One October, when my son was twelve, he was invited by a friend to a popular “haunted house” attraction, where people pay money to be scared witless by amateur actors. I no longer frequent haunted houses; I have a very unpredictable startle reflex and my liability insurance is already hanging by a thread. But I sent my son off to this one under the assumption that he’d be having a mildly terrifying PG-13 experience.
In retrospect, I think the friend’s parents could have chosen the haunted house just a bit more carefully. Because my son came home and excitedly told me all about his favorite part of the evening’s entertainment: The torture-and-murder room.
At a certain point in their tour of the haunted house, he explained, the visitors had been locked in a room where an actress was chained to a Rube Goldberg-esque killing machine. A timer on the apparatus was counting down to the moment when she would be “shot.” As the actress screamed and struggled and implored the audience to help her, an actor playing her captor, equipped with a mask and machete, tormented his “victim.” After a prolonged build-up, the clock ran down, the device went off, and the actress was “killed” in front of all the viewers. Then the actor playing the murderer walked over to the paying customers waiting to exit the room, and sidled along the line, menacing each of them individually with his machete.
I was dumbstruck as I listened to the boy describing this sick spectacle, not sure which was worse: That he might be irrevocably traumatized from witnessing such a horrific scene, or that he might not have found it disturbing at all—that he might even have enjoyed it, the way the haunted house’s proprietors expected him to.
But as it turned out, my son was eager to share this nightmarish experience with me because of what happened after the “murder.” When the fiend with the machete had worked his way along the line of spectators to where my son stood, and loomed over him, breathing heavily, the boy looked up at him, shrugged, and said, with the clear-eyed sincerity of the not-yet-shaving, “I didn’t see anything.”
Now, if I was unsure how to react to the first part of his story, I was paralyzed by this bombshell. Because, OK, yeah, my kid appeared to have entirely missed the appalling misogyny and sociopathic hyper-violence of the whole ordeal. Nor was he concerned with the ethical implications of mimicking murder for entertainment. So that’s… problematic. On the other hand—and I don’t think I’m responding entirely as a proud parent here—you can’t tell me that his response wasn’t fucking hilarious.
And this, it developed, was why he’d had such a good time: Because his comment made the actor playing the murderer laugh. And then everyone in the room laughed, and the actor broke character further by giving my son a high five, which was a big deal, the boy explained, because audience members were strictly forbidden to touch the actors in the haunted house.
We had a little mother-son de-briefing after that, wherein we discussed the uncomfortable truth underlying his quip; namely, that in real life we’re often shamefully quick to deny violence if we think it’ll save our own skins or help us avoid uncomfortable situations. And I told my son, too, that this is one reason I don’t frequent haunted houses. I think watching pretend violence from a safe distance is a bad habit; it makes it easier for us to say “I didn’t see anything” when we’re confronted with real-life violence we’d prefer not to see.
Still, it was hard to argue with his results in this case. His remark cleverly exploded the frame around the spectacle of violence he was enmeshed in—in fact, he punctured the profit-based bubble of fear for everyone in the room with him. One innocuous sentence, exposing the absurdity of the whole “let’s watch a murder for fun!” premise. Not bad for a twelve-year-old stuck in a situation that violated every moral code since Hesiod.
However, he hasn’t been a big fan of haunted houses since then. Or horror films either. He’s almost 17 now, a prime age for all things risky, scary, and dumb, but I notice he’s indifferent to the movies being rolled out for Halloween this year. I’ve seen some of the ads; there’s one called Mischief Night, which features a blind girl being terrorized by someone trying to kill her and her family. I don’t know much else about the plot, but there is quite a bit of screaming in the trailer. And Haunter, which features a dead girl, semi-eternally trapped in a creepy old house along with a bunch of other dead girls who were all murdered by the same serial killer. It also has screaming. I Spit On Your Grave 2 is a sequel to the film of like title released a few years ago. Contents: Girl, kidnapping, rape, brutality, screaming.
Plenty of people, male and female alike, will go see these movies and I guess they’ll enjoy them. I will avoid them even more assiduously than my son does. Oh, I can tolerate the gore and the boredom (“goredom,” I like to call it; that blank, jaded nausea one feels at the fourth or fifth decapitation). The problem is that I like fights; I like planning them and analyzing them and even participating in them. Whereas I’m not a fan of slaughter, and where self-defense is concerned, I am a woman of action. So sitting around watching poorly plotted violence—violence that I can’t even take part in—is just about the furthest thing from a good time I can conceive of. And the resulting frustration plays hell with whatever aesthetic experience the director has in mind for me.
When I watch Psycho, for instance, the shock of Janet Leigh’s character being murdered is lost on me because all I can think about is what I’d be doing if I were in that shower stall, to wit: Grabbing the knife. Yes, I know my hands would be slippery, and I wouldn’t have much traction on the wet tile, and I might be bleeding rather heavily, but I could still grapple the wrists and forearms of the knife-wielder. I’d try to use the shower curtain too—maybe pulling it in front of me and stuffing it in the attacker’s face to distract him, or using it to trap and wrap up the knife.
Although I wouldn’t do any of this in an average knife fight (running is always my favorite defense), a shower stall is one of those rare locations where your only real option is to lean into the fight. I’m convinced that with a vigorous defensive response, I could emerge from that shower intact—bloodied and gibbering in shock, maybe, but alive. And then I’d need to deal with the repercussions of the theft that had brought me to the Bates Motel initially, plus my killing of Norman Bates in self-defense.
So by the time the rest of the audience is wincing at all the blood sluicing down the shower drain, my mind is already six or seven miles away from the motel in a speeding car, contemplating false identities, and looking for the Mexican border.
I hate to criticize Hitchcock; he made a great film. I would have done it differently, is all.
The Shining is another horror movie I’m unable to watch all the way through. I don’t know anyone who enjoys Shelley Duval’s performance, but how many of you watch the bathroom scene and feel a physical compulsion to climb through the screen and break the fucking window? Using the handle of the knife, maybe. Or your elbow. Or by yelling at the kid outside to climb back up that snowdrift and kick in the glass. This is basic problem solving, Mr. Kubrick.
Failing a window escape, if I were in Duval’s character’s place, I’d at least turn off the bathroom light and remain silent while my deranged husband laboriously chopped his way through the door. If I don’t reveal my location by screaming the entire time, I have a better chance at landing a devastating blow with the knife.
This is why I’ve never paid much attention to the ending of the film. I’m too busy improvising projectile weapons I could hurl through the hole in the bathroom door to keep Jack Nicholson at bay (smash the mirror, throw the shards).
It’s the same with all the classic horror films: As soon as the butchery begins, I go off-script, and I can never quite come back to the story the filmmaker wants to tell me. Halloween? I imagine using a pillow from the bed to block the knife until I can disarm the attacker. Come on, it’s a six-year-old kid; for once in my life I have the edge in weight and reach. Scream? I’d hang up the damn phone. Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Listen, I live in Texas. If I run out of gas, I’m walking back to the highway. And I will—this is no exaggeration—sit in the theater and ignore what’s happening on the screen for the next ninety minutes while I imagine myself walking down a dirt road toward safety.
All of this may say more about my sketchy attention span or my tendency to micromanage than it does about society at large. I really have no excuses for my behavior. I just can’t stomach the horror genre’s basic premise that women are blank slates upon which violent fates are written. I don’t find drama based on that premise satisfying to watch. It feels disempowering and icky and exploitative, which no doubt is why my brain declines to remain engaged after a certain point, and insists upon laying its own divergent narrative track right out of the theater.
Sure, scaring ourselves is fun; it’s cathartic. That’s why we have Halloween in the first place. But when you look at the fascination with terror and violence in our popular culture, doesn’t it seem like we’re overdoing it? I meet a lot of people—women, especially—who perceive the entire world as one big horror movie. Whether they patronize haunted houses or not, they’ve absorbed the basic lesson: That women are there for bad things to happen to. And their assumptions about what their own role would be in a violent situation are similarly bleak: They envision themselves in the shower with Janet Leigh, slipping and screaming, and they can’t imagine stepping out alive.
When I picture myself in that shower, assessing my options, visualizing far-fetched counter-attacks, I may be acting like a complete weirdo, but I’m at least affirming the possibility that I could escape. If we spend too much time passively watching violence, even imaginary violence, I worry that we might be training ourselves, little by little, to stay in there and bleed.
If you go to see Mischief Night or Haunter, you might take a moment to step outside the dramatic frame and think about how you see yourself in relation to the violence onscreen. Helpless victim? Impotent bystander? Perpetrator? (Don’t lie; you know you’ve thought about it.) See if you can come up with a few good improvised weapons while you’re at it.
I’ll be staying home. I want to be able to say, with a clear conscience, “I didn’t see anything.”