Why Great Horror is HeartbreakingS

We've spent this week talking about horror in all its myriad forms: scary sex scenes, terrible monsters, and mental horrors. But some of the most haunting and terrifying horror stories aren't merely terrifying; they're also terribly sad.

I have to confess, it's very hard for me to watch horror movies. It's not that I don't enjoy the occasional scare, and it's not that I'm worried about ghosts and monsters following home (although I will confess to a mild fear of zombies). No, it's just that when the body count starts rising, I start feeling, well, sad. I don't come out of the theater pumping with adrenaline; I'm too distracted thinking about the people who died and the loved ones they've left behind.

The plots of several pieces of horror are discussed below, so be warned there may be spoilers.

The movie that really hit this home for me is not a science fiction movie, but Wes Craven's Scream. In the movie's opening sequence, Drew Barrymore is terrorized by a knife-wielding serial killer one night while she's home alone. As the killer is chasing her down, her parents pull up in the driveway. For a brief moment, it looks like she's saved, but in the next shot, we see the parents, happy from a pleasant evening out, and their daughter pulled down by the killer before she has the chance to cry out for help.

How horrible. It's a suspenseful moment to be sure, but one that evokes horror more than terror. Horrifying that she was so close to salvation only to meet a brutal end, and horrifying that her parents will find their daughter mutilated on their lawn and spend the rest of their lives wondering what would have happened if they have come home just a little sooner. It's a scene tinged with more tragedy than terror.

Horror is a genre that picks and pokes at our deepest anxieties. It's a reminder that we live in an unstable world, and that no matter how careful or good we are, we could at any time be struck with death, disfigurement, or madness. A lot of horror movies appeal to our limbic systems, to that part of our brain that wonders what lurks in the shadows and triggers a happy release of hormone every time someone shouts "Boo!" And there is undeniably an artistry to that, to the sort of jumps and thrills so frightening that, weeks later, you're still checking under the bed for demons from Hell. But often the horror that still lingers for years afterwards are the ones that play on the less primal — but still very human — fears of losing the ones you love and being left alone in the world.

When Heartbreak Drives the Horror

Horror protagonists don't always make the best choices. They insult powerful witches, run up the stairs when they should run out the door, and try to capture the man-eating alien instead of killing it. And when Louis Creed buries his son Gage in the Micmac burial ground in Stephen King's Pet Sematary, we know it's a bad idea. He knows it's a bad idea. But he so desperately hopes that he can repair his wounded family that he is willing to make a terrible and utterly wrong decision. And when Gage comes back only to murder his mother, Louis too easily manages to talk himself into burying his wife in the same graveyard.

It should be a forehead-slapping moment, but it's depressingly relatable. That Gage comes back as an undead monster is pretty horrifying (he did make our list of scariest characters in film), but what's more horrifying is what grief can drive Louis to do. His grief is so potent, so unbearable that he's willing to make monsters out of his loved ones in the hope that seeing them again will mend his heart.

It's an idea that harkens back to WW Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," that famed exercise in truly depressing horror. After the Whites receive a wish-granting monkey paw, they wish for money, only to lose their son in an accident and receive compensation for his death. In that moment, they understand the nature of the monkey paw: it grants wishes, but in a perverse way. Still, the husband defers to his wife's terrible, maddening grief and wishes their son back to life. But, like Louis Creed, Mr. White must make his son dead again — knowing what comes back couldn't possibly be right — doubling his guilt and grief.

There are reasons why stories like "The Monkey's Paw" endure, and why its ideas find its way into so many other works of horror. They force us to access our fears of losing those closest to us, asking us how far we would go to keep them with us. Perhaps the most frightening thing about these stories that many of us will face terrible grief in our lives — and perhaps even guilt at the deaths of our loved ones — and we could be capable of making the same terrible decisions as the people in these stories, even if we don't get the opportunity to act on them.

When Losing Someone Makes Things That Much Worse

Even when grief and loss aren't the focus of a horror story, a moment of terrible loss can have more impact than even the most terrifying monster. 28 Days Later adds a frightening bit of realism to the zombie apocalypse, but it never forgets that the fear of losing your life is little match for the sadness that comes in a world suffused with death. When Jim discovers that his parents committed suicide in the face of violent death (leaving a note begging him not to wake from his coma), it's a bright spot of pain in a movie already filled with terror. But when our merry band of survivors becomes something of a family, with Frank playing the wise and protective father, the apocalypse seems survivable, almost manageable. Then Frank becomes infected with the Rage virus, and it's not just another zombie movie death. It puts a lump in your throat and reminds you that the zombie outbreak isn't all fun and killing the Infected — it's actually horribly sad.

This threat of loss adds dimension to other horror movies as well. Take The Ring, a film already terrifying in its J-horror weirdness. That The Ring turns a VHS cassette into an object of terror is incredibly impressive, but it's when Rachel's son Aidan watches the tape that the clock really starts ticking. Faced with the death of her son, Rachel must not only save herself, but survive long enough to keep Samara from killing her son as well. It adds a deeper, driving motivation to an already scary movie.

Why Great Horror is HeartbreakingS

Joss Whedon is perhaps the master of this particular brand of horror. Though the series was filled with man-eating monsters, death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is often random, senseless, and poignant. Few moments in the show stand out as clearly as Joyce's death from an aneurysm, or Tara's from a stray bullet. The central theme in Buffy is that family and friends make life grand, even when your life is filled with mayhem and violence. In such a world, few things are as horrifying as losing part of your family, and such deaths always left the characters unbalanced, even psychotic with grief. Even the show's most calculated death, Angelus' slaying of Jenny Calendar, is designed to maximize heartbreak. It's not enough that Angelus kills her; he also has to place her in Giles' bed with a trail of roses leading up to it, in a mockery of romantic seduction. And that heartache, far more than fear, drives Giles to hate and try to destroy Angelus.

When Your Loved One Turns Monstrous

This is a staple of vampire and zombie movies, when you find you must destroy the creature wearing your loved one's face. Buffy tried this in the very first episode, turning Willow and Xander's friend Jesse bloodsucker and forcing Xander to kill him an episode later. It's not the strongest instance of this particular trope (I'm not sure if Jesse is even mentioned later in the series), but it's a solid introduction to the horrible nature of vampires. Zombie movies are stronger in this regard. Even Shaun of the Dead, a movie mostly devoted to the funny side of the undead, goes suddenly tearjerker when we learn Shaun's mother has been bitten by a zombie. This bit of sadness is then compounded by the ensuing debate over shooting Shaun's dead mother in the head. Even though everyone knows it has to happen, Shaun can't bring himself to let it happen, and even the normally logical Liz argues against it. And when his mother inevitably rises from the dead, Shaun is the one who must shoot her body, a shockingly tearful moment from the zombie romantic comedy.

Why Great Horror is HeartbreakingS

It's another work from Stephen King, The Shining, that offers a more realistic view on why this concept is so horrifying. Jack Torrance is a man so driven to drink that he gives his soul over to the hotel for alcohol. In the movie, it's played more as slasher horror, with Jack Nicholson gleefully hunting down his wife and child, but it's a grim reminder that the people we love could become the people we fear, or that we ourselves might be capable of inflicting terrible harms on our loved ones.

When Hope Is Your Worst Enemy

Why Great Horror is HeartbreakingS

Few genres are as relentlessly obsessed with death as post-apocalyptic fiction. In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, death abounds; most of the world is dead, bands of rapists and murderers prowl the road, and the protagonist's wife has killed herself. The protagonist is not concerned for his own survival — he's already dying — but for his son's. He's confronted with the wrenching knowledge that he might have to kill his son to save him from an even worse fate. But he hopes for something better, hopes that he will find good people with whom his son could make a future. The whole book is a dirge for civilization, but the father's hope might only leave his son open to future horrors — and tragically, the father dies without knowing his son will fall in with good people after all.

In The Walking Dead, zombies are less agents of fear than they are death incarnate, and the comic often plays on themes of hope and how we cope with loss. Hope is tragic as much as it is necessary for survival. A farmer keeps his undead family in a barn by his house, hoping there will someday be a cure. The survivors hope to rebuild some semblance of civilization, but lose some of their number every time they think they've found peace. And as brutal and horrible as death is for the ones who die, the grief of the survivors is far more powerful and frightening.

The Fear of Dying Alone

It's telling that the very first episode of The Twilight Zone , "Where Is Everybody?" deals with loneliness, and the human need for companionship. It's a theme that inspired one of the more unnerving episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In "Remember Me," Dr. Crusher sees the her son and everyone else aboard the Enterprise disappear, until she's the only one left (of course, it turns out that she's the one who has actually disappeared, in this case into a static warp bubble). The episode has a Twilight Zone quality to it, but it's especially bleak that Crusher is at the center of it. Here is a woman who has already lost a husband to the hazards of Starfleet, whose closest friends routinely put their own lives in danger, and whose son is joining the very military organization that took her husband. "Remember Me" is, more than anything, a metaphor for the very real possibility that she could end up alone. Even Garfield, of all things, played with this idea in its surprisingly depressing 1989 Halloween run, where the orange fat cat wakes to a future where his house is abandoned and he never exists.

Even the episode of The Twilight Zone that was most optimistic about the apocalypse, "Time Enough at Last," deals with loneliness. After a nuclear attack wipes out everyone around him, Burgess Meredith is about to commit suicide until he realizes there's a library full of books to keep him company. It's only when he breaks his glasses that he feels truly alone, and that loneliness is more frightening than anything that goes bump in the night.

(Thanks to Graeme for suggesting "Remember Me").