowns her May Queen and literally covers her in flowers, she actually feels like one. I think Midsommar’s approach to the final scene, which features a bunch of deaths, is very telling of the film’s intentions. The soundtrack cue that plays over that scene gives room to the moment’s literal horrors for only a few seconds, but the rest of it sounds like a reprieve. There’s no talking down, no sense of being patronized and I believed it.

I think it’s really special when a film that’s designed to make you feel dread and fear ends up embracing the griefs and traumas you think are too shameful to talk to anyone else about. Isn’t that what catharsis is all about?


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