A JOURNAL OF FEAR: An Introduction of Sorts

Welcome friends to A JOURNAL OF FEAR, my Halloween marathon column of Horror film thought and reflection. I started this column two years ago over at Cinapse.co for several reasons . The most practical ones were simply a love of Horror films, and a desire to not just watch a Horror movie a day in October, but to write about them as well. If you have listened to the podcast you know that my interest in film does not end with Horror, but it does begin there, and it is in that sense an important part of how I became who I am today. So, since I am moving this column to Cinepunx, I want to write a little bit of an intro and fill in our Cinepunx audience on the column and the thinking behind it.

I say to folks, accurately, that my interest in film began with Horror. I do this, I am afraid, with a sense of apology which I do not actually mean. When I interact with normals, for whom obsession or intense interest of any kind is a strange phenomena, I find myself doing these things. Do you know what I mean? I have little verbal cues that let the listener know that I do not assume that we share this common cultural ground. When I explain Horror, or hardcore, or comic books, I find myself giving these unintentional caveats so that I do not alienate my listener too deeply. This was a technique I learned, ironically, in church. I had so many interests which, in a strict evangelical way (read: wrong) were suspect, that I found myself beginning to adopt apologetic language for them. Of course, this behavior did not end there. In fact, compared to the world outside of it, the church environment can be as much a haven for weirdos as any other, even if some of them have theological hangups they need to jettison as soon as possible. As I grew, I used this technique in work and school settings whenever interests came up. Let me be clear, this was never intentional. Only now, at 36, can I see how much I learned to unconsciously explain things in a way that says “Yes, I care about this, but I am just weird. It is fine that you don’t.” It is not entirely true of course. Horror opened my world up to more than just film, but to much of what would eventually matter to me. Justice, aesthetics, romance, and a curiosity about that which is beyond the expected or mundane. Yet even knowing how much my experience of Horror affected my entire world, I still have found myself again and again assuming this stance which implies that my passion for the genre is a thing which I should be sorry for.

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The deep irony is of course that I am simply avoiding explaining myself. Yes, I developed this mental tick because of the judgment of others, but I am also at a point now where I don’t care. I feel like the things I love and invest my time in are actually great things. I have nothing to feel shame about. If anything, the fact that I do not know MORE about them is a shame. No, I retain this habit because I find explaining these things to people difficult, and it involves ACTUALLY a significant amount of self reflection. Why do I love comic books so much? Why do I still mosh, at 36, despite the fact that I engage in almost no other regular exercise? Why am I continually drawn to these macabre, dark, violent, sometimes frightening, often times ridiculous films we loosely refer to as “Horror”? The truth is I have no idea, and the curiosity of the uninitiated is far more awkward then the knowing kinship of the fellow member. When you know, you know.

This column exists, if I am completely honest, to fight this tendency. Not necessarily so I can just understand why I love Horror. Rather, in writing about my thoughts, criticisms, and few insights into the films I watch, I am hoping to create a space where we can all reflect on this genre. This is sounding grandiose, and of course in a small sense it is. I love this Grand Guignol, and I believe, without reservation, that it is something worth caring about. However, it is actually the lack of pretense that often appeals to me in Horror. Like the music scene that inspires this online community, Horror often represents the uncomfortable three way marriage of commerce, idealism, and contingency. That is to say, every great Horror film is not just the story of a great director or series of producers or even a whole team and their quest to tell a unique and terrifying story. I mean that even when that IS going on, that is not the whole story. No, every film is also the desire of someone somewhere to cash in, combined with the various unpredictable circumstances helping or hindering this project. That is, passion and greed meet and then do battle with circumstance and fate and then at the end what we get is sometimes transcendent and sometimes utter garbage. That, for me, is such a blatant metaphor for all of art and life and human striving that I cannot help but paint it large and grand even when what it actually IS resembles something more base and gross. I cannot help myself.

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Of course all of film is this. Scope connects with vision and budget and time, and a team of people meet and work together or at cross purposes, and the strange mixture of randomness they managed to capture gets edited together and sold to us as something. Then, we, the audience, experience that in any variety of ways. It is complicated and messy, a true cluster of artistic who knows what. However, in Horror I feel like there is such a unique opportunity for even the most base of projects to reach something near magical, almost despite itself. I am romanticizing of course, but let me do so: this is a love letter to the genre so let me gush. Horror, in its efforts to give the audience what they perceive it wants, sometimes just hits this magical place. Maybe it is something truly disturbing, which almost always carries a deep and cutting insight into human nature. It could be something ridiculous that someone throws onto the screen, something so audacious and weird that you have to respect it. Regardless, there is some sort of opportunity in Horror for something so wonderful to happen in spite of itself. In playing with our fears and anxieties, Horror film makers create a non-idealogical space in which things which matter so deeply can be approached (maybe not without any ideology because what could possibly claim to be such a space, but certainly a space whose agendas are less obvious).

 

I am rambling when I mean to be clear. Let me resort to a sort of list then, to give my thoughts an edge. I love Horror, and this is real, partly because it was my first love. Not just with film, but with books and comics, and, honestly, the world of the imagination. My daydreams of childhood were first Horror ones, of monsters and fears, and in this space what frightened me felt less frightening. I also love Horror because in its messy, at times despicable nature, it still manages to achieve greatness. That in the muck of money grabs and cheap sells and slumming it artists, something transcendent still shines through. I also love Horror because so often true artists have come to this genre, to this field of story telling, to get at something so base and powerful that they had no other way to approach it. Often, in fact, a scary story of some kind was the only tool with which they could approach the thing which was so powerful to them. There are those ideas, scenarios, and problems that we face which seem almost beyond rational discourse. Perhaps the space where the irrational erupts into our lives is the only appropriate space for these topics to have breath.

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That is all very intellectual sounding, and I hope it does not turn you off from this column. I want to explain why I think, even in its depth, this column will be approachable and relatable, and to do that I have to go around in an odd way, but walk with me for a second. Horror, for me, connects to something which brought me into the church. It is, for me, dripping with meaning and power, like theology. Yet, unlike theology, it entertains and amuses. It pokes and prods, it puts on a show, but under that surface is something that drew me into a world where what we saw was not all that there was. I am in many ways a materialist who tries to believe in things I do not believe in. Yet, what Horror gets at is not just a REALITY under the surface. It is religious, but not in that Horror films have to posit some sort of supernatural. No, Horror is religious because in all its makeup and drama it points at what is under the surface in us. Our hopes and fears and desires, despite their seeming locality inside our heads, are actually behind the entire world. We look at the world and these oceans of emotion and memory and meaning move inside us. We often share them, like an idea or a virus or a delusion. Thus, they are not personal, if by personal we mean separate from the world. Thus, Horror is just one way, but a powerful one, to help us get at the world beneath. That world may not be magic or God or even god, but it is there in that simple things do not convey the beautiful and horrifying layer of our inner selves and ideas. That is, Horror helps us see the nightmare under the surface of our entire shared perception, but it does it without needing critical concepts or deep theories. More so than justice, race, peace, or even an idea of the “good,” what we fear gets at something deep and powerful which we may not see, but is present all the same.

Still with me? Much like Horror, in focusing this column on Horror, it will be about all those things as well. The things that make us cringe or gag or shiver, and sometimes makes us laugh. However, also like Horror, it will, I hope, do that without pretense, in the mess of who we really are. I write about these films and how they make me feel because I want you to see yourself and our shared experience there. I will do it as me, not as some theorist or philosopher or even a measly theologian, but just as a wordy dude who likes cool shit. Or, at least, I hope it is cool. Thanks for reading, and see you soon for the first installment!

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Liam O'Donnell
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Liam O'Donnell

Liam O'Donnell is co-creator and co-host of the Cinepunx podcast and Editor in Chief of the Cinepunx website. Liam has written about film, music, politics and faith for a variety of publications in real life and online. Despite his advanced age he can be seen moshing in the greater Philadelphia area, usually to a cover song. He can be seen sitting in the audience at the newest comic book film, the retro drive-in screening of a Fulci film, or catching a series of Jodorowsky films. Liam has worked in social services, events planning, arts curation, education, community organizing, faith communities, and scooping ice cream. He has worked with festivals like This Is Hardcore Fest and The Awesome Fest. Despite all these things, Cinepunx is definitely the coolest thing he has ever done.
Liam O'Donnell
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