As Halloween approaches, our thoughts turn to horror movies — at least mine do, since I am a Halloween baby and have a disordered soul. I have followed this genre avidly and find that it contains some interesting and unexpected messages beyond Boo!
While working for the Reagan administration, I was once dispatched on a speaking tour of college campuses to advocate the deployment of Pershing IIs and cruise missiles in Europe. At the State University of New York (SUNY) Binghampton campus, I was confronted by a hostile crowd of feminists, Black Power people, and other elements of the Rainbow Coalition. After my presentation, a bold young woman stood up and asked abrasively, “Mr. Reilly, have you seen The Day After, and if so, what did you think?” You may recall that this TV movie depicted a nuclear holocaust that destroyed a great part of America.
I responded that I had indeed seen the movie and thought that it represented a major escalation in the classic horror movie theme of the violent punishment of premarital sex. I reminded the audience of the key scene in which the protagonist and his girlfriend go off into the woods on a motor scooter for an amorous rendezvous, during which it was obvious — though not shown (this being the TV of the mid-80s) — that copulation takes place. The very next scene is of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) rising out of their silos and, then, nuclear devastation. Usually, I said, such an infraction of the moral order is taken care of with a pole through the chest or an ax blow to the head, delivered by a crazed monster. Here the stakes were raised and the penalty was nuclear annihilation. The audience response was complete silence; no further questions.
Yes, in this particular case, I was stretching a point, but the majority of horror movies portray apocalyptic devastation following sexual acts outside the moral order. The 1980s were especially rich in examples of this. Friday the 13th alone spawned eight sequels. These movies invariably depicted frolicsome teens at Camp Crystal Lake who engaged in sex and then met gruesomely violent ends. Though the connection is never explicitly made, illicit sex seems to energize the till-then dormant forces that wreak havoc on the unsuspecting teens. Why does this happen, and why is this formula repeated again and again?
Friday the 13th, Part VII is particularly instructive in providing an answer through the way in which the monster, Jason, is eventually defeated. Every measure of defense against Jason proves futile until one of the girls discovers she has telekinetic powers and learns how to use them. Alone among the teens at Crystal Lake, she is a virgin, and her powers are really those of virginity. Sex outside the moral order breeds horror because it is not directed to any end that can satisfy it. Therefore, it goes berserk and becomes violent. The fury of this frustrated passion is personified in the faceless monster, Jason, who turns on the perpetrators and brutally slays them. However, Jason turns out to be powerless against someone who is not subject to those passions. Through her telekinetic powers, the virgin throws Jason back to the bottom of the lake from whence he came. Only a virgin can defeat a monster in a horror movie.
These lessons are implicit and rarely delivered at the conscious level by Hollywood directors, who have left moralizing well behind them. They deal with the subject matter because it sells tickets. But the rules are well enough known that they have become the subject of parody in the recent series of Scream movies, which, even though they lampoon the genre, still successfully horrify while doing so. There is something inherent in the subject matter that continues to work even when you want to laugh at it. The reason is because horror movies offer a demented form of salvation. They seem to be suggesting that if you will not accept salvation on its own terms — through virtue and grace — then it will come to you through horror. Moral equilibrium will be restored when the self-destructive powers of unchained passion play themselves out.
In the late 1980s and the 1990s, sci-fi horror movies amplified on these basic themes in sometimes novel and perverse ways. The third in the series of Alien films offered an abandoned space colony of criminal laborers. Given the need to establish political order, the prisoners choose the vow of chastity as their founding principle. As a result, they successfully live at peace in semimonastic community. Then a female, Ripley, enters their midst in a space capsule aptly named Narcissus. She violates the vow by having intercourse with the colony’s physician. For this, of course, the doctor must die at the monster’s hands. Interestingly, a patient in the infirmary asks Ripley, “Are you married?” she answers in such a surprised way that the answer is obviously “no.” Then the inmate says, “You will die, too.”
Ripley tries to fight the creature but fails. She is not a virgin. In fact, we discover that the monster’s spawn is actually inside Ripley — she having been impregnated by it in space travel. The symbolism is perfect. The real monster is Eros, unbound by the moral order, residing in our very selves when we capitulate to it. Needless to say, Ripley’s betrayal of the colony’ s founding principle brings havoc on them all. She is able to redeem herself only in an ultimate act of self-sacrifice by throwing herself into a cauldron of molten metal as the monster’s spawn bursts out of her chest. She takes the plunge with arms outstretched in cruciform shape. Once again, sex outside the moral order leads to self-destruction — albeit, in this case, with a hint of the salvific.
Ripley’s unnatural pregnancy in Aliens III is dealt with in a way that points to a relatively new feature in sci-fi horror that could well have been sponsored by the abortion and population lobbies. When she suspects she is pregnant, she asks for a sonogram scan. The computer flashes the warning “Foreign Tissue.” Ripley asks the technician, “What does it look like?”He answers, “Horrible.” Ripley concludes, “I can’t survive it. The one inside me can generate thousands more.” In fact, throughout the Alien series, the fecundity of the monster is portrayed as one of the most horrifying things about it. Most viewers do not take special notice of this because it is, after all, a monster that is spawning. Only when one recalls that the monster is a projection of a part of oneself does the real, though subliminal, message become clear. Fertility is dangerous. Babies kill mothers, so mothers should kill babies. In fact, that is exactly what happens at the end of Aliens III when the baby comes ripping out of Ripley’s chest, and she takes it with her into a fiery death.
The fetus as monster and the repugnant character of fertility are themes that are more blatantly developed in the two Species movies from the late 1990s. The first of these two films begins with eugenics and abortion. Alien “DNA” is combined with human DNA to see what it will produce. The experiment results in a number of fertilized ova; most are destroyed, some are frozen, and one is left to gestate. The remaining fetus grows at an extraordinarily rapid rate and produces a young girl, who is raised in a huge glass womb. When the scientist concludes that his experiment is too risky, he attempts to poison the girl with gas. She breaks out of the glass womb and flees. She rapidly develops into a beautiful young woman.
How does her “alien” nature manifest itself? The woman is driven by an overwhelming desire to procreate. She seeks out male sexual partners solely to conceive a baby. This is the greatest danger she represents. All law enforcement agencies are mobilized to stop this from happening, and a hit squad is dispatched to kill her. In accordance with horror movie formula, her libidinous male partners die horrible deaths, but she succeeds in conceiving and giving birth. The hit squad finally corners her and assassinates her and the child (who are shown constantly morphing back and forth between their human and alien shapes). However, at the very end, in an eerie premonition of future horrors, another child is shown to have escaped; it was a twin birth. It is not the infanticide that we have just witnessed but the survival of the second child that is meant to send shivers down our spines.
In the second Species movie it is, mirabile dictu, an “alien” male who is driven to procreate. The women whom he impregnates all die horrible deaths as the male children explode from their wombs shortly after intercourse. The lesson is clear: Pregnancy kills; the fetus is the enemy. All the resulting male children must be eliminated because, as one of the main characters says, “They could f— the human race into extinction.” This movie takes us back to The Day After, except the engine for the holocaust is not nuclear weapons but sex, and not simply premarital sex but procreative sex. Welcome to the brave new world of horror. Where is Dracula when we need him? (I do not recommend the films discussed here, except for cultural pathologists.)
This essay first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.