Six Damn Fine Degrees #105: (Don’t Fear) The Shape

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Warning: oversimplification ahead. In horror films where the threat is personified in one primary antagonist, you tend to get one of two types of bad guys. Type 1: the characters. They are defined quite clearly, they have motivations and a personality. They may be driven by a dark, dramatic backstory, but to some extent this background is less important than how they behave in the present of the stories they’re in. Especially in the horror films of the ’80s, they have a signature style. They quip. They’re the Freddy Krugers and the Pennywises, the Chuckies and the Pinheads.

And you know what? I don’t think I’ve ever found any of these particularly scary.

It’s the question: are we supposed to be frightened by Freddy, or by Chuckie, the undersize murderous doll? Or are we supposed to be, well, perhaps not rooting for them but at least enjoying their quippy, over-the-top antics? With some of these, there is an element of the entertainer about them – with Pennywise literally, seeing how he’s a clown – and they are clearly the stars of their respective shows. They’re the ringleader, showing us their violent delights and enticing us to stick around. Wanna see a gruesome murder that’s kinda fun, in a squicky way? Step right up, step right up! Obviously there are degrees of this: while Pennywise (at least as played by Tim Curry) has moments when we’re supposed to grin with him, there are others that are designed to terrify, such as the child murder that kicks off the plot of IT, which slowly but surely turns into something more horrific. But Freddy Kruger? He’s the star of the show, and we’re there for increasingly outlandish movie monster antics. And the same is true, at least in part, for a large number of these horror movie bad guys. Many of these films are so camp, they almost veer into horror-comedy territory.

But then there are the other movie monsters, and they’re not driven by personality. In fact, they’re often difficult even to describe in terms of personality. What is Halloween‘s Michael “The Shape” Myers like? He’s not a snarky, sadistic jokester like Freddy. He’s most certainly not a clown like Pennywise. (If there are any laughs to be had from Michael Myers, they’re mainly to be found in this scene from Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.) In Halloween, Doc Loomis (Donald Pleasance) describes Myers as follows:

I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.

This could hardly be further away from so many cult horror movie antagonists, especially those of the 1980s. But it’s oddly reminiscent of Quint’s famous monologue in Jaws:

Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white.

Whether he is supernatural or not, Michael Myers is cut from similar cloth as the Great White in Jaws: they are not characters so much as they are inexorable, unstoppable forces. And that’s what I find scary in these films. They come for you, and they keep coming for you – even beyond their apparent death. (Sadly, they rarely maintain their ability to horrify into the inevitable sequels.) They may have aesthetics, but they’re not really characters – though they can be extremely capable as screens onto which we can project our own specific fears – of the dark, of enclosed spaces, of open water, of death -, which may be why they make for such fantastic movie monsters. The xenomorph from Alien is cut from similar cloth, as is whatever the It is that Follows in, well, It Follows.

Which doesn’t mean that the Freddies and Chuckies and Pennywises are bad antagonists. The monsters with personality can be fun, they can be alluring, they can even be oddly poignant (though I find that this is often reserved for ghosts rather than for homicidal monsters). But for me at least, they are not the monsters I’m most frightened of. When I was a teenager, I spent a bright, sunny afternoon watching Halloween, and I was so tense throughout the film that every muscle in my body ached the next day.

Though, looking at a couple of online posts about the best movie monsters, I find that my gut level assessment of what makes for a scary horror movie villain has a massive blind spot. There are plenty of monsters that are neither camp entertainers nor inexorable shapes advancing toward us. They’re of the Annie Wilkes variety, they are the Armitage family in Get Out, or they are Carrie, sad and frightening in equal measures. Or look at something like the original Night of the Living Dead, in which the undead are obviously a clear and present threat, but as in the best, most memorable zombie fiction, the underlying evil lies elsewhere. By now it’s a cliché, but perhaps, just perhaps, human beings are the real monsters? And perhaps that’s why we invent the Freddies and Chuckies and Pennywises – to keep us distracted, even entertained. But if we’re honest? We can outscare them any day (or night) of the week.

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