Last weekend, I went to a screening of The Blair Witch Project in an attempt to convince myself that, despite appearances and record-breaking heat waves, it actually is fall right now. Then I found myself fixating not on the various instances of demon-terrorism taking place in the film’s haunted woods, but instead, on the lovely fall foliage. “Look at the way the sun is hitting that crisp, golden leaf,” I mused during a scene in which Heather, the protagonist, finds her friend’s tongue wrapped inside a pile of branches.
After the film ended, I walked out of the theater into the thick October heat and was confronted with all manner of real-world horrors: My phone bleated with news of another Harvey Weinstein victim; I had texts from my brother in Oakland letting me know that he’d found a face mask to help him breathe the ash-clogged California air; a drunk bro I had never met approached me in the street and asked me, cheerfully, for a high five. And I realized something strange and disturbing: I missed the comforting, insular world of The Blair Witch Project. I missed Heather’s snotty screaming. I yearned for the bombed-out murder-witch house ceremoniously revealed at the end of the film: so remote, so unassuming, so quaint, with not a drunk bro for miles — just harmless, flannel-sporting men coming slowly undone by their own hubris.
At some point over the past years, on the graph where the x-axis is “Time” and the y-axis is “Level of Fucked-Up-ness,” horror movies and reality converged. I’m not sure when, exactly, this happened. You would have to ask a very depressed historian. Maybe it was 9/11, or the economic collapse, or Katrina, or when Ghost Whisperer was canceled. But this year, reality has utterly surpassed horror movies on the Fucked-Up Index. Horror movies are — finally and, probably, eternally — more appealing than our actual lives. We have reached the horror-movie Singularity.
This idea has been poked at and nearly breached by other writers quite recently, which is how I know that it is 100 percent unimpeachable. Over the past year, a wave of essays have been published in which a writer explains that he or she suffers from anxiety, and that horror movies have provided much-needed catharsis. Many of these essays center on the idea that horror movies are a safe way to confront and conquer negative feelings, and that, psychologically, there’s a basis for this kind of self-managed anxiety reduction.
Which is great! And as somebody with anxiety, horror has previously served this exact function for me. But this is not what I’m talking about. Horror movies aren’t comforting because they’re fake; horror movies are comforting because reality sucks so hard. Below, by way of 20 examples, I prove that there is no horror-film plot in history that does not — in one way or another — seem more appealing than continuing to trudge forward, bidden by some now-useless biological imperative to survive, into the earthly abyss we have wrought for ourselves.
1. The Shining: Jack Nicholson gets to go to a solo, fully funded writing retreat for an entire winter, and does not have to worry about whether he’ll have health insurance at the end of it.
2. Final Destination: Everybody is treated respectfully at the airport.
3. Dracula: Dracula does not have Twitter.
4. The People Under the Stairs: The people get to live under the stairs.
5. The Witch: Correctly depicts an actual witch hunt, which is refreshing.
6. Saw: A man commits to a theme.
7. The Others: Nicole Kidman realizes that she’s actually been dead for years.
8. 28 Days Later: Late capitalism is incidentally dismantled by a zombie apocalypse.
9. Rosemary’s Baby: Satan goes ahead and inhabits a uterus, instead of using the GOP as his proxy.
10. The Sixth Sense: Everyone agrees on a scientific fact — namely, that there are five senses.
11. An American Werewolf in London: An American gets to just … live in London.
12. Alien: There is a space program.
13. The Exorcist: Regan is never asked to stand, not even during the national anthem.
14. The Silence of the Lambs: An old white man has a sense of humor about himself.
15. The Invitation: Instead of tense political discourse, a dinner party ends in cult-sanctioned murder.
16. The Descent: A bunch of women are destroyed by deranged humanoids before they can fully realize that the most insidious monster among them is internalized misogyny and the dark competition for a piece of the patriarchy they’ve been entered into at birth without their consent.
17. Scream: Everyone trusts the same news source.
18. A Nightmare on Elm Street: An extraordinarily high value is placed on getting a good night’s sleep, something only Arianna Huffington sanctions in our relentlessly churning gig economy.
19. Halloween: Teens enjoy themselves in the suburbs, sans opioids.
20. Cloverfield: Everyone is murdered …? Yes, exactly.