Summer seems to bring out all the things that creep and crawl and go bump in the night, including horror movies. Once again titles like "Fear No Evil," "Friday the 13th, Part 2" and "Happy Birthday to Me" decorate the marquees, as if summoned up by a full June moon.
After a while there are at least two kinds of movies one can "see" without actually having seen them: Jerry Lewis comedies and horror films. The connection is not random. Horror movies may be thought of as black slapstick. just as one waits, in all confidence or all dread, for Mr. Lewis's arms and legs to flail wildly in search of equilibrium as he slips on one of the countless banana peels in his path, so one waits for the next routine of macabre slapstick in every horror movie. The close-up of a foot in the midnight corridor. The mad gleam of an eye or a knife or both. The heavy animal breathing on the sound track.
Why, why do we flock to the stock ritual of horror movies? Don't we have enough nightmares in our sleep, not to mention "real life"?
Occasionally a spokesman, often with a vested interest, will step forward to explain. Stephen King, the author of six horror novels, has taken a try at defending "horror as art" and "art as horror" in the current issue of Quest/81, and an ingenious try it is. He rings in all the best praise-phrases. The horror story becomes a catharsis. The horror story becomes a morality play. The horror story unlocks a "secret door" inside us, and for a little while we turn into "a child again" -- back in a world of fire-breathing dragons, wicked ogres, and enchanted castles.
At his most fanciful, Mr. King dares to suggest that the horror plot promotes "a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile."
By the time he is through he has made the horror story sound respectable to the point of dullness.
It would not clarify matters to go to the other extreme and select only the most sensational, the most exploiting of horror stories as typical. But the horror story as half Greek tragedy out of Sophocles, half Christian fable out of Dante is surely more than a touch unrecognizable as a frame of reference for works like "The Howling."
Nor will it do to say that the Brothers Grimm were grim too and leave the apology there.
We the viewers are coping today with special effects deparments that can take the most mediocre script and make its horrors as vivid and as explicit as a documentary -- in fact, more so. Decapitation in a wellmade horror film will be more realistic than the real thing, and with what savoring detail!
Mr. King admits that there is an element of just plain "gross-out" shock in horror films. But he is tempted to recommend the experience as therapeutic -- putting us in touch with the "primitive."
What is therapeutic about witnessing pain more or less from the vantage point of a Spanish inquisitor? Is there any redeeming social value, as the say, to contemplating horrors that reduce the mind and the heart to a pair of bulging eyes?
The argument continues about the causal relationship between what one sees on a screen and how one behaves in everyday life. It may be simplistic to draw neat little lines connecting violence in fantasy to violence in history, like those dotted lines in physics problems that connect a figure before the mirror to its image in the mirror. But it is certainly simplistic to deny any connection at all.
We accept all too readily that our bodies become the food we eat. We have not really examined the effects on us of the images we feed upon.
By its position -- practically inside our head -- the camera can force an audience into "complicity in every kind of violence," the film critic David Bromwich warned, and that is something to view with gen uine horror.