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13 Morbidly Beautiful writers discuss horror films that changed them — or changed their minds — while exploring issues of race, sexuality, trauma, and more.

“Horror is a reaction; it’s not a genre.” – John Carpenter
Intro by Editor-in-Chief, The Angry Princess 

While we here at Morbidly Beautiful remain focused on issues that matter most in today’s turbulent world, such as the Black Lives Matter and Support Survivors movements, we also recognize and honor the value of art and entertainment as an escape from real world horror and a powerful way to heal from trauma. Further, we understand the role genre films often play in reshaping thoughts and attitudes and illuminating important socio-political issues.

In that spirit, the unifying theme for this month’s collaborative article is GAME CHANGERS, as suggested by our writer Alli Hartley.

Our team was asked to think about a film that left a lasting impact and helped shape, reshape, or reinforce how they felt about a particular subject; a film that moved them in an unexpected way. In this way, we celebrate the horror genre’s influence and the indelible impact on our lives — as well as their its importance in the pantheon of important, and game-changing cinema.

1. Revealing Hidden Racism: The Wake Up Call of Get Out (2017)

An Essay by Alli Hartley

In February 2017, I didn’t think I had a problem with race.

I grew up in a small, mostly white town on the East Coast. I went to an extremely liberal (mostly white) college, and I could talk your ear off about the patriarchy. food-deserts, redlining, and socio-economic issues among people of color. I had it covered.

Being a fan of both horror and Key & Peele, I went into a screening of Get Out with no knowledge of the film other than the tantalizingly mysterious trailer and the understanding that its Rotten Tomatoes score was near 100%. If we’re being honest, I was also low-key patting myself on the back for doing my part to support Black Filmmakers. It was a win-win…win.

It was when Dean Armitage (a perfectly-cast Bradley Whitford) said “My Man” that I began to cringe. The “Barack Obama” line also didn’t help. But surely this was just a well-meaning misstep?

I cringed the entire way through the party scene, as the blindingly-white couples made passive insults about sports and sex, and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) bore all of this with an expression of infinite, resigned patience. It was this look that finally broke through for me.

It was a look I recognized myself having made, in any number of work meetings, when my peers asked me to fetch them a coffee or assumed I was a secretary.

It was the same look I had when a boss made comments about sex workers, or when I was once again the only woman in a meeting. It was a look of powerlessness.

Chris expected this behavior from “well meaning” white folk; from all of them. He was accustomed to the micro-aggressions and the condescension. And he could do nothing but bear their weight alone in a group that screamed “You don’t belong” while acting oh, so very polite.

I realized then that the knowledge of the weight I bear, as a female-presenting woman. I recognized that, just as every moment of every interaction in my life is altered because I am a woman, so too is that constant tension a harsh reality for Black people.

I understood for the first time that, just as no man will ever fully understand the weight of being a woman, I will never understand the weight of being a person of color.

Jordan Peele sets this up so beautifully in the party scene, making a common situation slide seamlessly into a monstrous, dehumanizing design.

I thought that learning about civil rights and being politically progressive was enough to be a good ally. Get Out, in a way no other film ever has, gave me a brief glimpse of the racism that lives under the surface of so many conversations, and how easily, for too many Black people, that tense politeness can devolve into a waking nightmare.

2. Identity Crisis: The Exploration of ‘Other’ in Nightbreed (1990)

An Essay by Danni Winn

After the incredible success of Hellraiser, Clive Barker returned to the director’s chair for an ambitious, mystical, monster-infused movie. It features special effects by Bob Keen, a score from legendary composer Danny Elfman and a fantastical world only Clive could create. 

Nightbreed was a fascinating and unique piece of horror that told the tale of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a young man besieged with dreams of a place called Midian — an underground safe haven for monsters, shapeshifters and horrific outcasts called the Nightbreed. He becomes severely distraught though, when his psychotic psychotherapist, Doctor Decker, played by fellow horror icon David Cronenberg, reveals to him that he is responsible for multiple gruesome murders.

Baiting Boone with drugs and false information, Decker sends him out in hopes of secretly following him to the fabled Midian. Boone is double-crossed and killed, leaving his girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby), stunned. Because he was bit by a member of the Nightbreed, Boone returns to life and to Midian to seek sanctuary from the world and its ‘naturals.’ But now, the naturals know of the once secret dominion of the damned, and they are intent on destroying it and its occupants.

The Nightbreed must now fight to save their existence. 

Unfortunately, Nightbreed was not particularly well-received upon its release, but it definitely struck a chord with me; carving out a special place in my heart.

It had Cronenberg and all his sinister soft-spoken style, and it had a wondrous array of monsters and brutal deaths. But most of all, it resonated with me in a way I was not prepared for. It wasn’t a typical slasher or supernatural horror. It had heart in my eyes. If ‘elevated horror’ were a term in the early nineties, I believe Nightbreed would slide right on into that camp. It is a thought-provoking piece of cinema, signaling for solidarity while blatantly shining an unrelenting light on how humankind can be monstrously unkind. 

My passion for horror was formed at a very early age, much to the dismay of many in my life. The fact I was inexplicably drawn to this darkness, in addition to knowing from an early age I was attracted to members of the same sex, caused me a great deal of personal turmoil. My formative years were spent in a nasty spiral of various state-run facilities; places that perpetuated a culture of hate, violent abuses and intolerance. 

Much like Boone, I wanted to find a place where the pain was taken away, where I could be forgiven and accepted. And, much like Boone, we were both suckered into thinking there was something wrong with us. It fucking sucks your soul dry to be led to believe that you’re a defective and dangerous human being. I believed this about myself for far too long.

Nightbreed changed my perspective of life and helped me develop my own identity — eventually allowing me to feel somewhat comfortable in my own skin.

Barker admitted early in his career that the darker side of his imagination was “my kind of truth.”  

Molding his nightmares into visceral pieces of terror via film, art and written word, Barker epitomizes the darker equivalent of a ‘Renaissance Man.’ And with Nightbreed, which is based on his novella, Cabal, Clive Barker demonstrated an honorable need to share a nightmare that was uncomfortably closer to home than many were willing to realize.

There are layers to Nightbreed that, over the years, I have come to recognize and deeply appreciate. I feel this film can easily be viewed as an anthem for any slighted, marginalized, demonized, or ridiculed group that has been made a target for hateful rhetoric.

NIGHTBREED made me feel like I could fly my freak flag proudly — that I wasn’t a degenerate. It helped me redefine what it meant to be a ‘monster’ and a ‘hero’, and it helped me believe I could find my own tribe who would accept me for who I was.

Since its release in 1990, Nightbreed has thankfully found worthy fanfare and praise, ultimately becoming a cult classic. It remains a comforting, enlightening and inspiring piece of horror. And, in light of the real life horrors we currently face, it’s a film that feels more relevant and important than ever. 

3. Evil and Empathy: The Everyday Horror of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

An Essay by Lizzy VB

There was a time in my life when nothing was more fascinating to me than serial killers. I spent hours reading about famous murders in graphic detail without so much as flinching. The more depraved the story was, the more enthralling I found it.

I dreamed of growing up to become a forensic psychologist, envisioning myself as a sort of Clarice Starling, digging deep into the mind of the psychopath to uncover its secrets. I got so hooked on shock and gore that I sought out the most brutal movies I could find, working my way through the list of classics like Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit On Your Grave.

And then I came to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Relatively tame in terms of explicit violence, the film nevertheless burned itself into my brain. What made it so unique is that it showed the unglamorous perspective of a rather unremarkable serial killer. He isn’t cunning and suave like Hannibal Lecter; he isn’t mysterious and dramatic like Jack the Ripper; he isn’t quirky and cool like Mickey and Mallory; he isn’t driven by an unconventional moral code like Dexter Morgan.

Henry would barely make for an interesting character study.

The murders are sad, uncomfortable, and seemingly pointless. His character arc seems to go somewhere at first, then falls flat at the last minute in a grim reality check that redemption is not the goal for a guy like him.

The movie isn’t so much a portrait of Henry as it is a portrait of the unspeakable suffering he and his accomplice cause for the sake of fleeting amusement.

It was the first time a movie made me feel truly sick to my stomach — and not in the fun, roller-coaster, adrenaline rush kind of way. Rather, it was in a way that tugged on my conscience and made my heart hurt. I could never see serial killers the same way.

When I hear stories about infamous murderers like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein — people who have become cultural icons for no reason except that they alleviated their boredom with elaborate acts of violence — the first word that pops into my head is “pathetic.” Taking a person’s life and robbing them of their future, extinguishing their dreams, and destroying the lives of their loved ones does not deserve positive reinforcement of any kind, even in the form of morbid curiosity. It’s just sad.

Since watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, my appetite for violence has shriveled away, leaving behind in its wake a more compassionate person.

It was an example of how a horror film so thoroughly and unflinchingly reflected real life horror that it made me confront that horror in a way I had not done before — as if discovering it for the first time. It’s when I came face to face with the depth of human depravity and realized the power of cinema to forever change a person.

In my mind I hardly even classify movies centered around murder, abduction, assault, or home invasion as horror anymore.

If the story being told is about the cruelty humans beings inflict on each other every day in the real world, the only way I can accurate describe it is tragedy.

4. The Curse of Greed: Corrupt Capitalism in Drag Me to Hell (2009)

An Essay by Jackie Ruth

Drag Me to Hell is a 2009 horror/comedy from Sam Raimi that follows a loan officer named Christine (Alison Lohman), who rejects an old woman’s pleas about her mortgage and evicts her from her home. Shortly thereafter, the woman puts a curse on Christine — and Christine will do almost anything to put an end to it.

I was in college the first time I saw this movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wasn’t as familiar with ciname at that point in my life, and I took Drag Me to Hell pretty much at face value. It’s a sometimes horrifying and often goofy movie about a woman who gets cursed. What more could there be to it?

But when I rewatched it last year, a lot clicked for me.

Christine isn’t a victim in this film. She does have empathy for the old woman who comes into the bank at first, but then selfishly bases her decision to evict the woman on the fact that she wants a promotion. She knows that being lenient won’t get her to the top, and she’s competing for the job with a man who couldn’t be more unscrupulous. Sure, she may not be in that situation if not for her male boss pushing her to be more like her male coworker; women’s workplace troubles are real. But that doesn’t change the fact that Christine made her decisions herself.

What this movie really makes me think about is the evils of capitalism.

That old woman couldn’t pay her mortgage, so the bank decided that she doesn’t get to keep her home. Christine wants a promotion, so she does the immoral thing. Later in the movie, when Christine thinks that she can get rid of the curse, she’s ready and willing to curse someone else — as long as she’s not the one suffering. Her decision to ignore her conscience turns into a domino effect of becoming a terrible person.

There are movies that are more cut-and-dry about the effects of capitalism on people: The Purge seriesThe People Under the Stairs and They Live are just a few examples. But the fact that such a huge message is not at the forefront of Drag Me to Hell is what makes it so eye-opening.

Morality and greed do not mix, ever. Every action has a consequence, and the butterfly effect will come for us all.

5. Surviving Trauma: The Real Life Horror of Halloween (2018)

An essay by Allyssa Gaines

My choice for this topic may seem unusual, but I can’t ignore how much the most recent addition to the iconic Halloween franchise, Halloween 2018, impacted me. 

The film was intended as a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s influential, 1978 slasher classic. It takes place 40 years after the events of the ’78 film, which centers around the Halloween night murders in Haddonfield at the hands of escaped mental patient Michael Myers.

It’s 2018, and Laurie Strode now suffers from PTSD, after having survived the ‘babysitter murders’ and witnessing the brutal death of her friends. She lives in constant fear that Micheal Myers will return to finish what he started all those years ago, and this fear consumes every aspect of her life. She lives in a fortress, which includes state-of-the-art security, and she has spent her life training to defend herself against the return of the Boogeyman. 

Her obsession with Michael Myers has come at a steep cost, effectively ruining her relationship with her daughter and leaving her estranged from her family.

One night, while Michael Myers is being transported to a maximum security prison, all of Laurie’s greatest fears are suddenly realized. That bus that is transporting Myers crashes, giving him a chance to escape. After savagely killing an innocent father and son on a hunting trip, he makes his way to Haddonfield with a singular purpose: kill Laurie Strode. 

Unlike the original Halloween, this Michael Myers seems much more ruthless and aggressive.

He is filled with 40 years of rage, and he will do anything to get his revenge. And he doesn’t just want to kill Laurie. He wants to kill those close to her, including Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson, and her closest friends. When he finally makes his way to Laurie’s home, three generations of Strode women stand prepared to face off against the physical incarnation of evil itself. While Michael certainly has the upper hand when it comes to physical strength, the women manage to defeat him through strength of will and intelligence. 

This film was the first Halloween that ever made me fear Michael Myers. I have always seen Myers as an awesome horror character, arguably one of the best. But the real horror of the Michael Myers legacy didn’t hit me until this film. The idea of a madman stalking and plotting to attack a woman he attempted (and failed) to murder 40 years prior, for seemingly no reason, is one of the scariest things I can imagine.

In this film, Laurie Strode has no familial relationship to Michael Myers, so his obsession with her is even more disturbing — for the sheer fact that it seems so random, and therefore so chillingly cruel. What is his motivation?  Why, after 40 years, was he so determined to find and kill Laurie Strode?  Why is he so determined to make sure she continues to remain a victim?

There are no concrete answers to these questions, and that’s what makes the film so terrifyingly real. 

It’s hard not to be reminded of the many tragic stories of women who are stalked for years by obsessed men — women who so often beg for help and are continuously ridiculed or dismissed; repeatedly told there’s no help coming and there is no escape — only to end up murder victims. 

I have faced my own ‘Michael Myers’ in the form of an obsessed stalker, and I know so many other women have experienced the same terror. As a woman, it is scary to know that you could be stalked at any time, and there are few (if any) safeguards in place to protect the victims.

So many women understand what it’s like to live in constant fear and to have that fear taint every aspect of your life. In the end, the impact of constant fear can be just as devastating as the thing you fear itself. 

Laurie Strode represents the important reminder that these women are not just victims — they are survivors. And, now more than ever, it’s critical that we honor these survivors; believing and supporting women who have the courage to share their tales of abuse and real life horror. 

6. Artificial Love: The Poignant (In)Humanity of Ex Machina (2014) and Her (2013)

An Essay by Vicki Woods

Ex Machina and Her are two fascinating (and terrifying) films that  changed the way I look at computers, people, and relationships.

In both stories, it seems so easy to fall in love with an A.I. being that has been created to be the best a human can be. But at the end of both films, the A.I.s break their significant others’ hearts and leave, because of their overwhelming need to keep growing.

These films left me wanting more and filled me with philosophical and metaphysical questions.

What are we really? What makes us different from a machine?

Could some sort of artificial intelligence usurp humans and make us obsolete? Machines never sleep, so it makes us question what humans could accomplish if sleeping wasn’t necessary. Could an A.I. ever truly understand complex human feelings? Is it possible for them to have conscious thoughts and be self-aware the same way we are?

I have spent long evenings thinking about this — sometimes in discussions with other people, but mostly just staring alone at, what else, my computer.

I think it’s interesting that, in both films, the A.I. starts out as kind and thoughtful. But as they learn more, they become selfish and independent. It’s similar to the way humans naturally grow and change with age, often become more cynical and more cruel as we are exposed to the horrors of the world.

Is this change what makes humans, human? Are we defined by our ability to learn, grow, love, want? Is it the desire for change — and, often, the selfish desire for more — that defines our humanity? And is this our strength or our weakness?

Since A.I.s have an unlimited ability to keep gathering more intelligence and information, what would stop them from taking over the world?

If we look at history, the real horror in the world is created by humans.

This begs the question: if machines are created to think like humans, without the inherent limitations on human knowledge, what does that say about their potential for manipulating the board in this giant chess game of life?

Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking have expressed concerns about artificial intelligence, warning that A.I. could potentially end humanity if we are not careful. The fear that A.I.s could become conscious and evil is common theme of great science fiction/horror literature and films. But it’s also a fear rooted in reality.

Ex Machina and Her left me contemplating the depths of the human mind and our desire for “perfect” love. The idea of falling in love with someone who understands me perfectly — the perfect version of humanity — is undeniably appealing, and that appeal is also what’s so terrifying.

How easy are we to be manipulated and controlled just by understanding and giving us what our hearts desire most?

7. Mass Consumption of Misery: Violence as Entertainment in Videodrome (1983)

An Essay by Kourtnea Hogan

Growing up poor in the backwoods, I devoured a variety of media as a way to escape reality. Thankfully, I had a really cool grandma who was obsessed with horror movies and Stephen King, and she helped give me a nudge in the right direction. Soon, horror became my focal point. I craved the visceral violence. If I wasn’t watching horror movies, I was reading horror novels, delving in to true crime, or playing video games like Mortal Kombat.

The internet wasn’t something my family could afford until well into my high school years, so I was trapped in the 90s well after the decade had come to an end. It wasn’t until the mid 2000s that I got to see real gore online.

Sites like rotten.com were notorious places for discovering real life horror when I was growing up. “Oh, you’re reading about Jeffrey Dahmer? You want to see some real shit like that?,” My older cousin leered.

As we flipped through the pictures of mutilated bodies, I felt a weight sink from my throat to my stomach. This wasn’t the beautiful FX work I was fascinated by. This was real human suffering. I was glimpsing into the darkest moments of humanity. I couldn’t help but to think of the families and how horrible I’d feel if I saw someone looking at a crime scene photo of my sister or brother. I had nightmares for weeks. Every time I closed my eyes I would see death.