A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Selling spooks.

Recently while enjoying a day set aside for relaxing, I took a break from reading on the porch to come inside and watch TV. I had several episodes of Ghost Adventures, I Survived, and Celebrity Ghost Stories recorded. (Don't judge me.) I also had a few B-flicks from the Chiller channel, and I figured it was a good time to munch on some carrots and (homemade!) hummus and pay vague attention to one of the aforementioned features. What won? Exorcism: The Possession of Gail Bowers, which currently enjoys a 2.7 rating (out of 10) over on imdb.com. I mean, I knew I wasn't sitting down to watch the horror movie that would change my life. But I thought I would at least be somewhat entertained. Nope. I found myself tooling around on my phone five minutes into the film. I played a few rounds of Word Mole, and finally beat my high score. After awhile, I looked up.

The heroine was in the shower, scratching bloody furrows down her face as the camera went up and down from the carnage to her bosoms, whose aureoles had been blurred just enough to leave the viewer uncertain on the question of piercings. Because (clearly) there was nothing interesting to look at, I hit the "info" button and scanned the blurb. The movie was released in 2006, one year after the exquisite The Exorcism of Emily Rose. "Ripping off on the popularity of that one," I thought without really thinking those words. I also recalled that Dominion:Prequel to The Exorcist came out in 2005. I wondered if Dominion might have been more popular if it had been released after Emily Rose. It seemed after that one, America had latched onto supernatural horror again. 2006 hosted a gaggle of ghost/possession movies... most of them not-so-great. Some bigger names signed onto horror movies, which doesn't usually happen. We saw Julia Stiles in The Omen remake. We saw Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek in An American Haunting (don't get me started; that movie makes me feel stabby and...cheated). We saw Nic Cage in The Wicker Man remake. A stream of low-budget exorcism/angry ghost movies spewed from Hollywood's sore throat. Just what the devil had happened? Why was this a theme that was suddenly so popular that stinkers like The Grudge 2 were making big money, when only a year before, a freaking prequel to The Exorcist, arguably the most well-known and influential horror movie of all time, had went largely ignored? Why the sudden hunger for demons and haunts? My mind wandered over to The Shining, which was released in 1980. I thought about Kubrick's pioneering of the Steadicam, and how he used it to make the viewer feel simultaneously watched and voyeuristic, and I thought about how the movie reflected well on the economic state of the time; Jack's difficulty in finding a good job not only because of his drinking problem but because it was a crappy time to find work in general. How there's nothing like a hotel full of spooks to take your mind off day-to-day things like paying unmanageable bills.


The Shining was released during a recession. Hmm. Emily Rose was released in late 2005 and didn't do so hot at the box office, but exploded into popularity later in DVD rentals...about the time the housing market started to slump and panicky homeowners started jumping on the foreclosure wagon. We've been in a pretty crappy place financially since then. And we keep shelling out money to see ghosts. Coincidence? No, I don't think so. I looked back at the major horror films to come out over the past several decades, movies that were popular with the American public. There is a very clear trend: not only do horror movies enjoy increased success during times of national economic shakiness, supernatural horror specifically trumps. Starting with Dracula in 1931. Smack in the middle of the Great Depression, this movie sold over 50,000 tickets within two days of its theatrical release. I thought, "Well maybe it's just any horror." No. A comparison of release dates/economic situations reveals that slashers are more popular in times of excess. Whoa. Pop culture always reflects the concerns and attitudes of the times, right? So does this mean that the high body count and one-dimensional characters of slasher films reflect attitudes of expendability when we're financially comfortable? And what is being reflected when we dig into our pockets to see ghosts? When we want to see good and evil duke it out over souls and sanity? I texted a friend about it. He said, "fear sells." Well, yeah. But I think there's a bigger picture here. I think that cinematic horror remains one of the best forms of escapism, and that when our national wallet is whimpering, we all feel the anxiety...and want to know that we're gonna get bailed out. We want to know that this situation that we're individually unable to fix, will get resolved by the higher-ups we've entrusted to handle these things. I think it's easy for that to translate into a film wherein relatable characters are suddenly the focus of more powerful beings on a different plane of existence. We're not expendable; we're very important, important enough to warrant the attention of outside intelligence. Something undefinable but definitely Bad is after us, but if there's a Bad, there has to be a Good that has our back, and Good will win...won't it? If we believe, that is. Unbelievers don't fare well in supernatural horror.

I mean, I'm spitballing here. I can't officially nail down why a certain type of a genre blows up the box office when we're strapped, or why a different type of the same genre does equally well when we're flush.

But I do know that we're all full of doubt and nervousness about our country's piggy-bank, and that Paranormal Activity 3, which I can almost guarantee will fiercely suck, is about to be released next month. And I can also almost guarantee that America is going to buy it.

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