Saturday, October 11, 2008

Evil, Pure and Simple

"I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding, even the most rudimentary sense of life or death,of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six year old child with this blind, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil. " - Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) Halloween.

Some time ago, my father told me a story of a classmate of his in high school who seemed as average, as "normal," as everyone else. One day this classmate went to his English teacher's house and knocked on the door. When she answered, he took the hammer he had brought with him and beat her to death. He was arrested, convicted and locked away. Decades later he was released and one day, by chance, my father recognized him on the sidewalk, leaning against a building, unkempt and dirty, living on the streets. He recognized my father as well. To my amazement upon first hearing the story, my father told me he spoke to him, briefly. "What did you say?" I asked. "I asked him why he did it?" he said. "What did he say?" "He said, 'I don't know, just felt like it.'"

Horror movies have a dizzying cast of characters, from vampires, re-animated monsters and werewolves to zombies, demons and poltergeists. But it is the cold-blooded killer, the remorseless unblinking murderer that has always instilled the most fear in the real world. When one leaves the theatre after seeing a vampire movie, one may be spooked or jumpy but there is no real fear of an undead parasite actually materializing and sucking your blood. But the killer, the mad killer... that's real. That actually exists.

It's also the only sub-genre of Horror that exists in other genres as well with any regularity. Ghosts and ghouls and Frankenstein's monster are used in comedy from Ghostbusters to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but even then they exist as their own subset of the genre, the Horror Comedy. But mad or remorseless killers are commonplace in Noir (Kiss of Death), Gangster Films (goodfellas), Police Procedurals (Zodiac), Drama (In the Bedroom) and in one of the most inventive crossovers ever, Science Fiction (HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey). The killer, the psychopath, the enraged lunatic - they're the most frightening characters horror has to offer because they are us. And we are them.

In No Country for Old Men Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) offers a more introspective version of Dr. Loomis' original statement from Halloween:

"There was this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. 'Be there in about fifteen minutes.' I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't. The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'O.K., I'll be part of this world.'"

No Country for Old Men isn't a horror movie but it does have a remorseless killer and a character, in Sheriff Bell, who doesn't want to walk into something he doesn't understand. Few people do. Perhaps that's why the killer sub-genre of Horror has become so popular. Because people want to understand, people want to know why evil exists, people want to protect themselves and their loved ones against the horrors that await them in the real world. Perhaps for some it is simply the vicarious thrill of watching the act done at a safe distance. But that vicarious thrill could still be an attempt to understand on a different level. To understand the demons of one's self. In the end, it's up to the viewer to decide because in reality there are scant few answers.

I asked my father if he was afraid to talk with his old classmate. He said no. He had no fear of him and didn't shy away from asking him why he had done it. In fact, it was the first thing that came out of my father's mouth. He'd always wanted to know. Was the answer satisfactory? That depends on how you look at it. Would "she failed me on a test" have provided any fulfillment or only created more questions? I asked my father what his reaction was to the answer he received . He said he stared, slightly bewildered, and said, "Okay." He gave him some money and never saw him again.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to ask a killer why they did it and most likely, as in my father's case, no reasonable answers would be provided besides. Horror allows us to examine them from a distance, safely and comfortably. But once we leave the theatre we don't leave the characters behind. Dracula and the Wolfman exist only in the movies but the mad killer exists in our world as well. And that makes the mad slasher, the remorseless killer, the most horrifying character of them all. Pure and simple.