My husband and I have really been enjoying HBO’s new fantasy series, Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s the perfect show in that it bridges two of our most divergent TV tastes; he loves costume dramas and anything set in a castle (which I normally hate) while I love a show with an impending sense of doom (“Winter is coming!”). But one thing threatens to destroy our shared television bliss: zombies. Of course, none of the many enticingly-edited previews leading up to the April 17th Game of Thrones premiere led me to believe that the series would include zombies. No, that little surprise happened in episode three, “Lord Snow,” when young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), bedridden after being pushed out of a tower for seeing something very, very naughty (it rhymes with bincest), asks his nurse to tell him a scary story. Old Nan complies and tells Bran, a “summer child,” all about an endless winter that happened thousands of years ago. During this winter the sun disappeared all together and mothers smothered their babies rather than see them starve. And, during this winter, the “white walkers” came. These white walkers ate babies! Babies , for crying out loud! Upon hearing this story I was all “Hell to the no!” because I had really fallen in love with Game of Thrones and I did not want to give it up just because it had a few zombies in it. You see, I have an intense zombie phobia. And like all phobias, this one is threatening to take away something I love. So I’ve decided to use this blog post to revisit my zombie phobia and to try to understand it’s hold over me. I hope you don’t mind the indulgence.
This story begins with my older brother, Adam, and his obsession with horror films. The early 1980s was a golden age for the horror film. There were numerous teen slasher film franchises, including Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), and Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham). But my brother was into a very specific kind of horror film: the splatter film. In conventional horror films, like Dracula (1931, Tod Browning) or Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the monster is foreign and threatens the characters’ way of life. Yes, there is the threat of bodily harm, but these films (due to the restrictions of the Production Code), rarely dwelled on the destruction of the human body. Victims screamed and then drifted out of the frame. Nice and clean.
But the horror of the splatter film comes from its focus on the systemic destruction of the human body. This horror cycle is preoccupied with the faithful recreation of blood, organs, skin, and bone so that it may later rip these replicas of the human form to shreds.
The splatter film takes what is usually on the inside of the body — safely contained within our skin — and reveals it to the outside. What is especially important about the splatter film is not the high body counts (leave those to Rambo), but the obsessive focus on death itself. Victims are rarely shot with bullets or forced to ingest poison. Instead, the destruction of the human body must take place at close range with weapons — clubs, machetes, knives, fingernails, teeth (shudder) — that require the killer and the victim to have intimate contact with one another. The messier, more prolonged, and more painful the death is, the better.
Yes, these were the kinds of horror films that my brother always seemed to be watching in the mid-1980s. And, naturally, as a younger sister, I wanted to be doing everything my older brother was doing. If he was going to watch Day of the Dead (1985, George Romero), then damn it, I was going to watch it too. I asked my brother about the fateful day that changed everything for me — the day we watched Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero) on VHS in our family den. He thinks it was somewhere around 1986, which means I would have been 10-years-old and he would would have been around 15-years-old. And while I distinctly remember him coaxing me to watch the movie by telling me that it really wasn’t that scary, my brother remembers it differently: “I don’t recall forcing you to watch it, you were into it like any kid looking for a thrill would be.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like something a drug dealer would say? Regardless of how it happened, there I sat, for 96 minutes, and watched as a series of reanimated corpses cornered and ate a houseful of people. Including a little girl, just like me. WTF, George Romero?
Looking back on this phase of my pop culture upbringing, I do wonder where the hell my mother was. The film professor in me appreciates that she didn’t do much censoring of television or movies — my brother and I pretty much watched what we wanted to watch. My Mom only started to get concerned about my brother’s horror movie fascination when Fangoria magazine began to arrive in our mailbox every month. Those covers freaked me out.
But by that time, it was too late for me. The deep damage to my psyche was already done. And the real problem? I liked zombie movies. They scared me more than any other horror film and I really liked being scared. Zombie movies combined all of my greatest fears: dead bodies (I still have never seen a dead body), being chased by an unrelenting enemy, painful, prolonged death, and the possibility of being turned into a monster. So I continued to watch zombie movies with my brother. And like any older brother worth his salt, Adam pinpointed my fear and discovered clever ways to exploit it. For example, after we watched Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero) together, my brother came up with a great tormenting device: he would chase me around the house pretending to be a zombie. He’d put his arms out in front of him, cock his head to the side, and hum the Muzak that was playing in the mall for most of Dawn of the Dead (see YouTube clip below). This horrible chase would always end the same way — with me locking myself into the nearest available bathroom and waiting, panting and terrifed, for my brother to get bored and lumber away (just like in a real zombie movie). To this day, when I hear generic-sounding Muzak, the muscles in my stomach tighten up.
Due to the combination of watching zombie movies at an age when I was too young to process their terrifying images and being chased around the house by my faux-zombie brother over and over again, I was plagued, for decades, with zombie-themed nightmares. In these dreams I was plunged, in medias res, into the climax of an epic zombies versus humans battle. The battle would conclude in one of two ways: either I was holed up in an old house with a group of survivors — sometimes I knew them, sometimes I didn’t — and we would bide our time, waiting for the moment when the zombies would finally burst through our hastily constructed barricade. Or (and this was the worst scenario), I was by myself, being chased by a horde of hungry zombies who were always just inches behind me. At some point during this recurring nightmare I would recognize that I was dreaming and I would have to make a decision: continue to flee the zombies (and thus, prolong the feeling of absolute terror) or allow the zombies to attack me (which would allow me to finally wake up). Neither option is really an option, you dig?
The turning point for me and my love/hate relationship with zombies happened in 2002, when I went to see 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle) with my friend, Coral. After the movie, Coral was going to drop me off at my empty house; my boyfriend (now my husband) was out of town. But I knew that sleeping alone in my empty house was going to be an impossibility. So instead I ran inside, grabbed my toothbrush and my dog, and hopped back into Coral’s car. As I lay there that night on Coral’s futon, painfully aware of the inanity of a grown woman having to sleep over at a friend’s house after watching a scary movie, I came to a decision: no more zombie movies. And I’ve kept to that, mostly. I lapsed in 2004, when I rented the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder) (which, by the way, was great). I did this when my husband was out of town and I paid for it with a night of insomnia. I haven’t watched a zombie movie since. And now I only have a few zombie-themed nightmares each year. I still get sad though, like when a group of my friends all went to see Zombieland (2009, Rubin Fleischer) and I had to say “Sorry, friends, just can’t do it!” And I know that AMC’s The Walking Dead is supposed to be great, but I’ll never know its pleasures. Instead, I try to view my zombie phobia the way a lactose-intolerant person views ice cream: you can have a sundae, but your ass is going to pay for it later.
Which brings me to the present day and Game of Thrones. Except for a brief glimpse of a blue-eyed little girl with a bloodied mouth (who I am assuming is a white walker?), no zombies have appeared in the series. But, as Ned Stark (Sean Bean) keeps warning us, “winter is coming” and with it, zombies. When they arrive, I might have to abandon this great television series, or risk giving up my dreams to the undead once again.
So, am I alone in my zombie phobia? Is anyone else out there zombie-intolerant? Or is there another movie monster that plagues your nightmares? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
For me, winter break is a time to catch up on all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year. I had a second baby at the beginning of 2010 so “all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year” = “all of the movies released this year.” But don’t pity me, friends. My Netflix queue is pretty kick ass these days and I’ve really enjoyed playing catch up over the last few weeks.
Earlier this week my husband and I decided to watch a film that we had both been wanting to see for months, The Road (2009, John Hillcoat). We were at his parent’s house and had their TV all to ourselves, which is a rarity in a house where 8 people are staying. We were about 40 minutes in to the film when my husband’s sister and her boyfriend returned from a friend’s house. We chatted with them for about 15 minutes and when they headed upstairs I said to my husband “Okay, let’s finish the movie.” He replied, somewhat despondently,”Do we have to?”
You see, The Road is a real downer. It focuses on two characters, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — they are never given proper names — who spend the majority of the film wandering through a frigid, grey-toned, postapocalyptic wasteland. They are dirty, tired, and hungry. All plant and animal life has died, so food is almost non-existent. Things have gotten so bad that people have started to eat each other; in one scene the Man and the Boy happen upon a basement full of naked, emaciated human beings that are being held captive in a makeshift slaughterhouse. Good times.
The Man and the Boy do have a mission. They are heading “South” because the Man hopes that things will be “better” there. But this seems unlikely — the world is dying, after all. So their arduous, seemingly unending journey feels pointless. Yes, the Man tells his son that they must keep going because they have a “fire” inside of them, and they cannot let that fire go out. But why? Why subject your child to this living Hell? To what end? And why subject the viewer to this Hell? The Woman (the Boy’s mother, played by Charlize Theron) had the right idea when she offed herself.
Despite the crushing depression we were experiencing, we did finish watching The Road. But it was difficult. My husband and I even resorted to using coping mechanisms — like heckling the film at moments of high drama — as a way to detach ourselves from the agony. For example, at one point in the film the Man has a breakdown and begins to sob. He is exhausted. His life and the life of his child are continually being threatened. He is dying of some unidentified lung ailment. The world is coming to an end for crying out loud! Right when the emotion of this scene became too much to bear — the Man is beginning to realize that soon he will be leaving his boy alone in this awful world — my husband yelled “Oh wahhhh! Poor me!” Normally I would be annoyed that someone had broken the spell of the film, but now I welcomed it. I needed to be detached from the pain and the agony on-screen. In fact, I was so unsettled by The Road (despite its optimisitic ending), that it took me several hours to fall asleep afterwards and I was plagued with dark and troubling dreams throughout the night.
The next morning I awoke exhausted and angry with myself: why did I decide to watch this movie? After all, a few years ago I made a vow to myself that I would no longer force myself to watch movies that are mentally traumatizing. I came to this decision after watching the English-language remake of Funny Games (2007, Michael Haneke). For those who don’t know, Funny Games tells the story of a wealthy white family who heads out to their beautiful, idyllic lake house for a family vacation. They are soon taken hostage by two smiling sociopaths, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), who mentally torture them before [SPOILER ALERT] killing all three of them. I knew that these deaths were going to happen from the moment I spied Paul’s smiling face and yet I continued to watch. I watched as they tied up the couple’s young son and then killed him with a shotgun. I watched as the mother (Naomi Watts) wailed over the dead body of her only child. I should have turned the film off then. But I didn’t. I kept watching because I like to finish what I start. I kept telling myself “It’s just a movie.” And then I didn’t sleep all night.
In the case of both The Road and Funny Games my sleeplessness and nightmares were not caused by fear. I wasn’t worried that a bomb would destroy the world as I slept nor did I fear that two smiling young men would break into the house and hold me and my family hostage. What kept me awake and haunted my dreams was the dread each film stirred inside of me. Both films tapped into my deepest fear — the thing that I dread more than anything else — which is a world in which I will be unable to protect my children from harm. These films exploit these feelings of dread, offering parent protagonists who try and fail to keep their children safe under extreme circumstances.
When I watch a drama, I try to sympathize with its protagonists and see the world from their point of view. If I don’t do that, then I don’t feel like I am truly experiencing the story. The directors of Italian Neorealist films like The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) depended on this sympathy — without it their films would fail as calls to action. And in melodramas like Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) sympathy, and the tears that flow when we realize that Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) will never be able to tell her mother that she loves her, are central to the genre’s pleasures.
However, this sympathy becomes a liability when watching a film like The Road. For example, every morning the Man wakes up, gasps in terror, and places a frantic, searching hand on the Boy’s chest. He is making sure that the Boy is still there. This little detail filled me with dread. How does the Man even sleep? How could he lie down and rest, knowing that his boy could be stolen away by a band of cannibals? Contemplating such a life, even entertaining the possibility of such an existence, is mentally overwhelming to me. And this pervasive feeling of dread lingers for days, sometimes weeks, after the film is over. For this reason I think I need to stop watching any movie in which children are put in danger or are killed. I’ve already stopped watching zombie movies for similar reasons (they give me terrible nightmares).
But banning certain movies from my life makes me sad. I’ve devoted my life to the study of film so the idea of limiting what I watch doesn’t seem right. Now I know that Kelli Marshall refuses to watch movies with animals in them. And last spring Amanda Lotz wrote a piece for Antenna about how being a mother affected her reaction to a scene from Lost. So I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Who we are affects how we watch and what we watch. But sometimes I wish that it didn’t.
In conclusion, my experience with The Road has led me to wonder: has parenthood limited my ability to watch certain films? Can personal experiences — like my early (and traumatic) exposure to zombie movies — profoundly alter our ability to watch certain types of films? Or do I just need to suck it up?
And what about you: what films fill you with dread and why? Has this kept you from watching them? Or do you enjoy this feeling of dread? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.