October has been trying to recultivate its horror-image. Theme parks run horror-themed evenings and events, drawing on popular culture’s most frightening motifs. I am, of course, speaking of clowns here. There is also the social media phenomenon of horror-ifying handles, for example, on Twitter. Most of the the time I sense these are going for laughs, rather than shock and horror, otherwise someone might go with the handle, “Daily Mass Shooting in the US.” Perhaps the violence known and reported in reality has become too horrifying, so we are turning to the genre with gusto. To regain, maybe, that sense of finitude yet transcendence when we overcome the horror.
Before turning to that theme explicitly, I want to draw in more data. October has become the month for horror to be released on Netflix. October was the month we were first blessed with Stranger Things. Both seasons one and two. And in 2018, perhaps to hold us over until the next installment of ST, we were given The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It is this last example that I will dwell on more fully, since it serves as a lovely counterpart to the 90s sitcom, Sabrina: The Teenage Witch.
The 90s sitcom featuring Sabrina was, in many ways, like the 90s itself: faux-bubbly, faux-stable, everything-gets-fixed-easily. And there was a talking cat. Well, maybe not exactly like the 90s. Perhaps this isn’t fair to the 90s, but Sabrina then was more or less wholesome. This is acutely different from the 2018 revisitation of her witchiness. In The Chilling Adventures, there is real darkness, and the writers have definitely done their homework on satanic practices. In what follows, there will be spoilers, so if you don’t want to read them, skip to the end.
The Chilling Adventures to date depict Sabrina’s journey from just before her sixteenth birthday, when she is debating about whether or not to sign away her soul in the “book of the Beast,” for an increase to her power. She decides not to go through with it, as “the Church of Night” contradicts itself when it teaches about free will yet commands its adherents to blindly obey “the Dark Lord” or “his representatives with authority over you.” So, Sabrina does not undergo her “dark baptism.” ((A sidenote here: it is fascinating how the writers have drawn from Christian practices and liturgies to develop the ones seen in the show in the “Church of Night,” that is the satanic church. While the witches and warlocks refer to the Christian God as “the false god,” the writers confuse the viewer with the derivative liturgies. There could be whole posts here devoted to developing the implicit Manicheanism of the show, yet would seem to offer a way to understand the characters, yet at times they seem to acknowledge the ultimate defeat of Satan and evil forces. End of sidenote!)) The rest of the half of the season is the ark of how Sabrina finally is forced into signing the book of the Beast, in order to get the power to save the town of Greendale. This allows the viewer to uneasily interpret it as a noble sacrifice, but we will see.
Not only do the symbols and rites of The Chilling Adventures present a much darker, more horrifying picture of the supernatural, the actions of Sabrina are much grayer — our protagonist may not be as good as believes herself to be. For example, we see her slit the throat of another witch (only to bring her back), but murder, as Dumbledore so wisely taught us, does something to the soul.
(END OF SPOILERS)
Horror is darkening, and I would argue that this is in response to the awareness of the darkness in the world, although on the whole, the world is getting better (except for a few key issues, like climate change). That, of course, is not guaranteed to continue. The onward march of history does not necessarily always make things get better. Our awareness of the darkness in the world propels us to darker horror, because I think that we are drawn to the genre of horror to be scared, to be frightened, and to still be around after. We tell ghost stories to know how to fight off the ghosts, as it were. Horror is not about the jump scare or the impending sense of doom. Horror is about whether or not we can stave off the inevitable for a moment longer. Horror brushes close to death, and there is a lot of death in horror, but we jump at the scares to get away, to survive; we prepare to run to live another day. With all the horrors we now have access to through instant news (and more and more video news), we need something that brings us closer and closer to an edge and that we survive: because we feel that in reality we are getting closer and closer to an edge.
Well, it is at least one way to see horror.