Part of my ONGOING SERIES about just what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other. The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why I think it’s meritorious to discuss this subject. Long story short: in a group of monsters like the kind on the hierarchy, my theory is that they sufficiently fulfill a necessary number of roles in the human consciousness with regards to horror.
Up today is the Stalker, which is a name I’m using for a whole category of nasty suckers that you’d probably recognize on sight: Michael Meyers, Jason Vorhees, you know them, they’ve been terrorizing sexed-up teenagers for a hundred years.
Of Monsters, and Madmen
I want to first of all posit a small but I think important distinction in what I’m talking about: that there’s a difference between a “monster” and a “psycho”, and that difference is that one of these characters is supernatural, and the other isn’t. You can make an argument that Michael Meyers in the first Halloween movie, and Jason Vorhees’ mom in the first Friday the 13th movie, that neither of these guys are supernatural, they’re just big psychos. I’m going to make an argument for Michael Meyers, though, but let me first tell you what I think is interesting about supernatural monsters.
IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, which I have, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sense in human beings getting scared by things that aren’t real. If the reason we’re attracted to horror movies is based on some sort of evolutionary survival strategy — like we’re testing the responses of our limbic system or something, to make sure that if we really DO meet a psycho we’re ready to fight him off — then what’s the point in testing those responses against the Mummy or Wolf-Man, or anything else you aren’t going to come across in real life?
My opinion is that monsters, despite their apparent specificity and the general “realism” with which they’re portrayed, actually represent a set of abstract horrors that are themselves indications of where the human experience runs up against its limits. The limits of our subconscious, for example, or of our ability to predict the future, or our ability to understand the world. It’s a reminder that, in a lot of ways, our brains are not precision-engineered objects designed specifically to help us figure things out, but rather a complex set of systems, all layered on top of each other, each one trying to iron out the flaws of the previous one. Which is to say, it’s big, and it’s full of holes, and those holes are where the monsters come in.
Michael Meyers, even in his most mundane incarnation, isn’t just a huge pyscho who’s trying to kill you, he’s not just a THING with which you are trapped in a PLACE. He’s a kind of monster.
The Inescapable Dream
So, when they did the remake of Friday the 13th, the cats who were in charge were trying to figure out how it was that Jason Vorhees just sort of shows up in places — if you’ve seen Friday the 13th, you know that it’s a feature of the later movies that if you manage to escape Jason Vorhees and run away, it doesn’t matter, because you’re going to turn a corner and the BAM, there he is. How could he know you were going to go that way? How did he get there first? How is it possible? Functionally, it means that Jason Vorhees can translocate when you aren’t looking at him, but what these guys wanted to know is what’s REALLY going on?
They decided the answer was “secret tunnels”, which is stupid in the sense that secret tunnels wouldn’t actually do that, and also stupid in the sense that it doesn’t matter. What’s scary about Jason Vorhees is that he’s doing something that doesn’t make any sense — what it does is evoke the sense of being chased in a dream, in which the laws of the universe are bent on behalf of your pursuer. What matters isn’t HOW Jason Vorhees gets around, what matters is that you can’t escape him. The natural sense of control you believe you have over the universe is violated. Cause and effect are thrown out the window.
There’s something obviously surreal about it, which I think is the greatest strength of the good Stalker movies — Halloween, despite technically being about a non-supernatural psycho, has a similarly nightmarish quality; not because Michael Meyers can disappear, but because there doesn’t seem to be anything Laurie can do to stop him: coat hanger in the eye, butcher knife in the stomach, Dr. Loomis SHOOTS HIM IN THE HEAD, and Michael Meyers is still going. Again, the why of it isn’t really important — maybe he’s magic, maybe he’s just so crazy that no one can hurt him — what matters is that if you’re getting chased by Michael Meyers, you now live in a universe in which the regular laws of nature are now subtly slanted towards your aggressive pursuer.
The Remorseless Killer
If we accept the proposition that distinguishes the monstrous Stalker from the slightly more prosaic Stalker, it suggests a division in classes of monster movies — and, actually, I don’t want to say a division, because none of these categories are hard an fast. It’s like, if you imagine the platonic ideal of a Stalker (let’s say, oh, Jason Vorhees in Friday the 13th 3D) on one side, and the platonic ideal of a Psycho (how about Norman Bates, for this one) on the other side, you can sort most monster and horror movies into a spectrum in between them. And there are actually some kind of surprising allotments.
For example, I think you could put Terminator on the Stalker side of the spectrum, because the Terminator’s character as a killing machine is reinforced by repeated tests of its unstoppability — they shoot it at try to blow it up and so forth, and nothing seems to work — which seems to assert a kind of figure outside the natural order of the world (of course there is an explanation for it, but I’d argue that the explanation is irrelevant; horror is fundamentally experiential, rather than intellectual — that is, we’re afraid of a thing because we experience it being dangerous, not because someone has explained WHY it’s dangerous, and thus the reason why Jason Vorhees’ secret tunnels are off the mark). Contrarywise, the Xenomorph in Alien weirdly, to me, anyway, leans more heavily on the Psycho side of the equation; the essential problem in Alien is that, even though it’s just a crazy monstrous thing, isn’t that they can’t KILL it, it’s that they never seem to be able to GET to it.
So, Where Did We Go Wrong?
This is another one where I’m not sure anyone has gone wrong. Or, maybe more accurately, people go wrong all the time, but it’s such a subtle distinction that it usually goes unnoticed and nobody cares. The Stalker/Psycho slasher movie is probably the most common of all the horror movies, because it’s the easiest, and it gives the best excuse for putting a bunch of teenaged girls into the movie. (Well, “teenaged”, right?) The problem is when you get yahoos (like the ones who did the Friday the 13th remake) who aren’t paying attention to the fact that the root of the horror isn’t WHY Jason is able to appear out of nowhere in the woods, it’s THAT he’s able to appear out of nowhere.
In fact, if you look through at bunch of the remakes of the classics — Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and the even more bone-headed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning), Friday the 13th, Halloween — they all suffer from a similar problem in that they keep trying to explain themselves. How did Michael Meyers get so messed up? How does Jason Vorhees get around so quick? What’s the deal with Leatherface? All of these explanations serve to ground the horror in reality which, paradoxically, only hurts it — what horror is, at its most essential, is that place where our understanding of reality falls short.