Why the Brutality of Horror Films is Necessary

Contains spoilers of Alien and The Cabin in the Woods  (literally in the first sentence).


2011’s The Cabin in the Woods ends with its characters choosing to let loose an ancient god, knowing that by doing so they will be ending the world. The plot of the movie, like any horror film, punishes its characters throughout, putting each through a ringer of terrifying choices and circumstances. In the end, their decision boils down to two opposing spectrums: continue with the state of the world–one that is controlled by outside forces who bend the freewill of their characters, forcing them into the boxes that make up society–or to hit the reset button, effectively ending everything they know. They choose the latter, obviously, and in a bit of nihilistic glory we watch the beast escape from the ground to go and do its damage. It’s a quite depressing ending for a film that so comically undermines horror tropes in tongue and cheek fashion throughout its run time.

Nihilism, on it’s face, is not particularly appealing to most people (as Rust Kohle would say, pessimists are “bad at parties”), but it is a view that is perhaps necessary to have, at least for a season. Halloween embraces this spirit and we celebrate it by watching horror films in which characters are punished, suffer, and die according the rules defined by the film. Most of these end on solemn notes, leaving our characters disparaged, having suffered through our nightmares without solace or hope to turn to in the end.

Traditional audiences seek films that adhere to a declaration of hope. People love to hear that there’s a sense of good in the world, it makes sense—tomorrow becomes easier that way. But the world’s not always like that and we mustn’t pretend it is. There will always be moments of hopelessness.

Even the most heroic characters that come from films like these rarely come away unscathed. As Ripley flies away at the end of Alien, her perspective is agnostic–maybe she’ll make it back to earth–or maybe her survival instincts have lead her to a lonesome death in the middle of space. Her friends and coworkers have all died and she’s barely scraped by, suffering at the hands of forces more powerful than her–both human and not. She has survived, but her survival is all for naught.

As we navigate through life we have come to expect ebbs and flows, we implicitly put hope in a better end–in a future that is greater (whether it be the grass on the other side or an eternal bliss). But in that moment of darkness, that piercing and pervasive hopelessness, it is good to have art that echoes the sentiments of our souls. We need to know that though we’ve tried our best, said the right things and sought the right remedies, life can still be bad.

Halloween and its horror films give us a season to reflect on this, opening our eyes through the almost-surprising way our culture liturgically allows us to reflect on the whole scope of our being. Though it may frighten us, leave us disillusioned, and allow darkness we don’t enjoy, the world it’s mirroring can be far more overwhelming.

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