So I was at FrightFest in London to check out my a new movie that my podcast co-host Jesse Merlin is in, Beyond the Gates. It’s coming out at the end of this year in the US and early next year in the UK, I believe, so look for it when it does. But although I enjoyed it, the movie itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about.
One of the things that was really noticeable about the plot of the film was that although it is set in the modern day and is about confronting the 80s video era as a poisoned past, it’s very not-modern in how the characters react. Most obviously, they find this weird old game, and they’re curious about what it is, and you know what they never do? They never Google it, which any modern person would have done within a minute. In fact, they don’t even seem to own computers.
Which is not me nitpicking: what I’m saying is that an 80s-y structure runs through the film (though there are mobile phones and contacts photos and stuff); the history aspect (and again, weird that that’s a period piece) bleeds into the modern day.
I’ve been working on a historical horror project that I hope to tell you more about within the next few months. And, of course, I wrote a horror story set in the 9th century. And part of it’s got me thinking about how horror scenarios get presented in historical settings. At FrightFest, most of the films were set in the modern day, and that’s pretty normal for horror. Modern settings provide immediacy — it’s easier to put ourselves into the roles of the main characters if they’re in a familiar setting. This is true even for stories that are now told as period pieces — Lovecraft wrote stories set in his present and was punctilious about putting in lots of modern scientific detail.
So when we do get a historical horror story, there has to be a specific reason to use that historical setting. Usually, this is just kind of brutality, superstition, isolation and violence: your Valhalla Risings, your Black Deaths. I guess you might get the occasional plague-and-decadence film. I think of the Herzog Nosferatu like that. And of course there are some Victorian period pieces. I haven’t seen The Witch yet, but it’s supposed to be good.
Anyway, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to identify what is both frightening to people from the historical period and frightening to people from the modern day. Lovecraftian horror, for instance, is all about undermining the characters’ sense of who they are in the universe. But in, say, the middle ages, that means something very different than it does today — blasphemy isn’t that shocking to modern people, for example, but if you wanted to mess up a medieval person’s worldview you would go hard after the reality of Christianity.
Now, ironically, in many ways fantasy versions of medieval beliefs are actually a little better at conveying some of these overlapping ideas — that is, they either contain modern beliefs or are exotified for maximum contrast with modern beliefs. See, for instance, how most people think that witchcraft and heresy investigations in medieval England were like a game of Warhammer rather than the weird, compromised things they really were.
I suppose in that sense modern horror films exist in fantasy versions of the real world, but perhaps the fantasy starting point is something closer to reality.
I don’t know; I’m just thinking out loud as usual.