Five Films on a Common Theme
Something is following you, and no one can see it but you. No one can hear what it's saying to you, and worst of all, no one believes you when you tell them what's happening.
This conceit—present in several modern horror movies—takes the concept of gaslighting and makes its danger palpable. More frightening than the concept of a masked killer coming to get you is the idea that your own mind and senses can't be trusted. The subjectivity of human experience is turned chaotic in these stories: what if the things we're seeing aren't actually true? What if the visions we have aren't shared? What happens when we break from the collective narrative and start prioritizing our own?
The thing about horror movies is that there are horror movies, and then there are horror movies. You know the ones I’m talking about: the slashers, the real fucked-up ones. These are movies made to maximize an audience reaction, ideally a public one: the classic grindhouse films of the 70s banked on filling the house with bored teens looking for a dark place to get it on. By the 1980s, these films were latching onto this meta-element, opening on a scene of kids making out in a secluded spot, at a movie theater, behind the bleachers. Another car pulls up, a figure appears: and the viewer is implicated. It’s this mirroring, this reflexiveness that hurts us and makes us afraid: it’s what erases the distance between ourselves and the people on screen. We love to watch scary movies, because a scary movie is, in essence, a movie that watches back.
We watch horror movies to see ourselves get killed, violated, punished. This meta-ness was always an aspect of horror. After all, what’s the scariest thing in the world? It’s not fear, as Peeping Tom’s protagonist famously believes, and it’s not evil: it’s the concept of turning the camera on ourselves, making us part of the movie. It’s the shifting division between what’s happening onscreen and what’s happening inside of us, causing us to question the difference between the real and the reenacted. My father often recalls a moment when, sitting in a dark theater sometime in the 60s, the screen’s curtain opened and a trailer started playing which reflected the viewer’s exact point of view back at them. In the trailer, the curtain also opened on a movie screen, but instead of revealing a coming attraction, it showed a man in a skeleton mask opening fire on the audience.
That’s the thing that gets you. Not just a gruesome, disfigured killer, or dismemberment, or sharp objects glistening with blood. It’s the act of watching someone like yourself—in a trusting, passive position similar to the one we put ourselves in as audiences in a theater—get destroyed for thinking, even just for a second, that there is any such thing as a safe space. That there is any place, rather, where we are not being seen and watched, even inside of our own minds. For the underlying thesis of almost every great horror movie is that we are always been watched by a single, lidless eye. It’s not the eye of God or heaven, as some of us might like to believe. It’s something else, and it’s keeping score.
It’s no mistake that the 2014 horror masterpiece It Follows starts to get creepy the minute its main characters enter a movie theater. They’re in a packed house, full of people: you’d think nothing could be safer. But once Jay, a high school student on a date with her boyfriend, starts playing a game to pass the time that involves picking random people out from the crowd, it becomes clear that it’s what she doesn’t see that’s frightening. Her boyfriend points into the distance, talking about a girl in a yellow dress. But Jay can’t see her. The boyfriend goes pale, and drags them out of there. It unfolds that a demonic entity is following him, one which can only be seen by the victim it’s following, and can only be defeated by being “passed” on to another victim, via sex. Once Jay and her boyfriend fuck in the car, the boyfriend explains everything: there’s going to be this thing following you, and it can take any shape, and no one can see it but you, and it’s “slow, but it’s not dumb.” So run.
Jay didn’t do anything to deserve her fate: at least, she did nothing more than women have been doing in horror movies since the dawn of time to “deserve” a brutal knifing. But getting fucked has always been a punishment for teens, as has being Black, or having too much knowledge of horror movies, or in some way being inconveniently tuned in to the world’s shitty realities. In 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, a bizarre yet resonant Sam Raimi film, the main character’s misstep is her ambition, her eating disorder, and her inability to be kind in a world and an industry that would reward her for being cruel: she denies a loan extension to an old woman who then curses her. She only denied the loan because her boss effectively told her that if she didn’t, he’d give the upcoming assistant manager position to her rival: a man. He also implies that she’s too soft, too womanly, somehow, to do what needs to be done in the job. So she hardens and leans in, and because of this, she is cursed, hunted, taunted, and finally killed. In all these films, the targeted people have done something to become targets, usually having to do with knowledge or insight. They have either seen their society too clearly, or have refused, in some important way, to accept its inherent evil. There is no room for denial in horror movies, just as there can be no true innocents.
“Who’s innocent?” Screams Solomon Goode in Fear Street Part 3: 1666 by way of a confession. He’s tired of being “looked over” in his community, and decides instead to join forces with the devil, offering up an unsuspecting victim to the dark lord every few years in the Puritan settlement that will in the future become divided into the towns Shadyside and Sunnyvale. The offering up souls to Satan thing would be less horrible if said victims didn’t always end up getting possessed and going on prolific killing sprees every few years. It’s this hot streak of crime that distinguishes Shadyside in the present (1994)—the town full of poor, queer, Black, and brown people—from neighboring Sunnyvale, where crime is virtually non-existent and Goode’s family line has held sway since the 1600s. The Goodes pass on this tradition of offering up souls to Satan, showing each new generation of men how to stay in positions of power by sacrificing—and subsequently blaming—Shadysiders as inherently criminal entities. Leigh Janiak’s film trilogy charts this progress backwards, starting with an unexplained crime spree in 1994 in the first film, stopping in 1978 for the second film, and following it all the way back to the start in 1666 for the final installment, revealing when and how the first Goode turned demonic.
That first Goode, Solomon, blamed his evil deeds on a woman named Sarah Fier, whom history recast as a witch. In the first film (1994), Sarah Fier’s crimes are the subject of morbid school rhymes sung by kids all too used to the bizarre crime sprees that have defined their town since they were born. But when a group of teens are targeted by what they think is a witch’s curse, they quickly learn the truth, and find a way to turn the story back around, spraypainting the walls of an abandoned shopping mall with the words “Goode is Evil.” The current Goode in charge is the police chief of Sunnyvale, and his brother is the mayor. The kids—now being pursued by the undead killers of past Shadyside crime sprees—know that in order to change the narrative, they’ll have to kill the last Goode in the empire before he can pass along the satanic rite to a new generation. They succeed in this, though the story is far from over: it can’t be, the films are too smart for that. The principal genius of a trilogy like Fear Street is that it pinpoints and calls out the evil that’s most relevant to our world now, an evil that also explains so much of the past as we’re coming to understand it: the evil of whiteness.
Fear Street is in many ways an exercise in reclamation: the filmmakers have spoken at length about how they purposely wanted to turn every lazy horror trope on its head in Fear Street’s casting and storytelling. The witch isn’t really a witch, and the curse isn’t really a curse, and Shadysiders aren’t really born criminals and junkies who “go crazy” and kill everyone every couple of years. Most importantly, the hero of the series, a Black lesbian, gets to live where she would have been the first to go even five years before.
It’s a telling detail that in Fear Street, the killers are already dead: they are the resurrected bodies of previous serial killers possessed by Satan over the course of hundreds of years. Of course the killers are zombies: what the film’s protagonists are fighting against is, in essence, this country’s past. They figure out how to trick the dead easily, noticing early on that if they don’t make noise, their zombie stalkers will walk right past them and toward their true target, the girl who accidentally bled on the bones of the “witch” buried on the edge of town. The message is clear: stay quiet, don’t get targeted. For now.
The teens use this to their advantage. Rather than sacrifice the girl the killers are after, they dilute a few drops of her blood with water and spray it everywhere, at one point even dousing the killers with it to ensure that they attack each other.
In all these films, the killers have a specific kind of tether to their victims that requires a collective action to help dismantle. In It Follows, this is sex incarnate, visualized as a series of white-shirted, dead-eyed fuck zombies. In Drag Me to Hell, it's a shapeless demon known as the Lamia. This demon lives in the shadows, we never get a clear picture of what it looks like or what it's capable of. We see its victim getting punched around by the wind, but never by an actual entity. In that film, it's the old woman who cast the curse who remains the true villain, her glass eye and decaying dentures creating the true horror spectacle of the piece even though she dies about 20 minutes in. Though the protagonist swears she’s being attacked, no one believes her, because the old woman has died, and who can believe in a shadowy entity that can’t even be visualized?
In It Follows, no one can even see the attacker except the person being attacked, as well as those who have previously been targeted. In all these stories, there's a special narrative edge given to those who possess a special kind of sight or insight. They see things others don’t, and they notice things others can’t, and this is what makes them targets. Sex is a kind of knowledge, and so is finding out the truth of what really happened in your small town, and so is understanding and playing into narratives about acceptable feminity.
Cross images and their satanic counterparts are prevalent in each film as well: But truthfully, the Catholic element doesn’t even need to be there. It’s not the tales of demons, goat sacrifices, and witch orgies that are frightening about Christianity. It’s not even the concept of a fiery, eternal hell. Ask anyone brought up in the Church what put the fear of God into them, and they’re likely to say the same thing: it’s being watched. It’s being followed. It’s being seen, in all ways, by a kind of sight that takes everything in. That’s the scariest thing in the world.
In relationships, in friendships, even in the workplace, our constant complaint is that we are not seen. That we are being passed over, or not being appreciated, or that we’re being misconstrued or in some way ignored. As queer people, we’re constantly asking to be seen. Give us more representation, we cry. Show us to ourselves. We’re tired of being invisible! But when you stop to think about it, what could be more horrifying than the thought of being seen, truly seen? What’s more uncomfortable than having to look in the mirror, or into another person’s eyes? What’s more frightening than showing yourself to someone who you’re not sure can bear to see you at all? Subversive sight has always been the source of huge cultural anxiety, and a convenient metaphor in the movies. As Fear Street’s complacent characters are happy to accept the narrative of “crazy” Shadysiders vs. “perfect” Sunnyvalers, as Drag Me to Hell’s Christine prefers to see herself as a victim while others see her as unhinged, as the teens of It Follows want to save their friend without really believing she’s actually being hunted, so do we turn away from the daily horror the world presents us with. Why shouldn’t we? We don’t want to see that shit. We don’t want to deal with school shootings, the loss of bodily autonomy, replacement theory, constant injustice, a system that’s too broken to be anything but upended, and blanket narratives that protect the few and fail the many. Of course we don’t want to see it: it’s so much easier not to.
But the thing is, it sees us.
Next week: Life imitates art imitates life.