I miss high-stakes horror movies.
I miss not knowing who’s going to die. I miss not being able to telegraph the end. I miss protagonists that make bad decisions. I miss last-minute twists. What I really miss are lasting consequences. I miss horror movies where every bet is off save for one eternal rule: The Price.
This is the law of The Price. Imagine that in every horror movie, there is a troll under the bridge who collects the fare – The Price – for crossing over from the so-called normal world, or their ordinary existence, into the world of the dead or the damned or whatever else. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to trespass across this boundary – a character decides to use a ouija board to contact a dead relative; a character uses a spell to hex a rival – and sometimes it’s not – a character makes a wrong turn down an unfamiliar road; a character takes in an orphaned child. Sometimes it’s a total freak coincidence – a character gets a phone call from an unknown number; a character sees a neighbor being murdered. However it happens, that character has tasted the forbidden fruit of the abnormal world, and now they have to pay The Price.
The Price can be paid in a variety of ways, but it’s not a blister that heals with a band-aid. Here are some good options: character death; character loved one death; character damnation; character incapacitation (mental or physical); massive character dislocation. And yes, sometimes it’s terribly unfair: all I did was check-in on my brother! But fair isn’t the point. The point is to recognize that that other world is powerful, palpable, and not to be fucked with. Oh yeah, and that life’s not fair. It’s Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror”:
The black mirror knows no reflection
It knows not pride or vanity
It cares not about your dreams
It cares not for your pyramid schemes
Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken
I don’t know when I learned about The Price, but I remember the first time I noticed that it was missing: the Anthony Hopkins exorcism movie The Rite, where no one seems to pay any price at all. The Rite really shocked me, because of any horror movie subgenre, the exorcism movie is typically the most brutal, given that it deals with literal pure Evil.
I initially thought that not paying The Price is symptomatic of a movie being part of a franchise, as in The Conjuring series, where no one seems to ever be of any serious risk of anything other than having the fear of God put into them, presumably to keep Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson headlining a universe of Psychic Superhero movies. But horror franchises have been paying The Price for years, and that in fact The Price has jumpstarted various creative detours compelled by the deaths of primary characters (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th all killed their original final girls.)
So now I think it’s something else: now I think there is a strange reluctance to make horror movies that are “too dark.” I think maybe we want updated versions of the original don’t-go-into-the-woods morality tale: if you do go into the woods, if you’re a good person you’ll figure out how to defeat evil and walk away unscathed. That’s some bullshit, folks. Not only does it: (a) not reflect the reality of how bad things actually happen, (b) represent a pretty self-defeating morality tale – so it’s okay to go into the woods, eh?, but it (c) sucks all tension out of what is supposed to be a tense experience. Oh gee whiz, wonder if this nice little American family with three little kids is going to survive the haunted house!
Because The Price isn’t really about trespassing unseen boundaries. The Price is about that great price we all must pay for being alive, being human, being part of a cruel civilization – the guilt of knowing you are sitting comfortably in your home while terrible things are done to people no different from you halfway across the world; the fact that tender hearts are the most vulnerable; the knowledge that you are alive and well because your ancestors made cold-blooded choices that victimized other people – or else they were the victims, and did terrible things to survive; the sinking feeling that someone knows what you did that summer. To quote another song, this one “Courage (for Hugh Maclennan)” by The Tragically Hip:
the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
[of actions performed] Under pressure
That’s The Price, my friends, and we all must pay it.
Horror movies that are all about The Price pictured above: 1) The Ring; 2) The Exorcist; 3) Candyman; 4) Pet Sematary; 5) Retribution [Sakebi].