Some horrors are universal. Some horrors aren’t. And you can probably tell a lot about someone not just from what they’re frightened of, but also from what they think others will be frightened of.
Some of the most important classic horror movies are illustrative of this. Godzilla was about Japanese fear of atomic weapons. Alien has an obvious fear of rape, with various crypto-rape scenes throughout, but it also features the (male) fear of childbirth. The Stepford Wives has some obvious female fears about conformity and marriage. John Carpenter’s The Thing embodies the fear of other people, as well as the fear of isolation.
The Exorcist has some very obvious religious concerns about the nature of evil and secularism. But it’s very important to the movie’s creators that it’s a universal concern. Yes, it’s about a movie star, but the movie is at pains to make her just another concerned mother living in a house who could be living just down the round from you. Indeed, she could be you. What would you do if your child behaved like that?
However, not all horror need aim for empathy. Indeed, you may get a vicarious thrill from watching people suffer. How else to explain the popularity of Saw, for example?
Very specific horror
Apple TV+’s latest series is Servant, a horror series exec produced and occasionally directed by M Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, Glass) and written by Tony Basgallop (Outcast). And it’s a legitimate question to ask about it: whose fears are being targeted by this, are we supposed to care about the characters or enjoy their suffering, and what can we tell about the creators from the horrors they’ve chosen?
Set in Philadelphia, the show asks to be worried about Toby Kebbell (War Horse) and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), whose baby died a year previously. TV journalist Ambrose had a complete mental breakdown but her therapist suggested a good coping mechanism would be to give her a realistic baby-like doll to care for temporarily – something ‘bon vivant’ Kebell reluctantly agrees to.
However, it’s when Ambrose decides to hire an odd, quietly Bible-bashing nanny (Nell Tiger Free) to look after the doll that Kebbell begins to think that maybe it’s not such a good idea, something with which Ambrose’s brother Rupert Grint (Harry Potter, Snatch) also concurs. But it’s when Free takes it all seriously and treats the doll like a real baby that he begins to think it’s really not such a good idea at all.
And then, one day, he finds it’s a real baby. WTF?