Phil-osophically Speaking: October 27, 2011

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The Snuggle Thesis

Halloween, it plays to our most primal fears: The living dead, ghosts and goblins, blood suckers and monsters and an entire repertoire of creatures, not all supernatural, designed to strike terror in the human heart. Cinema has brought another dimension to this holiday and I thought it would be in the spirit of its dark, festive atmosphere to explore a few of the horror flicks that made my heart skip a beat. Now I should be clear that I am more of a dilettante in the world of the macabre than a connoisseur of the art form.

As a kid, I saw Universal Studio’s classics Dracula and Frankenstein, both debuting in 1931 to a very receptive audience. Indeed, Bela Lugosi who played Dracula and Boris Karloff who played Frankenstein were so outrageously successful in depicting the most iconic monsters in history that they built an entire career on these roles. Horror cinema actually got its tag during the early ’30s when these films and others, almost all based on classic literature, found their inspiration from some richly textured and highly imaginative gothic writers. Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and the French writer Gaston Leroux proved to be a gold mine for Hollywood directors and producers.

Supernatural cinema did not start with Hollywood but German expressionist films in the teens and ’20s, the most famous of which was perhaps Murnau’s vampire feature film Nosferatu, where the creature of the night resembles a grotesque, giant rat. While that silent film is a masterpiece in its own right, the enduring images we know today were not truly grafted in the popular imagination until actors such as Bela Lugosi anthropomorphized them for the moviemakers in Hollywood.

Just for fun, I picked a couple of movies that scared the bejeebers out of me. Again, I’m no authority and I’m certainly not suggesting that these films, by any means, are the best of the genre. In fact one of them isn’t even very good — but there is something in it that got to me. So keep in mind that this viewer has never seen The Exorcist. The slasher films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, those murderous misanthropes Freddie Kruger, Chucky and all those other blood splashing energumens hold no appeal for me. The films that most grabbed me were not supernatural in nature, but those that depicted the monster within. So here it goes:

1. Psycho – An obvious choice, perhaps. Everyone knows the famous shower scene where Janet Leigh is butchered to the screeching violins, violas and cellos. Repeatedly stabbed, she slithers down ever so slowly, her hand clutching and then unlatching the shower curtain clips, latch by latch, ultimately dying naked in a baptismal font of her own blood that flushes down the shower drain as the camera zeros in on her open, but lifeless eye in a stare so riveting that it haunts you no matter how many times you watch it. But it will never be as shocking as it was to audiences when the movie first premiered in 1960. The star of the picture, Janet Leigh, is mostly unknown today except to movie buffs. But she was one of the great movie actresses of the 1950s, when stars were really stars. All Alfred Hitchcock movies were a cinematic event. In those days the big stars rarely died in their films, and when they did it was usually at the end of the movie. But Hitchcock, a psychological master of suspense, does the unexpected and murders the biggest star in the movie, and one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood in the first 15 minutes of the flick — and did so with unspeakable savagery. This shocked moviegoers as much as the shocking scene itself. They could not believe the headline star was killed off so early and so bloodily, leading many women, including Janet Leigh, to have nearly a phobic reaction to taking showers.

2. The Other: I saw this movie on television when I was an adolescent. It was about blond haired identical twins, approximately 10 years old, one good and one evil, growing up in a small town. Throughout the movie the good twin is continually arguing with his brother, the evil twin, about his bad behavior that gets progressively more depraved as time goes on. The good twin loves his brother but is terribly disturbed by his twin’s growing malevolence and his own inability to thwart him despite continual reprimands. Finally, a baby goes missing from its crib and is found drowned in a discarded well. With the police steadily gathering evidence, the good twin becomes fraught with anxiety because he knows his brother is the culprit. Finally, the authorities interrogate the good twin who now, faced with his brother’s monstrous crime, could no longer protect him. In a catharsis of pent-up emotion he tells the police in detail about his twin’s evil deeds, that his brother is very bad and surely responsible for the baby’s death. At which point they say to him: But Bobby, you have no twin, you have no brothers, you’re an only child! The movie told the story through the eyes of the good twin who only imagined he had a look alike brother creating a subterfuge to protect a guilty conscience from his horrendous acts. The effect of this revelation was enormously accentuated by the malefactor being a child, the epitome of innocence. Whether I would be as shocked if I had seen the movie as an adult is, I suppose, questionable. But at the time the bombshell that there was no twin was mind-blowing.

3. Carrie: This film is about a misfit teenage girl with telekinetic powers and was not, in my judgment, a great horror flick or thriller. But I put it on my short list for one hair-raising scene that has indelibly scarred me. I remember being in my parent’s low-ceiling basement where our television was. No one was home as I watched the movie while lying on the floor for no other reason than young males are opposed to sitting on furniture. It’s against their religion. Anyway, I remember not being very favorably impressed by the movie when Carrie, in an act of revenge for a cruel prank played against her at the high school prom, unleashes her telekinetic powers incinerating the whole senior class including herself. One girl, however, escapes the inferno but is deeply traumatized. At the end of the movie this girl is walking through the cemetery (she’s dreaming but you don’t know it) when she stumbles on one particular gravesite. Engraved on the tombstone is this inscription: Here lies Carrie — May she burn in Hell!  Then, suddenly, a hand reaches from the grave and clutches the girl’s ankle. I leapt from lying on floor and almost went through the basement ceiling! I was caught so unaware. The movie ended with the girl waking and screaming about her nightmare. Worse, I had miscalculated. The clock had recently been moved an hour ahead and, without me noticing it before, the house was pitch black. The light switch was upstairs and I, home alone, had to climb those stairs in that dark silence expecting something to seize me out of the blackness. Ever since, whenever I’m alone and it’s dark and spookily quiet, I remember that hand darting out from the grave.

Horror movies, I’ve learned recently, may result in thrills in other areas. The journalist Melinda Beck, in her review of the horror genre, cited a 1986 study by the psychologist Dolf Zillman who studied 36 college students equally representing both sexes in what he called the “snuggle thesis.” Zillman showed the students excerpts of the slasher film Friday the 13th. He discovered, without exception, that the more distressed the young women were by the movie, the more attractive her date found her and the more protective the young man was the more attractive she found him. To think, after all this time, that it’s not Hollywood’s romantic schmaltz but the slasher films that is the true aphrodisiac. Now if I only knew that back then, my amorous youthful adventures might have been a lot more exciting.

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