I watched my first horror film when I was three years old. The film was Evil Dead - which part? I don't remember. All I remember is being plastered to the wall, so terrified that I couldn't even scream, as the ghost-ridden trees, with their scrawny branches wrenched the clothes off a screaming blonde. My cousin, the same age as me, went to sleep after watching just a couple of scenes. Sissy. I stayed till the end. Somewhere in the middle of the film, I remember asking my teenage cousin why that guy in the film was putting a necklace on the girl smiling coyly. One of my cousin's friends replied, "They're brother-sister." He smiled wickedly.
By the end of the film, I was numb with fear. That feeling has not gone away - it resurfaces every time I watch a horror film. As I've grown up, so have my modes of expression. Now, as I watch a horror film - Shutter, the Thai horror film being the latest - I scream, and instinctively my hands reach out for the arm of the person sitting next to me, and grab them, with my nails. Most let out a yelp, look, with disbelief, amusement and a hint of annoyance at me. But by this time, renewed after a bout of yelling, I have become engrossed in the film again.
This is why I love horror films - because they don't just allow you to be a mute spectator and they don't give you the leisure of reflection. They just come at you - wham! And you have to take what they give. The experience of watching horror films is as central as the film itself, if you are not scared out of your wits, or at least make a genuine effort to be so, then what the hell are you there for?
My mother often complains, "Ashi ki pasand ki filmein to hum nahin dekh sakte," implying that my taste in gory, dark horror is something that she can't relate to. Another close friend asks, "I can't understand how someone can get thrills out of watching horror for horror's sake." Excuse me. First of all, it's not easy making a horror film - there is a very thin line between being scary and being ridiculous. Not all horror films have understood this difference. The punch is not in who dunnit, but how it happened, the few moments before the scary ghost/murdering spirit reveals herself (yes herself, because often, although not always, if it's a spirit, it's most likely a woman). That's where the juice lies - in the silence that precedes the scream, the slow walk in the dimly lit corridor or, if you want to be romantic, the slow walk along the zigzag path of an aged castle.
Now, for some nostalgic memories:
I was doing my masters in England, and two of my friends and I decided that we needed to relax, after a whole month of studying religiously for our exams. So we went to the cinema, and saw that a film called The Descent was playing. It was not a romantic comedy, that was for sure. But the poster did not reveal much. We decided to give it a try, but before we stepped into the theatre, I wanted to be sure: "Who is going to sit in the middle?" My friends smiled at each other. "Cute question," they probably thought. But I was no amateur viewer.
By the middle of the film, we were no less than jumping on each other in fear. Who was it that was killing those women dammit? And then, why did they look like that? I kicked the person sitting in front of me in fright (their seats were strategically located, right at our feet). When we came out of the theatre, our nerves were raw. My back was tense. All the muscles in my body were taut. That was probably not a good idea. But I recall it with fondness.
Horror films give a face to the unfamiliar and the unknown. They give us an answer (and you should not snicker) to some pertinent existential questions like, for instance, where do people go when they die? The answer: Nowhere, if they're pissed off. They'll probably be hanging around you or on you, and the moment that you close your bathroom cabinet door (with mirrors) Wham! There they are. But some horror films are not so obviously scary. They take their time, building up fear that starts right from the pit of your stomach. A great example is The Ring and I have some good memories of watching this one.
I was living in Ithaca, New York (a town made famous because of the top notch, Ivy League Cornell University. Incidentally, I did not study there). My brother had just watched The Ring. "Ashi, you have to see it," he repeated several times. So, the three of us, my mother, brother and myself went to the cinema, and as soon as Samara, the evil orphan, started walking out of the television screen, my mother put her hands over her eyes, and kept them there for most of the film. Later that night, I wrapped our television with a dupatta, and counted the days for a week. (In the film, Samara is supposed to come out of the television and kill people after the seventh day).
Such has been the impact of horror films in my life. But I have no regrets. A couple of summers ago, I was living alone with my grandmother, in her childhood home, built in 1937, in Aligarh, UP. Every night my grandmother would go to each door of the house, and lock it. I followed behind her. We put a total of six or seven locks. She made a second round just to make sure the house was secure. It was like a ritual. I remember looking out of one of the main doors, towards our orchards, and an eerie feeling would take over me. It was fear - of the unknown, of what lay beyond the safety of that door - and it was inspired, you can even say manufactured, by the dozens of horror films that I had watched in my life.
But, as the nights progressed, and I got used to my grandmother's nocturnal rounds, I became familiar with the space I was living in. My eyes ventured and I deliberately made them look onto that unknown, mysterious darkness that surrounded our 71-year-old home. Gradually the fear left me because I became familiar with it. I became attuned to what I was afraid of and I would not have been able to do this if I had not watched horror films because, it was these that made me understand fear, what made me cringe, yelp or scratch someone. The films made me afraid and my logical mind was momentarily incapacitated. But, they also led me to embrace this fear, understand it and then get over it.
Perhaps I have looked too deeply into an issue that, on the face of it, is just petty entertainment, but perhaps there is a deeper meaning. Perhaps horror films do help some of us get over our fear of the unknown. Even though the memory of a horror film might haunt us, we come to understand that such things don't exist. I, however, like to think that they do exist, because what fun would it be to watch a horror film, if you disagree with its basic premise? But, I also like to think that if the tortured, evil spirits do jump up on me in real life, I have learnt just about enough to know how to give it back to them.