Society

Monster 101 — Our love affair with horror? Carleton prof explains why

This article was originally published in the October 2015 print edition of OTTAWA magazine. Photo (cropped): John Wenzel

Horror films and monster movies have long been devoured by devoted audiences — and routinely dismissed by critics as puerile and immature. But André Loiselle, a professor of film studies at Carleton University and co-author of The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul, which hit bookstores this past week, knows there’s more to the genre than just blood, gore, and cheap thrills. His upcoming course, Theories of the Horror Film explores our enduring love affair with films that scare


What draws you to monsters and horror?
I don’t do roller-coasters, but my equivalent of getting a thrill in a safe environment is the horror film. I like when a horror film sends shivers down my spine. When I became more serious about film, my interest in horror became even greater because it is one of the genres where you can explore all sorts of topics without having to be too concerned about things such as political correctness. Because horror is somewhat off the radar, many horror filmmakers will explore controversial topics because, generally speaking, they are ignored by the mainstream.

What makes a monster?
It’s aberration, an abnormality. They turn our comfortable society on its head, and we have to react to them. The term “monster” comes from the Latin word monstrare: to show — “I’m going to show you something, and the spectacle is going to make you stop and think.”

What’s the best movie monster?
I like the monster from The Host, the Korean film. It’s a weird combination of fish, reptile, and frog, and it just kills people. And this monster is created by human incompetence — disregard for rules and regulations. It’s the by-product of human failure. My favourite human monster is Hannibal Lecter. He has this great juxtaposition of being attractive and repellent at the same time, which is what a monster should be.

Would you say that Halloween is the best Halloween movie of all time?
I will be a heretic and say that the Rob Zombie remake of Halloween is actually a better film than the original. You get much more into Michael’s head. It’s a scarier character because it’s not just a killing machine. For the monster to be truly horrible, there has to be an element of the humankind so that you can actually connect with that character. Evil has to be attractive for it to be genuinely scary. Otherwise it’s easy to dismiss.

What makes a horror film truly terrifying?
There are two things. The spectacle itself — the way the film is put together to surprise you and create the shivers down the spine, which is so pleasurable. I don’t want to call it cheap thrills: a good horror film takes a lot of skill. The shower scene in Psycho, after all these years, still frightens me. The other is meaning: what the film evokes, what it refers to, its comments on society or on our own psychology or politics, on our lives. It sends shivers down the spine, but for very different reasons.

Tell me about the Final Girl trope. Isn’t she usually the one who confronts the monster?
The Final Girl is this extremely resourceful woman who usually starts as timid, polite, and well-behaved — the way patriarchy wants her to be. But when patriarchy fails her — cops are incompetent, father figures are incapable of doing anything — these girls take matters into their own hands. Over at least the last 15 years, those early slashers of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s have been revisited and read with a feminist lens. Those are pretty much the only films that basically said, “You know what, women? If you want to get things done, don’t count on patriarchy to do it for you.”

Do you find younger students are numb to some of the things that previous generations would have found terrifying?
I wouldn’t say numb, but there’s a different level of expectation. I don’t agree that kids these days are desensitized, because there are things that will still terrify them. Paranormal Activity, for example. Here’s a film where it’s all suggestion — there’s not a single drop of blood in that film, but kids were terrified. There’s a theory that horror movies are fairy tales for adults. Real fairy tales, not the Disney kind, are terrifying, and they’re telling kids: “The world is a horrible place, but if you’re resourceful and if you think and remain calm, you can actually find a solution.” Hansel and Gretel is the ideal fairy tale — you’re a tiny child, and you can’t outfight the person, but you can outwit them. Good horror films very often align us with children because they want us to realize that we are unable to defeat the monster by sheer strength. Whatever the monster is, it will always be stronger than we are, so we have to use reason to defeat it.