This Halloween, Ridley Scott's 1979 science-fiction horror film Alien comes back to theaters in a restored director's cut featuring a few reintegrated scenes. A sci-fi tale of space as the new terra incognita where “here there be dragons” as well as an updated haunted-house yarn complete with dark hallways, a hissing cat and strobe lighting, Alien has been called “the scariest movie ever made.”
As a genre, horror represents a field few devout Catholics would consider with much enthusiasm, and rightly so. The horror shelves of bookstores and video stores are a wasteland of mindless, tasteless trash; indeed, there may be no other genre as disproportionately overrun with junk.
At the same time, the grotesque, the macabre and the frightful have an abiding place in human imagination and culture — a place that Christian sensibility has historically not seen fit to reject or condemn, at least entirely.
In the Middle Ages, gargoyles and grotesques were prominent features of sacred architecture, and the danse macabre (or “dance of death”) — a dramatic or artistic representation of men being visited by Death, fruitlessly attempting to resist or escape and finally being away in a grim procession or dance — was a popular art form. More recently, the Vatican recognized the first great horror film, F. W. Murnau's vampire film Nosferatu (see “Video/DVD Picks,” below), on its 1995 list of 45 great films. (Another Vatican list honoree, The Seventh Seal, involves a cinematic take on the danse macabre.)
In Christian households, untold generations of children have been raised on fairy tales featuring all manner of goblins, dragons, witches and so on. In the age of film, this roster of nursery monsters includes such figures as the winged monkeys and Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and the raucous hellions and demon Chernobog of the “Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia (two more Vatican list honorees).
The grotesque does have a more disturbing and objectionable side. In too many books and films, villains become heroes, imaginative engagement of evil becomes glorification of evil, and mayhem and gore become ends in themselves apart from any sense of artistic restraint or moral context. Examples of such disordered indulgence in the macabre include the celebratory vampire novels of Anne Rice and gruesome slasher flicks like the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
But abusus non tollit usam: The abuse does not abrogate the proper use. One cannot simply throw out the baby with the bathwater. Neither uncritical acceptance nor uncritical condemnation is called for, but critical discernment and moral vigilance.
Discernment requires an understanding of the proper place of the grotesque and macabre in imagination and culture. Why do we scare ourselves with tales like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, Dracula, and so on?
Part of the answer is simply that there's something cathartic and energizing about stories of danger and stress. In journeying with the heroes into the valley of the shadow of death and emerging again, we participate vicariously in the triumph of good over evil.
Children, especially, demand imaginary adversity in the course of developing the emotional resiliency to handle real-life difficulties and dangers — a point argued by Gerard Jones in his interesting book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. Adults, too, crave stories that frighten in part because such stories help us get a handle on real-life fears and anxieties.
But there's more to it than mere adversity. If Nosferatu replaced Count Orlock with a serial killer, it would lose much of its power. Not just fear, but dread is necessary for horror, for in this world there are things not just fearful but dreadful.
Like the medieval danse macabre, horror at its best can be an imaginative way of grappling not only with adversity but also with the specter of our own mortality, and the moral and existential implications of the fact that we will die. Moral and spiritual themes and implications often figure in tales of horror. Indeed, many horror stories are in a sense as scrupulously moralistic as fairy tales — even regarding topics no longer seen in their proper moral light by society at large.
Catholic culture critic E. Michael Jones, in his provocative book Monsters From the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film, observes how, in slasher films such as John Carpenter's Halloween, virginal characters survive while promiscuous ones die. Jones argues, with varying degrees of plausibility, that tales like Frankenstein, Dracula and even Alien reflect an unconscious backlash against the secular moral principles of the Enlightenment, especially regarding sexual morality.
Regarding Alien, Jones' case rests in part on images in the film suggestive of conflicted attitudes toward procreation, unnatural and contraceptive sex acts, childbirth and abortion. Certainly the central image of a deadly alien embryo implanted in a character's torso, maturing and finally bursting obscenely forth, amounts to a hideous perversion of pregnancy and childbirth. And when the alien is destroyed by being sucked out of the ship, dangling on an umbilical-like cable until being shredded in the ship's jets, it's a remarkably abortion-like death.
In a key exchange, a treacherous android favorably contrasts the alien with humanity, calling it a “perfect organism,” a “survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” The clear implication is that, unless we are guided by conscience and morality — unless we resist thinking of ourselves as mere “organisms” — we will be no better than monsters ourselves.
Despite these intriguing moral implications, Alien's graphic violence and gore, profanity and foul language, and a scene involving an excessive display of heroine Sigourney Weaver's scantily clad body make it morally problematic fare, not for casual viewing. Still, Alien illustrates that there's more to horror and the grotesque than a mere disordered fascination with ugliness or evil, and that echoes of unpopular and forgotten moral truths can be found in the most unlikely places.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.