Monday, May 28, 2012

Why scary stories are the best

Being the avid horror fan that I am, I just had to see Chernobyl Diaries this weekend. Despite what the critics are saying, the movie does not disappoint. At all. In fact, it sort of reminded me why I love horror movies in the first place.

And it's not just because of cool looking monsters. (source)

The movie, like so many other horror movies, follows a group of twentysomethings on vacation. Chris, his girlfriend Natalie, and Natalie's friend Amanda are visiting Chris's brother Paul, who left home and now lives in Ukraine. They travel to the city of Pripyat, a real city which was abandoned in the 1980's after a very real explosion at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant. And, like so many other horror movies, their car breaks down and they're stranded in the abandoned city. Their tour guide is mercilessly slaughtered by unseen monsters, which we later learn are (SPOILER!) the mutated people who stayed behind after the nuclear explosion and are now basically mutant cannibal zombie things. And now they're chasing the gang, who are getting picked off one by one. Pretty typical horror movie in some ways, but there's no way I could go into a movie about mutant cannibal zombie things and not like it.

The movie wasn't just awesome because of the monsters, but it was also pretty creepy. The monsters (I'm not sure whether to call them mutants, zombies, or what, so I'll just use the generic "monster" label) are only seen in the dark, when someone holds up a flashlight to them. So the characters spend a decent amount of the movie running around in dark places with flashlights, looking for someone that got eaten or having accidentally stumbled into said dark place and attempting to get out without becoming a snack themselves. So we see a lot of quick shots of the monsters -- just enough to pique our interest.

The horror genre, like most other genres, has lost its touch over the years. So many horror writers have forgotten what makes a story truly horrific in the first place -- the unknown. Why are people so afraid of death, the most popular subject in horror? Because it is completely unknown. We all have our various religious beliefs, of course, but nobody can know for sure what happens to us after death until we actually experience it. At which point, there is no going back.

Or is it? Haunted houses like Lemp Mansion are popular because of the idea that there is life after death.

There's a sort of underground internet sensation called creepypasta that originated in the early 2000's. Creepypasta is sort of like urban legends, but nearly all of them originated online, usually on message boards. They are usually very short -- what writers refer to as "flash fiction," 1000 words or less. And, like more mainstream urban legends, the most popular ones are more frightening than any horror movie. Because the thing about short fiction is that it doesn't have time to delve into characters or plots in the same way that longer fiction does. And when a short story is scary, there's no time for the dreaded explanations. The less explanation, the more frightening.
Unfortunately, when people don't know something or don't have an explanation, they want to find out. Once a week from 2004 to 2010, there were millions of us who sat down in front of our TV's to watch Lost. We didn't know what the heck was going on with these island or with these characters and dammit, we wanted to find out. Some people complained because they weren't satisfied with the ending and its explanation of what the island actually was. But maybe the mystery was a good thing. It kept people talking. If you lay everything out in the open, it's not nearly as intriguing.

That's why scary stories -- whether they be creepypasta, campfire tales, or a good suspense movie -- are so popular. They play on our fear of the unknown. Because if you knew for sure if ghosts existed...well, that wouldn't be very exciting, would it?

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