Watching ‘The Happening’ on TV I get annoyed at the formulaic horror-film behaviour. The characters, when they realise the unseen enemy is only attacking groups, bunch up like sheep and run, en masse, to their doom. Dummies.
The hero and his girlfriend are on the run but stop to let her little girl play on a swing bolted into an ominously creaking tree branch. Idiots! Don’t they know the plants are pissed off?
“This is why I can’t watch these movies,” I say to my flatmate, “The people are too irritating.” Then it hits me: horror movie victims are irritating because they’re uncomfortably realistic. Watching blondes bumble through dark corridors on their way to being carved up by masked killers, or high schoolers go off to a cabin in the woods to be chewed up by ghouls, is nerve-wracking not because of the badly-made-up baddies but because the doltish behaviour of the soon-to-be-dead is so damnably human.
They are maddening because, unlike heroes and villains whose actions always spring from crystalline motivations, horror-film fodder act just like us. They refuse to flee obvious danger because they can’t bear to leave behind a sentimental trifle. They’d rather die than face facts, literally. They dither. They yield to hunger, weariness, thirst, greed and sex even as the monster snaps at their heels. They are us: not as we’d like to be, but as we are.
We’re embarrassed by irrational behaviour because it chips at mythologies we’ve spent millennia concocting. It is no coincidence that all the big lies (religion, politics, nationalism) are based on arbitrary notions of right and wrong, cause and effect. The awkward truth is that humans are no good at fitting our reckless impulses and eager emotions into neat grids. Whenever we are supposed to be doing something for the greater good some ‘base’ instinct rears its head and we tear off on a tangent.
These so-called ‘base’ instincts, however, are exactly what differentiates us from animals. Think about it: animals don’t have sentimental attachments. They act on true instinct, obedient to the survival imperative. You wouldn’t catch a critter facing down an alien invasion because the green men trampled grandma’s begonias, or what have you. We cherish the idea that intellect and reason make us special but I suspect the opposite: it is our inconsistencies, flaws and sheer pig-headedness that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.