Horror and the Unknown

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(or the Blair Witch Problem)

The Blair Witch Project is the best example of a horror movie or comic that causes major problems for the working definition of horror that I’ve sketched out below. I’ve tried to come up with other examples, but am drawing a blank for the time being, suggesting perhaps that Blair Witch is an exception to the rule, rather than the thing which causes us to rewrite the rule.

For the purposes of this, I’m going to assume that there’s no disputing that Blair Witch is a horror movie. Has anybody ever put forward the idea that it’s anything but? I’ve never come across the argument, and if someone can make it, I’d like to hear it.

So, The Blair Witch Project is a horror movie. But it’s not one that hangs on an upending of consensus reality (in fact, I’m not sure that consensus reality even exists within the film, but instead that it’s composed entirely of radically shifting subjective realities, but that’s only one of a long bunch of essays for another time). It’s about some kids lost in the woods, coming to a bad end.

You can make a good argument for a supernatural element in the film. But you can also make a sound case for non-supernatural explanations for the film’s events (of course, there’s even a reading that has all events in the film being staged, and it’s a convincing one as well).

Whatever your reading, it’s all within the realm of what we, the audience, would understand as reality (people get lost in the woods, people go crazy, people kill each other, people orchestrate elaborate hoaxes — it’s all in the world).

So, given that, how is Blair Witch horror? It fits some aspects of the definition: it includes dread and violence and has fear as its goal. But those elements alone don’t make a horror movie: suspense, mystery, crime, and even some science fiction movies include those elements and goals.

The thing that most animates Blair Witch and, to a certain extent in this conversation renders any interpretation of its events irrelevant, is that the film employs a key element of horror: the fear of the unknown.

Lovecraft (funny how he keeps cropping up in the conversation; when I get around to blogging about Blair Witch — which is going to be soon, I hope, as I think it’s one of the best, and most underappreciated, horror films in recent memory — Lovecraft’s going to come up a lot more. Because Blair Witch is a decidedly Lovecraftian film) has it that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

It’s indisputable, I think, that a sub-section of horror focuses on the fear of the unknown, which is distinct from an overturning of consensus reality.

So, with Blair Witch in hand, my definition suddenly seems not to cover an important section of horror.

I’m not sure how to incorporate this into the definition without building a house of cards out of subordinate clasues, so I’m leaving this for the night and am going to watch Angel Heart. More soon.

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