Often called, “the most terrifying two hours and twelve minutes put to film,” the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist, is without question the most visceral portrayal of demonic possession ever shown. It’s narrative of an innocent child tortured from within by a demon continues to shock, unnerve, and utterly scare the hell out of audiences to this day.
I found it hilarious.
The Exorcist is by no means a bad film. It has everything a good horror story should. What’s lacking is within me. For the narrative to function, The Exorcist needs viewers to accept (at least momentarily) a 16th Century concept of Christian lore, otherwise it comes up dry. To me, the Devil is an idea and a mythical character, a powerful symbol lodged deep within our cultural consciousness. What he isn’t, though, is real. As a boy who grew up on original Star Trek, The Outer Limits, and whose concept of the universe was shaped by Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos, the devil simply does not resonate. But little grey men from Zeta-Reticuli? Absolutely.
Like a lot of children from the 70s and 80s, the Greys are firmly planted in my brain’s language of symbols. Our parents had the Devil. Millennials have Slender Man. And Gen Z? Their boogie man has yet to crawl out of their collective subconscious. I imagine it’ll be something akin to a genderless fatty in a Five Nights At Freddy’s bear-suit.
Like humor, horror is a subjective.
So what breed of horror does strike a nerve with me? Over the next few installments of this series I’ll discuss in-depth some standout horror films that have a lasting impact. And for those curious why I’m not starting with novels, it’s simple: film is easily the most accessible and widespread. Most of us have never read John W. Campbell Jr.’s, Who Goes There, but chances are you’ve at least heard of its film adaptation, The Thing.
Unlike most films on the list, Event Horizon sparks a genuine fear reaction in me. Doesn’t matter how many times I see it, this tale of a small search & rescue team becoming trapped on a spaceship that’s traveled halfway across the universe and comes back haunted, still managed to keep me on edge from start to finish. The second the crew boards the ship, there is a sense of unease. Something is cosmically wrong within the hull of this hunk of metal found orbiting around Neptune, and the more that’s discovered about the the original crew’s fate, the worse it gets. If that wasn’t bad enough, the ship itself refuses to let the search & rescue team leave.
Beyond the sharp writing and gorgeously disturbing visuals, what makes Event Horizon work is how it so perfectly creates a sense that nowhere is safe, compounded with a glimpse into the unknown and possibly forbidden. As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, when I was struck by a bullet I gained a horrible awareness that has never left me…there is no truly safe place in the universe. To simply be alive is to teeter on edge the chaos and oblivion. This was the abyss I was forced to peer into—the illusion of safety and inevitability of death. When I watch Event Horizon, this abyss is given form.
It’s never entirely clear what it is that happened during the spaceship’s trip across the universe—just that when it returned it was possessed by something that doesn’t belong to our world. Something very old and very evil. Something that wants us to suffer. Which is another reason this film effects me as it does. It’s not afraid portray true evil.
These days it’s common for authors to describe villains as bad people attempting to do good. The boiler plate convention panel answer usually goes something like, “When I write my villains, I write them as believing they’re the hero.” Or worse, “Nobody is truly evil.”
Bull. Fucking. Shit.
Right now, in the African nation of Liberia, there are warlords forcing young boys at gunpoint to rape, kill, and then eat family members—usually their mother or a sister. Read that sentence again. Now ask yourself, how could anyone inflict that level of cruelty on a child and assume it’s some how good or heroic? The man who tried to kill me was very open about his motive. From the arrest, to he deposition, to the courtroom, his excuse was, “I’d had a very bad week.” Moral, decent people do not resort to shooting up a car full of teenagers when they’re feeling rotten. Now consider the following: One in every hundred people is a psychopath. Four in every hundred is a sociopath. One in fifteen is a sexual sadist. The world is full of monsters ready and willing to inflict suffering with or without reason.
Realizing I’d been shot was horrifying. In a split-second I was thrust into a total awareness of my own fragility, mortality, and how easily life can be ripped away. Processing that took years. Accepting the reality of evil, though? That was a far more difficult truth to digest. When soldiers enter therapy for post-traumatic stress, I’ve often heard the healing cannot begin until they come to terms with the existence of evil. Thus another reason Event Horizon affects me the way it does. There’s something about how the film portrays evil. Throughout the narrative the entity that has possessed the ship reaches into the crew’s minds, bringing forth their inner-demons—a mother’s guilt, a scientist’s obsessions, a captain’s remorse over those who died under his command—and uses these human frailties to bring the worst out of the crew. Some are lead to their deaths, some self harm, some turn on each other. Only the ship’s surgeon is immune. His job and his past have already forced him to confront his own mortality and failings. He has no weakness for the evil to exploit. So it outright kills him.
As good a film as Event Horizon is, one critical theme sets it apart from so many other films that guide us through Hell—an underlying humanity to the story. Every character is a fully developed person, likable and sympathetic in their own way. Their deaths matter. And every survivor is a victory earned. More to the point, though, the film ends on one of the greatest acts of compassion a human can show, an act evil is incapable of understanding—self-sacrifice.
The captain, played by Lawrence Fishburne, dares to confront the evil face-to-face, fights a battle he cannot possibly win, sacrificing himself so the remaining members of his crew can escape.
This wraps up part 2 of my “Why Horror” journal series. In the next installment I’ll be covering 2013 sci-fi horror film Dark Skies.