Friday, October 31, 2014

The Frighteners

I don't have much use for horror movies. The number of times in which I was scared by something in a movie is very low. (The overabundance of stupid movies is, if nothing else, scarier.) I am immune to the vast majority of horror movies - whose utility is - presumably - to horrify. I find them utterly ineffective. The Exorcist worked - it was effectively frightening. After years of Catholic school, William Friedkin's film finally made me think - momentarily of course - that Satan was real. But it was 1974 and I was just 15, even if I've heard a lot of grown ups admit that it scared them, too. (I jumped out of my seat in the scene when Father Karas listens to the tape recording of the demon speaking and the phone rings.)

This doesn't mean that I am incapable of being scared. If I were to mention some of the things that have frightened me over the years, most people would either laugh or wouldn't understand what I was afraid of. I don't mean the fear of dying, which I have felt on a few occasions, whether or not it was justified. (I agree with Woody Allen: "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be around when it happens.")

Even if there is no proof whatsoever for the existence of ghosts, innumerable  serious-minded people have seen them and spoken or written of their experiences. Even George Orwell, who was one of the most clear-headed people of his age, mentioned in a letter that he saw a ghost; though he immediately discounted it as "probably a hallucination." I believe that I met a ghost when I was a sailor stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The base where I was living, called White Beach, had many small caves that had been dug out of the coral cliffs in which Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than face capture. One evening I was walking the winding road that led up a hill to the main gate, catching up with my buddies whom I couldn't see but were only a hundred yards or so ahead of me. I met a young Japanese man wearing a cap coming towards me down the hill. He stopped in front of me and, without saying a word, asked me for a cigarette by putting two fingers to his lips. I shook my head and mentioned that I didn't smoke, and he just continued on his way down the hill. When I caught up with my friends, all of whom had lit cigarettes, I asked them why they hadn't given one to the man. "What man?" they all asked. Although the man couldn't have come down the hill without passing my friends, they claimed to have seen no one. I blew it off but later I guessed that it might have been the ghost of a Japanese soldier from the caves.

Being scared, genuinely frightened, isn't an experience that I enjoy or try to cultivate, but many people seem to. This time of year people are going to costume parties dressed as zombies, vampires, and various other monsters (or wearing hazmat suits) - not necessarily to scare anyone but to amuse one another with the stereotypes of terror, having fun with what's supposed to be frightening. It's also an opportunity to watch horror films, old and new - everything from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2.
At the end of 1999, when I was in the last year of my service in the Army, someone very dear to me suffered a terrible personal loss when a man who was in love with her shot himself to death. I never met the man, but I knew he was an Army Green Beret. They had argued the day before and he had cut his wrist so deeply that the nerves were severed. He was patched up in a local emergency room, but knowing full well that news of what he had done would be the end of his special forces career, he bought several bottles of all varieties of booze (he didn't drink, she told me) and then set about getting drunk. She left his apartment - which was only about a block away from hers - that evening and returned in the morning to check on him. She claimed that she hadn't seen the body, but when she described to me how she found his door unlocked and, upon pushing the door open, someone - or something, she said - had pushed back, making her panic and run away, she made me believe that she had probably found the body. The police told me that the evidence made suicide virtually unmistakable.

Along with another of her friends, I did what I could for the length of a weekend to console her. Simply to distract her from the situation, she and I watched a lot of television. We were in the basement of her friend's house, watching cable TV for most of the day and night. I decided to dictate what we watched, which meant that I tried to steer clear of programs depicting violence, people shooting off guns, or people dying. But as I very quickly discovered, it was nearly impossible for me to find a movie or a show on channel after channel that wasn't about guns and killing.

Because she liked Michael J.Fox, we settled on watching a movie called The Frighteners. Believe it or not, it turned out to be one of the least violent programs on the air. It's about a man - Fox - who is mistakenly suspected of being a serial murderer. He has the ability to see a number on the next victim of the serial killer's forehead, but every time he tries to prevent their deaths, he winds up being implicated. Peter Jackson was the director, and he overindulged in the digital effect of superimposing ghosts in many scenes along with the "live" action. This movie special effect is as old as film itself - and almost as old as photography. Originally it required simple double exposures, so that it appeared that two planes of reality existed in the same image.

But Jackson, not content with such analog tricks, used his own brand of digital double exposure that placed the living and the dead side by side in the same frame. The result isn't at all frightening, except when Michael J. goes undercover, so to speak, by deliberately dying so that he can interact more directly with the dead. His death is only temporary, but when it threatens to become permanent, and the film touches on actual mortality, the plot comes to life.

But sitting on a sofa with someone whose friend had killed himself just a few days before made watching The Frighteners far more than merely frightening. 

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