debbie millman

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Horror of Horrors

No matter how many times I’ve tried, I could never sit through a horror film. No witches and ghosts for me, no creepy-crawlers and slack-jawed ghouls, no fangtooth vampires and slime-stink monsters, no werewolves in London or Paris, no walking dead with moonstone eyes, no muddy-boot psychos in hockey masks and no burn cases with knives for fingers, no killer clowns from outer space and no creatures from the black lagoon, no exploding heads and flying limbs, no geysers of blood, and please, please, no disembowelments. I hate Halloween, prefer summer to winter, and all the gold in the Federal Reserve couldn’t get me to sit through a grindhouse classic. In a universe brimming with beauty, with the ever-glowing stars in the sky, mysterious planets sparking out of recession, and a sun whose licks rim the battlements of the earth, I find it more soothing to ponder the violence of creation then to watch it unspool on reel-to-reel.

I don’t understand the fascination with violence and gore, a communal bloodlust that most Americans, or should I say, most American men, seem to share. They love to watch things explode, to see bodies ripped apart in astoundingly creative ways, with a little help from household items made by the likes of Black and Decker and whatever else you can pluck off the shelves of your local Home Depot. We home in on the gruesome, as if the bandwidth in our skulls is perpetually tuned in to blood-and-guts radio.

Does watching another human being carved and flayed arouse our hidden appetites? Does it make the truly gritty horror of life more palatable? Or is this the final satiation of our hidden bloodlust—sublimation, catharsis, call it what you will? When we’ve reached the meridian of our lives, gray-fingered and long of tooth, I doubt that we will recall the amazingly choreographed death on the big screen, the wreck of tortured metal and the wild fling of sundry body parts, the ball of fire soaring into the sky. It will more likely be the hopeful glimmer in a child’s eyes, or the first time a heart-in-throat lover purred the three magic words into your ear, or the sound that the rain makes against the windowpanes of our lonely Sunday mornings.

I live in a city with a long history of violence. City of tears, city of blood, city of red lights. A unidirectional city, much like our own lives, for we go from birth to the grave and no more. Death is the one constant in life, the one true knowable thing in a span rife with unknowing. There is no refusing it and no rebuttal, for one cannot bargain with Death, let alone play chess with it on a windswept shore. Were we exacting and monomaniacal enough, we could measure our lives through the very seconds, minutes, hours that have sheared past, fallen away and whispered into the dust, for tick-tock-time is a universal ending, and our final hour will wash over us like a midnight wave. Death is fathomable, unlike the human heart.

Many years ago, in the desert in Israel, my guide recounted a story that I remember from time to time. The sands play tricks, he told me, and the sun, which blackens the skin, also spills its taint into the mind, like the discharge of an octopus. During one of his solo explorations, lost and starved in a blistering storm, he found himself on a high sweep of furrowed sand. Up and up he climbed, hand before his face to ward off the stinging particles, bone-tired. He glided along effortlessly, as if the sand shaped steps for his ascension. Once he achieved a ridge he had to crouch, for the ceiling, which miraculously blotted the sun, lay endlessly black and starless and seemed to hang low. He felt as if he could not fit his head into the sky; it refused his star. Suddenly, the sky broke in two, bent inward at the center, and amid a shower of demonic light, stood what appeared to be a man. Only this man was eighty feet tall and climbed a glass stairway that illumined the air, glowing like the bioluminescent organs of deep-sea life forms. This gargantuan man stood and glared down upon him. At least my guide thought he was a man, for he seemed to be faceless and formless, constantly shifting shape to evoke an everyman guise, dressing and undressing by night’s whimsy. The gargantuan man shrunk down to human size, and when this man stood before the guide he knew that it was the devil. Only he found that he was glad to see him. As if he knew that the devil would fold him into his embrace and leave him all the richer for it. Because, he realized, and with great shame, he had wholeheartedly welcomed the devil.

I often think that we all harbor dark passions, as this is our primitive inheritance. But instead of merely charting the course of human violence, I believe we could seek to compass what lies within the human heart, which Faulkner declared was in conflict with itself. I know that this is the more difficult to negotiate, for how do you describe what you cannot see? Invisible map for invisible ghosts, no doubt, but well worth looking into.

Special Thanks to Edwin Rivera


Blogger John said...

Hi Debbie,

First time caller here.... I've loved horror films since childhood, and at the age of 34 often find myself defending my tastes. For someone who claims that she could never sit through a horror film or even relate to the instincts which drive some people to watch them, your speculation on the topic does help bridge the gap of your sympathies. You also betray a fairly thorough knowledge of modern horror staples, perhaps for the sake of eloquent writing and the chance to write "slime-stink" in a sentence (which is fine). My initial reaction to your opening paragraph went something akin to: "If you never sat through a horror movie how can you truly dismiss them one and all?" but this also is fine. People need to make choices early in the game based on our predicted enjoyment of something.

I would, however, like to volunteer a few thoughts. When you contrast the rewards of being made viscerally afraid versus the softer pleasures of rain drops, you seem to suggest that we must make a choice. I don't see why both options can't be embraced equally. Though you can't go to two movies at the same time in the theatre, the need for this sort of choice is lessened over time. The notion of being only either a lover or a fighter seems pretty monochromatic to me. I would put forward that the darker side of things informs the lighter side and vice versa.

Though my own tastes in horror are less gory (I think the 1963 version of The Haunting is a masterpiece in psychodrama; The Shining is another one) I'll refrain from judging one genre over another. When I tell somebody I love horror movies, they seldom go: "What kind of horror movies?" They simply judge me and move on, and certainly I've taken in and enjoyed a broad spectrum in this sub-genre of entertainment. At any rate, I love being scared in the cinematic sense. Maybe some primal response is being evoked in my reptile brain, connecting me to some Jungian consciousness via the backdoor, and maybe these dark films are my way of abstractly connecting and dealing with the thought of my death. I think these are valid meditations that could linger long after the initial visceral thrill.

That said, I am seldom scared anymore but I always want to be. When I am, my suspension of disbelief has likely transported me to a more naive frame of mind, one where I can believe in good vs. evil like I might have in my childhood, or given me the illusion of control as I learned the rules of the game. I would know how many crucifixes, wooden stakes, and silver bullets to pack in these filmed emergencies. Certainly horror movies could be viewed as the symptoms of a twisted North American society, if you choose to go down that route, but I think the desire to be made afraid is also an attempt at touching innocence again. Also, horror films are a rite of passage for many teenage girls, lest you lump horror films as an entirely male endeavour.

I realize your post is not really an attempt at dismissing the horror genre as you go on to suggest that there may be something to gain by examining our dark heritage, but I had to stick up for my beloved and oft misuderstood genre.

Thanks very much for the thoughtful post.

6/24/2007 02:42:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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