‘Maybe when we indulge the things that scare us, we stop being victims of fear and become co-conspirators.’
Do we get that control back, when we watch scary films? Is our fear manageable when we’ve volunteered to feel it? Director/writer/editor Charlie Lyne’s latest film, Fear Itself, like Beyond Clueless (2014) before it, takes a film genre – this time the horror film – and examines what draws audiences towards that which scares them. Using dozens of examples, classic (Night of the Hunter) and cult (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) alike to build a picture of the familiar themes and imagery that horror films seem to use endlessly to draw us in.
Lyne’s narrator is a woman grieving and traumatised, suffering nightmares but unable to keep from watching the scary films that then feed back into her subconscious. This narrator introduces the key questions at the core of our relationship with the horror genre, opening with the problem of predictability. Most of the time, we know exactly what is going to happen in a horror film, because we’ve seen the same thing in other horror films countless times before, and yet we allow ourselves to be manipulated.
Lyne looked at this very problem in his previous short film, Copycat, which took the form of an edited conversation between Lyne and filmmaker Rolf Kanefsky, who’s 1991 film There’s Nothing Out There included a character savvy to the tropes of the horror film, who helps his friends to survive an alien attack. Kanefsky’s attempts to get the film wider recognition put him in contact with one Jonathan Craven, leading to his speculation that Scream (1996) and specifically the character Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) might have a little too many similarities to There’s Nothing Out There, to be a coincidence.
Scream is not one of the films referred to in Fear Itself, but the subject of horror movie clichés and our willingness to be scared is present in the film, though explored in more depth. One concern examined is how horror films relate to real life murder cases, which then become the source for film adaptations. Taking Gus Van Sant’s Elephant as one example, the narrator ponders the much reported on influence that violent films supposedly had on the perpetrators of the Columbine killings, and in turn, the way Van Sant’s film apparently influenced a separate murder by teens in the US. Fear Itself asks us, to what extent do we allow ourselves to be influenced by that which scares us? Was evil present in the soul of the killer before they allowed the imagery of horror films to influence them? Lyne’s film poses questions with a fluidity of thought that appears effortless, moving from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and our fascination with the unseen, to Elephant through to the frustration of viewing characters in danger, as in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. The result feels like a comprehensive meditation on the attraction of horror films, communicated via Amy E. Watson’s sensitive voice over, as a personal quest for relief from the torment of a death fixation. Lyne makes this investigation into fear and the movies something like a secret we’re being let in on, allowing an indulgence in questions we have no doubt asked ourselves. The catharsis we get from horror films is perhaps wrought from having a figure to project our worst fears onto, as Fear Itself’s narrator suggests; ‘we can’t bear the thought of what humanity might be capable of, so we put it down to evil instead.’
Fear Itself is available to view on BBCiplayer.