Monday, November 4, 2013

Ghost Tales and Zombie Hordes

Ghosts and hauntings seem to have taken a backseat to zombies and vampires in the box office as of late, with record numbers pouring into the cramped darkness of a theater to see the walking dead feast on the living. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ghost stories as well, and they tend to be just as good if not better than the monster movies; it just seems to me that the monster movies are the ones people talk about for longer periods of time after their release than with ghost stories.

I heard about the Dawn of the Dead remake for weeks after it first came out, and for weeks more after it was released onto DVD. Again, don’t mistake my words for criticism, as the movie was a fine one, one that I happen to own and watch every now and again, if only for the cheap laughs it delivers for me. I also happen to own Paranormal Activity, a movie about a haunting that, right when it was released, experienced a lot of hype. But by the next week not many people were really interested in talking about it, or even seeing it. I know it made great earnings at the box office and won many awards, but for some reason the haunting movie seemed to attract less attention than the zombie movie.
Why is that?
I have a theory, however unfounded, that monster movies stick more with us than ghost movies do because the monsters are so alien to us, whereas the ghosts almost always have a way to “put them to rest.” The few that don’t usually involve exorcisms or merely create cliffhangers for sequels to fill in at a later time, but with zombies, werewolves and vampires, we have creatures that cannot be negotiated with, or put to rest; they have to be killed, and killed with extreme prejudice.
Let’s take a few of the more recent films into consideration, shall we? The Conjuring is a run-of-the-mill haunting/possession movies where the main characters are harassed by an evil force in an old house that they just moved into. It lures them into rooms before locking doors, drags people across the floor and is a general nuisance that evil spirits tend to be. My wife and I went to see this film opening night, and I could not have been more bored if I tried. We also went to see the Evil Dead remake the opening night. Both involve spirits, both involve possession… but one was clearly superior.
The Evil Dead had a lot more going for it in that the monster was a demon of sorts, a creature we can hardly relate to, let alone figure out how to defeat. In the end we do what we always do: Light it on fire or cut off its head. In the Evil Dead’s case, we did both. For The Conjuring we had more of a storyline with deeper character growth and a stronger plot that had numerous hints and twists that allowed the viewer to wonder what would happen next. I was genuinely surprised numerous times, as opposed to Evil Dead where everything was just an omen for future terror to come. Overall, I would say a better story was told in The Conjuring.
So why do I already know that the Evil Dead will be spoken about for longer than The Conjuring?
Because ghosts aren’t frightening enough for us as an audience. We, who have witnessed Dracula rise from a crate of dirt and roam the night in search of Mina. We, who have watched as the zombie plague absorbed the nation in one viral gulp, creating a veritable army of mindless cannibals. We, who’ve seen the depths of evil that lurk in the hearts of men and women alike when they turn to ancient, pagan things… we are not afraid of ghosts because, more often than not, they are just as much a victim as we are.
Think of any ghost movie you’ve seen, any at all. And no, Exorcism movies don’t count for this, so get rid of The Exorcist. Now tell me who the bad guy is. Is it the ghost? Or is the ghost a victim that is either warning people away, or enacting revenge for its own mistreatment? Either way, the ghost is merely an instrument that is punishing those around it as it desperately tries to escape itself, often with poor results. That makes the ghost a relatable character, and a relatable character is hardly a true villain, a monster roaming the woods in search of fresh prey.
Think of two TV shows that speak on ghosts and zombies. The first to come to mind is Medium, a show about a woman who goes from small town to small town seeking out spirits to help them move on past this horrible loop they’ve got themselves stuck in. Are there scary times? Yes. Are there times when we feel pity for the ghost? Almost always. We are never afraid of the ghost the entire time it is present, no matter how horrifying it is, purely because it is something that is redeemed after the half hour is up.
Now take The Walking Dead; here is a show where the menace is a constant and never-ending stream of ravenous ghouls seeking only one thing: food. And guess what? We’re number one on the menu. Part way through the series its revealed that whatever is reanimating people as zombies is inside everyone alive, so if you say, die in your sleep, you will rise as a zombie and attack people. No way around it. That means that every single person you meet is a potential threat. This all-encompassing world view of monsters dominating modern society is so terrifying, that the show has stretched into a fourth season.
Now as I said earlier, I’m not here to claim that one genre of horror is scarier than the other. But I am here to claim which ones seem to captivate audiences for longer periods of time which, when you think about it, is what all of us are trying to do every time we open our minds to the keyboard. We want an audience to read our words, and to leave a lasting impression on them with our words. A masterfully written ghost story is nothing compared to the same old tripe of a zombie outbreak… not in the long haul, and that is because of what we are afraid of when we think of the two different tales. One is one of woe and fear with, usually, a bittersweet ending while the other is a bloody nightmare that has no ending, only more terror.
Which gets your heart beating faster?
Sweet Dreams

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