The plucky blond who almost became mincemeat at the hands of the chainsaw-wielding cannibal was telling me that slasher films are really just like something out of Dickens, or perhaps 19th-century French novelist Emile Zola. Listening in, career creepazoid Bill Moseley smirked and rolled his eyes.
I was at Scarefest, billed as the nation’s largest horror and paranormal convention, looking for insight from Caroline Williams, who played Vanita “Stretch” Brock in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II into why some people love their movies spattered with blood and gore.
Ever since my narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, came out in July, I’d been getting a lot of questions about why I had chosen this morbid topic. The book follows real-life amateur sleuths who investigate unidentified human remains via the Internet. It’s a creepy pastime, to say the least. People don’t generally relish poring over autopsy results, forensic reconstructions and morgue photos.
Except the ones who do.
I’d noticed a pretty dramatic divide in people’s reactions to gore. One friend and fellow writer handed back an early manuscript of my book, declaring, “I couldn’t get past the maggots.” Others profess astonishment that anyone would find anything in the book the least bit stomach-churning.
There’s no question that the horror genre is big business. In the fifties and sixties, pioneer William Castle relied on gimmicks such as dummy skeletons flying down from the cinema ceiling or butt-tingling shock buzzers: childish effects that pale in comparison to the impalings, eyeball-gouging, disembowelment, meat hook-mauling of the 1970s slasher golden age and its 1990s resurgence. But in truth slashers have never gone away, despite perpetual predator-prey plots, groan-inducing “surprise” twists and one-dimensional characters who blithely wander into killers’ lairs.
Within the world of horror, the slasher flick is a subgenre in its own right. “These films do not concern themselves with the gothic monsters of Old Europe, such as vampires and werewolves, or the Cold War monsters of outer space and atomic mishap,” wrote Catriona Miller, a media researcher at Scotland’s Glasgow Caledonian University. The horror is close to home—a patch of woods, a high school, the house next door. Slasher films tend to be set in the here and now and almost exclusively in America (Britain for decades banned the video release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Their killers are monstrous—cannibals, serial murderers, masochists—but entirely human.
Patti Starr, the diminutive, sweet-faced, grandmotherly founder of Scarefest, hosted the first Lexington, Kentucky, event seven years ago when a friend informed her that there was a dearth of horror conventions. It was an almost instant success. Last year, Scarefest attracted upward of 12,000 visitors seeking a three-day weekend of seminars, shows, video and board games, psychic readers, “intuitive healers and aura photography,” and an opportunity to mingle with like-minded fans.
In round glasses, with her gray hair in a neat bun adorned with peacock and quail feathers, Starr was clear about the fact that horror—and slashers—are not her thing. A former food services employee who “communed with spirits” while growing up southern Baptist in South Carolina, Starr describes herself as a ghost hunter. She owns a shop in Kentucky that sells ghost-hunting paraphernalia such as recording gizmos and “positive energy” candles. “I’m paranormal,” she told me before she rushed away to deal with conference business.
If there is a squeamishness gene, I have it. At one point in the research for my book, I inadvertently ended up in a crowded morgue. My panicky aversion to the human corpses forced me—humiliated—to call after the coroner that I’d really rather leave. Now.
I’d heard that coroners, medical students and undertakers become blase about dead bodies over time. Yet one woman I’d interviewed for the book, with no prior hands-on exposure to death, volunteered as an assistant coroner in Saline County, Arkansas, where one of her first calls had been to the site of a small-plane crash. In one grueling night, she’d collected from the smouldering wreckage the charred and mutilated bodies of an entire family and didn’t—as I surely would have—quit the next morning.
Yet while I could see how a sense of duty or sheer stubborn will might get someone through such a horrific task, I wondered about those who sought it out. Is brutality fun? Is horror alluring? Is carnage sexy? What was I missing here?
Is it simply good story-telling, as Williams says or, as Moseley insinuated, something far less brainy? “Gore whores,” as some Scarefest goers proclaimed themselves, are shameless about their enthusiasm for cinematic blood baths. Another segment of the population—which includes me—would rather boil in oil than sit through a slasher film.
Scarefest—and horror in general—sit at an odd juncture between the make-believe and the real. Joining me at the convention was Todd Matthews, one of the original web sleuths who spent a decade of his life on a case of an unidentified victim. Todd gazed at a man threading his way through the crowd with an authentic-looking machete in his hand. We looked at each other, sharing a thought: Sandy Hook. Columbine. Fort Hood. “There could be a mass killing in here and no one would notice until Monday,” Todd said. “Everybody would think it was all a big joke.”
One of that day’s headlines in USA Today was “Parents Who Kill.” While the conference was in progress, ISIS beheaded British aid worker David Haines. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which first appeared in 1974 and had six continuations and remakes over the following four decades, was reportedly inspired by Wisconsin serial killer, necrophiliac and cannibal Ed Gein, who, like Leatherface, wore a mask made of human skin. Why, when there’s no shortage of real horror, do people seek out manufactured horror? What is it about making your own gore-covered baseball bat or wheeling around baby carriage full of ghoulish dolls or carrying a dismembered rubber head that lightens one’s mood?
“Because lots of people have sick minds and we get a thrill out of it,” opined someone anonymously. “…Because…as crappy as (viewers’) lives may be, at least they’re not being chased around (in real life) by some creepy lookin’ dude with a machete.” On the film blog Hope Lies at 24 Frames per Second, guest contributor Tim Matthews argues that horror movies give us ”the same kind of adrenaline rush that we can get from participating in extreme sports or from riding roller coasters….at the end, you feel like you have survived an ordeal and your brain releases extra endorphins and dopamine so that you get that feeling of exhilaration.”
“I think the common cultural value that horror represents is the classic ongoing struggle between good and evil and most great stories about human experience are exactly that—the struggle between the good and evil within our souls and the struggle between good and evil in societies,” Williams told me. “Conflict inevitably leads to anger or fear. Your emotions are engaged. Once you get past and survive that fear, that’s an incredibly exhilarating feeling. That’s why the movies are so popular and will always be popular.”
Williams was the “final girl,” a quick-witted female character who doesn’t need to be rescued by a hunky male lead. Carol J. Clover, author of 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, who investigates gender in slasher films from a feminist perspective, agrees that the final girl, introduced by Tobe Hooper in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was a progressive touch, a heroic figure for the girls in the audience, an image of “resistance and survival.” (Except in a handful of more recent films in which the final girl herself is the killer.)
Along the convention center’s back walls, attendees lined up to pay to have their photos taken with cult classic stars such as Williams and Moseley. Sitting alone at a separate table, Butch Patrick, who as a kid played Eddie in the TV series The Munsters, peered at his cell phone. In an enormous poster behind him, he’s grinning, his pale, kiddie forehead split by that distinctive widow’s peak. Now graying, in jeans and a weathered Harley Davidson leather, Patrick told me that The Munsters was gentle and funny, the product of a different generation. He loves talking to fans about what the show meant to them and hear from grandparents who watch it on Netflix with their grandchildren. At my urging, he ambled over to have his picture taken with his arm around Caroline Williams: the once-adorable monster boy and the pretty blond cannibal prey.
“If you’ve ever read Dickens, any of the classics of great literature—I saw a fabulous movie called In Secret (based on a book by Emile Zola)—it was a moral fable and didn’t differ from anything except in production values from a lot of things you’re going to see in this hall, it’s just dealt with more honestly and openly depicted in a horror film,” Williams told me. Catching sight of Moseley, who played Leatherface’s pale, murderous brother Chop Top in Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Williams laughed at his mugging and chided, “You know what I’m saying is true.”
Moseley believes our motivation is more low-brow: people pay to get their pulses racing. Neuroscientists such as Steven Pinker argue that certain qualities are preserved over millennia of evolution because they help the species survive. Perhaps people not only have a natural tolerance for gore, but a craving for it, born from caveman times when gore represented happy moments rooting around in yak intestines. A slaughtered animal could feed the tribe for weeks.
As Williams waxed poetic about classic literature, the creature from Predator with the dreadlocks and the bad overbite and a young woman in a blood-drenched dress and shredded fishnet stockings wandered by.
Catching sight of the Predator creature, I felt an initial ping of low-level shock and a blip of fear. I could see how the realization that this was nothing dangerous, just a guy in a rubber suit, could be ratcheted up to the heart-thumping euphoria you’d feel if you were almost—but not quite—hit by a bus or rear-ended by a Mack truck. You tempted fate; you escaped the grim reaper. Stretch eluded Leatherface. The guy with the ax in his gut wasn’t so lucky. There’s an adrenaline rush, a strange kind of triumph in that.
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A freelance journalist since 2004, Deborah Halber’s writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, MIT Technology Review, the graphic news magazine Symbolia, Inked, and many university publications. Her narrative nonfiction book, THE SKELETON CREW: HOW AMATEUR SLEUTHS ARE SOLVING AMERICA’S COLDEST CASES, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. For more, see www.deborahhalber.com