By Brooke Jorden
Film shares a closer artistic relationship with oral storytelling than with written literature. The medium of film allows for not only dramatic pauses and sound effects—which are, according to Maria Tatar, the tools of all history’s storytellers—but also mood music and changeable scenes and settings (287). Horror films, specifically, correspond closely with fairy tales in terms of intentionally weak characterization, an uncertain ending, an implicit “wonder tale” morality and logic, and, of course, violence. However, the most vital link is the fundamental idealism upon which both genres are built. Both genres create worlds where morality is black and white, where the wicked suffer and only the truly virtuous ultimately achieve the proverbial happy ending. Such brutal idealism is simplistic but appealing.
Fairy tale idealism is widely accepted—and often criticized—but what is so idealistic about murderous psychopaths or possessed children? This paradox can be difficult to swallow, so let’s start with the basics. Consider that many fairy tales have—quite easily—been adapted into horror films. For example, the TV movie Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), starring Sigorney Weaver, was rated “R” for “horror violence.” Further, most “stalker” movies like The Lovely Bones (2009) and Freeway (1996) have strong, and often explicit, ties with the story of Little Red Riding Hood. A more recent adaptation even throws werewolves in the mix (Red Riding Hood, 2011). Such adaptations are only the natural side effects of the underlying structural and conceptual kinship between fairy tales and horror movies, and in order to see the idealism in both genres, we must first explore the similar structure and pattern that enables it.
The pairing of fairy tales and horror movies may seem strange in terms of the common conceptions of both genres. Typically, when viewers think of horror films, the first thing that comes to mind is violence. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (1978), The Hills Have Eyes (2006)—these are just a few of the extremely gory films we typically associate with horror. It would be impossible to deny the overwhelming presence of violence in horror films; however, violent content is not limited to the genre of horror. Strangely enough, the oldest known versions of fairy tales are often the most violent and raw. Far from the sugar-coated bedtime stories Disney tells our children, classic fairy tales are, according to Tatar, filled with “graphic descriptions of murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and incest” (364). Tatar even points out that the Grimms, though considered prim and proper, often “made a point of adding or intensifying violent episodes” in their tales (364). But the violent content in both genres is not merely superficial. Violence serves several functional purposes, and its structural functions demonstrate the deeper ties between fairy tales and horror movies.
First, violence drives the narrative of both fairy tales and horror movies. As Isabel Pinedo puts it, “Contrary to popular opinion, violence in the horror film is not a gratuitous but a constituent element. The horror narrative is propelled by violence, manifested in both the monster’s violence and the attempts to destroy the monster”—whether that monster is supernatural, alien, or human (20). The plot of Jaws (1975), for example, is driven by the actions of the man-eating great white and of the people trying to stop it. While the motif of violence as a catalyst may be obvious in horror films, we need look no further than the tale of Jack the Giant-Killer to see that many fairy tales plots are also driven by violence, though not all tales are so overt. The violence of cruel stepmothers or tyrannical fathers forces protagonists into action in many fairy tale plots.
Violence propels the narrative of both genres, serving the dual purpose of vilifying the “evil” characters and enabling the triumph of the “good” characters. For instance, in many versions of the tale of Snow White, the evil queen (also Snow White’s stepmother) orders a huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart. When this fails, she attempts to poison her step-daughter. In some versions, she makes multiple attempts until she succeeds in sending Snow White into a sleeping death. Such malicious actions reinforce her villainy and justify her violent end—from dancing in hot, iron shoes to falling to her death from a cliff. Thus, violence in fairy tales functions as an indicator of the nature of each of the characters. The same delineation can be seen in horror films. The murderers or monsters are evil because they use violence against the virtuous characters; they disrupt the social order. For example, Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) murders his own sister and then, when he escapes from the asylum years later, stalks young Laurie while she babysits, brutally killing all of her friends and attempting to kill her. Michael’s depraved, violent actions clearly demonstrate his evil nature.
But, as both fairy tales and horror movies demonstrate, violent behavior itself does not necessarily indicate that a character is evil. Often even the most virtuous characters use violence to reinstate the social order that the monster/bad guy has violated. However, the heroes’ actions are always justified by either the virtue of their character or by the inherent evil of their enemy. For example, in most versions of the Hansel and Gretel story, Gretel pushes the witch into the oven, baking her alive. Sure, that’s pretty violent, but that act doesn’t make Gretel a monster. The witch had made it very clear that she planned to eat the children, so Gretel’s actions were self-defensive, and thus justified. The protagonists in horror films often perform acts of justified violence as well. In the frightening thriller Red Eye (2005), no one blames Lisa for stabbing her new acquaintance in the neck with a pen when he threatens to kill both Lisa and her father. Again, the fact that Lisa, a normal, virtuous person was driven to violence to protect herself only serves to further vilify Jackson, the man she stabbed.
But Jackson is clearly one of the bad guys, based on his actions and intentions, and Lisa is clearly one of the good guys. That’s the easy part. Weeding out the immoral from the moral characters, even in the circle of protagonists, is perhaps the most idealistic function of violence in these genres. This gray area is what makes reality so difficult, but both fairy tales and horror movies construct an ideal order in which morality is entirely black and white. As Stephen King, popular horror novelist, suggests, “the mythic ‘fairy-tale’ horror film intends to take away the shades of grey. . . It urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites” (2). Violence in horror films is clearly a means of instating and reinforcing an idealistic social order.
The accepted social order that is established in both fairy tales and horror movies is even clearer when we look at the way characters are developed and portrayed in both genres. Horror movies have always been criticized for weak characterization. Some critics have attributed the lack of extensive plot and characterization in contemporary horror films to post-modernism, but fairy tales have been employing this very technique for as long as stories have been told. Fairy tales, like horror films, are known for their flat, static characters. Again, these similarities in content serve much more important functional purposes. In both genres, the weak characterization is completely intentional. Shallow stock characters always carry with them certain expectations, so they can be easily classified as either good or bad. Just as in fairy tales the youngest daughter will always be kind and the prince will always be brave and the talking animal will always be clever, you can bet that in horror films the jock will always be a chauvinistic pig and the prettiest teen will always be too promiscuous for her own good. These stock characters represent either an inherent virtue or an inherent vice. Thus, even without seeing the characters develop, audiences already have a sense of what those characters are capable of and whether they deserve to survive to earn a happily ever after ending. Notice that these characters types are classified based on their moral character and behavior.
Most horror movies, like most fairy tales, are either tales of caution or tales of example. Sometimes both. As Mikel Koven suggests in his book Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends, the “didacticism within terror tales, although rarely explicit, contains strong implied moral purposes” (131). Such stories teach readers and viewers either what to do or what not to do, morally speaking. The actions of a fairy tale character can be categorically deemed either virtuous and clever or contemptible and foolish. For example, in all versions of the tale of Toads and Diamonds, the fairy blesses the kind sister and curses the cruel one. In the wonder tale world, justice restores the ideal social order with the triumph of the virtuous and the punishment of the wicked. The same justice is dispensed among the characters in the typical horror movie. In Cabin in the Woods, this ideal moral is imposed to such a degree that the characters are systematically killed in the order of their predetermined morality. The ritual requires that “the whore” dies first, followed by the skeptic scholar, the chauvinistic jock, and the bloody fool (pardon the pun), in any order. The virgin does not need to die unless she violates the code by doing something foolish or immoral. As a meta-film, Cabin in the Woods is commenting on the black and white nature of justice in such tales, questioning the unrealistic nature of the implicit wonder tale system of morality. But that impossibility is what makes wonder tale morality so appealing.
Folklorist Daniel Barnes developed a schema for the moral structure of urban legends that applies well to both fairy tales and horror movies. In his pattern, the plot moves through four phases: interdiction, violation, consequence, and (attempted) escape. In the interdiction phase, the characters are informed (whether explicitly or implicitly) not to do something. In the violation phase, they do it anyway, so the consequences are revealed. The characters then spend the rest of the tale attempting to escape or redeem themselves from those consequences (Barnes 1996 quoted in Koven). Little Red Riding Hood knows (implicitly or explicitly, depending on the version) that she should not wander from the path, that she should be careful in the woods, and that she should not talk to strangers. By violating all of these rules, she endangers (and sometimes enables the murder of) her grandmother and herself. We also see this pattern of warning and violation of the rules clearly in many horror movies. But what are the rules? In this clip from the meta-film Scream (1996), Randy teaches his friends how to survive a horror movie: (play clip)
So, the rules are simple: (1) don’t sin and (2) don’t tempt fate. Those who sin—whether it is immorality or merely incivility—are punished. Those who resist and preserve their virtue, survive. Delineated by morality and enforced by violence, justice is always served in wonder tales.
But the violations in wonder tales are not limited to sexual sin and substance abuse. Wonder tale morality, though black and white, covers a far wider scope. The sins of stupidity, irresponsibility, and dishonesty are similarly punished. The sin of dishonesty is perhaps the most serious breach of social script. Dishonesty often removes the possibility of a “happily ever after” ending, even in fairy tales. Madame D’Aulnoy’s tale “The Yellow Dwarf” has a tragic ending. Because both the queen and the princess go back on their agreement with the ugly dwarf, they lose the protection of the wonder tale code. The princess’s dishonesty enables her own and her prince’s death. Similarly, in the film Insidious (2010), the Lambert family is full of dishonesty. Even though Mrs. Lambert believes she is protecting her son Josh, the fact that she keeps the truth from him his whole life puts him and his family in danger. Further, because Josh fails to confide his fears in his wife and lies to her instead, he loses his chance for a happy ending and is overcome by the insidious spirit that has haunted him since childhood.
But what is the point? If Devil and Snow White and Frankenstein and Rumpelstiltskin are just old wives’ tales that reinforce the same things our mothers have always taught us, why bother looking any deeper than their entertainment or didactic value? Why apply critical literary methods to an exploration of either horror movies or fairy tales when both are self-professedly nothing more than fictional stories? As the authors of social scripts and the instigators of social order, fairy tales have earned their place in the ranks of literary study. Horror movies update and reinforce these patterns by assimilating the structure of fairy tales. This structural verisimilitude seems to suggest that horror films, too, have literary merit.
The fundamental structure and pattern of both fairy tales and horror movies are based on an inherent idealism. This idealism is not the chase for the proverbial “happily ever after,” but rather an underlying, often brutal justice, a restoration of order in which every character gets his or her due reward. Both fairy tales and horror films provide a kind of “psychic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity . . . is extended so rarely” (King 2).
So do we enjoy horror movies because, as Stephen King put it, we need to feed the metaphorical alligators swimming in the dark recesses of our brains? Are we like the crowds that gathered around the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, hungry for blood? I don’t think so. The unchanging nature of the structure of stories tells us something quite different. We don’t hunger for the depravity of horror movies, but rather the sheer, brutal, unadulterated idealism present in a genre where everyone “gets what’s coming to them”—for better or worse. Really, the idealism in wonder tales is not the code itself, but the alluring idea of a world that, unlike ours, abides by a code at all. We want to believe that there is a world where everything is more than fair, where our virtues can not only save us but save others, too. That idealism is the reason that fairy tales have always been told, and it is the reason that horror movies have answered the call to provide the kind of story that readers and viewers really want.
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