When I was 11 years old (this was 1982), two friends of mine suggested we see Poltergeist. It was a horror film but rated PG (this was before the PG-13 rating came along) and my parents seemed OK with it, if that's what I wanted to do.
Toward the end of the film, it got so intense and scary that I was hurrying out of the theater, turned around and found one of my friends following me. After we caught our breath, we headed back to our seats and finished the film. And while I heard stories about people not getting much sleep after horror films, I actually slept well and didn't have any nightmares about the film. At the time, though, I was just an 11-year-old kid and was more interested in whether or not I liked a film, than I was about underlying themes.
A few years later, when I was in college, I took a class about reviewing films and writing about character development, camera techniques and themes. This was when I experienced another horror film, Psycho. Part of me wondered if I would get through the experience without being freaked out, but not only did that not happen, I turned in one of my better essays on one of the techniques, the prying eye. At the time, though, I still wasn't thinking as much about deeper critiques of film as much as I saw the class as a chance to watch movies.
Fast forward to today, in which I've entered the realm of novel writing. After hearing about Stephen King's nonfiction work On Writing, purchasing it and enjoying it, I decided it was time to read more of King's work (the only book I read of his was It). Along the way, it led me to purchase the DVD of Carrie, the 1976 film based on King's first novel of the same title. I knew enough about the film and book to know some of what to expect, but as I watched the film, I didn't find myself creeped out as much as I found myself sympathizing with the main character, and thinking about why I did.
I think that's because, as I explored novel writing, I learned more about character development and understanding what makes a story work. And, yes, that's possible with horror. In fact, what makes certain works of horror hold up over time isn't just memorable scenes, but characters and themes.
Going back to Poltergeist, it wasn't until I got older that I read up on the film and learned that it was really a critique of suburbia. The plot in brief: Steven Freeling is a successful real estate developer who owns a typical suburban home that was located on land on which an old cemetery was once located. It's revealed that the development firm Freeling worked for never bothered to relocate the entire cemetery but simply removed the headstones.
The theme touched upon is that suburbs have sprawled so much that nobody can remember, or may even care, what used to stand where their neighborhoods are located. We see how this has become a problem ranging from infrastructure that cities can't maintain without racking up debt or getting money from the federal government, to homes located on land that wasn't really suitable for them and resulting in structural problems or nature taking its course and ruining the land the homes sit on. It may not be the supernatural at work, but those problems exist.
King may have been ahead of his time when he wrote Carrie, because it's a critique of bullying. The main character is awkward and reclusive, largely because of her religious zealot of a mother, to the point that when Carrie has her period in the communal shower, she thinks she's bleeding to death. Her classmates torment her and are punished by the physical education teacher. One classmate of Carrie's feels guilty and wants to make it up to her, while another (who happens to be spoiled by her parents) wants revenge. It builds to the famous prom scene in which the latter classmate stages an elaborate prank to humiliate Carrie, who lashes out at everyone.
Indeed, we look in today's society about teenagers who lash out at their classmates, often through means we would never condone, and we learn that these teens were picked on and harassed when they were younger and, in many cases, the parents were oblivious that something was bothering their children. It's not surprising that there is heightened awareness of bullying and getting kids and teens to understand it's wrong and to speak out against it.
Finally, there's Psycho, which deals with an overriding theme of guilt. It starts with Marion Crane, who is asked by her boss to deposit a large sum of money into the bank, only to steal the money to give it to her boyfriend, who has debts to pay. From her boss seeing her head out of town and wondering if she's OK, to a state police officer following her because he thinks she's acting suspiciously, her guilt overcomes her and she decides to return the money and admit to her theft. I'm sure most of you know she never gets the chance.
Then there's Norman Bates, who seems to be on a guilt trip of his own. At first, it seems like he's feeling guilty about his mother and the atrocities she commits, but we find out later that his guilt actually stems from his jealousy over his mother finding a new lover and killing them both. He took on his mother's personality at that point, driving him to kill any woman he found attractive.
The lesson to be learned: Guilt is hard to deal with, so you are better off fessing up when you know you've made a mistake, no matter how bad it is.
What makes films such as Psycho, Carrie and Poltergeist stand the test of time is that the themes remain relevant today, and in some cases, more so than they did back when they were first released. They show that horror, when written well, can resonate on a larger scale, and that perhaps the real reason the best works freak us out is not because a scene was scary, but because the theme made us think about how we should be more aware of the consequences of our behavior.