I don’t like horror. When the eerie music and unsettling camera angles start in in a horror movie, I curl up in a ball, plug my ears, and squint my eyes. Anybody who’s seen any horror knows that when those cues come into place, the movie is building up to a startling cut scene that makes the audience scream from fright. After all, that is what horror is for – to frighten you in what is probably meant to be a cathartic way. All it does for me is set me on edge.
On the other hand, I love psychological thrillers. Several films that I enjoy are Se7en, Black Swan, Gaslight, Donnie Darko, Memento, and Perfect Blue, to name a few. My favorite of the genre though, are Hitchcock movies, The Shining, and Silence of the Lambs. I would like to take a little bit of time to talk about each of these to explain my preference for psychological thriller over horror.
As a representative for Hitchcock movies, I would like to pick one that is my favorite and not very often talked about: Rebecca. For those who haven’t seen it, Rebecca is a very faithful film adaptation of the novel by Daphne du Maurier starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Cinematography in 1940, along with a slew of other nominations. It is also on AFI’s list of 100 Thrills and 100 Heroes and Villains. So for those who haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? It’s often hard to talk about movies or books with minimal spoilers, but I shall attempt to do so. Rebecca is a movie about a naive young American girl, unnamed throughout both the novel and the film, who happens to meet an aristocratic widower named Maxim de Winter in Europe. She falls in love with him, and he proposes to her to her bewilderment. Shortly after their marriage and honeymoon, the happy couple return to Maxim de Winter’s estate, named Manderley, in the countryside of Cornwall, England, where the unnamed protagonist is confronted with a cold, sneering, and unpleasant housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. As the main character attempts to fit in at Manderley and come to terms with her new responsibilities and the requirements of being Mrs. de Winter, Mrs. Danvers begins to undermine her by constantly comparing the main character to Maxim de Winter’s dead wife, Rebecca. Over the course of the film, the main character’s spirit and self-confidence is steadily shredded as she comes to terms with the fact that she will never be able to live up to the beautiful and accomplished Rebecca.
Horror is often the supernatural or the deranged come to attack the characters of the film or novel. It is most often a physical attack, resulting in death, and films conclude with either a triumph over the aggressor or a perceived triumph (unbeknownst to the characters in the film but shown to the audience is evidence that the threat still lingers). Therefore the progress of the horror movie is generally that of the characters becoming increasingly beset by the aggressor, increasingly scaring the audience until voila, release is found. Yes ladies and gentlemen, they have managed to escape, you yourselves have managed to escape… for today. Continue on in your lives happy in the knowledge that no axe murderer is likely to pop out or no ghost is likely to possess a loved one… because the characters in the screen have taken care of the threat, at least for now. The release at the end of the film reminds the audience that they haven’t breathed properly for the last two hours or so, but now they can laugh and continue with their lives.
Psychological movies, however, delve into your soul. The aggressor isn’t anything tangible, nothing you can fight off. You can’t stab insecurities. And it is insecurity that opens up the mind of the main character to be mindfucked by Mrs. Danvers. The audience can see it from the beginning. Joan Fontaine begins as a quiet unassuming girl who only aims to please those around her. You can imagine that she has never raised her voice nor hit anyone. She shies away from criticism directed at herself and wishes she can grow up to be “a woman of 36, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.” Unhappy with the person she is now, she wishes to change into the beautiful, sophisticated, and self-assured women that she likely has seen all throughout Europe.
This is the perfect set-up. Everyone in high society knows that Maxim loved his wife, Rebecca, and was destroyed at her death. None of her stuff at Manderley was thrown away, so the main character can see Rebecca’s beautiful things, her bold and confident handwriting, and KNOW, not just hear, but actually physically see and acknowledge to herself that Rebecca is everything she is not and likely will never be. As Maxim grows steadily distant and angry at the main character, it reaffirms her knowledge that their marriage was an impulse, and he now spends every day comparing her to Rebecca and cursing himself for her shortcomings. It is a subtle decline throughout the movie in the mental state of the main character.
Since I am unable to give away the ending to the movie, my point might fall a little flat. The audience walks away from the film with the unsettling knowledge that the main character will likely never get away from her insecurities. It is a dark and true mirror into humanity’s soul, exposing the fears and worries that every person has about their own self worth.
So why do I prefer psychological thrillers? Shouldn’t humans logically go for the catharsis of the horror genre? The answer to this question is tied heavily into my believe that a truly great work of art is one that touches deep into your psyche. Whether it reaches in rips out your heart or reaffirms your faith in life, it should always relate to you on some deep, unsettling level. To a certain extent, whenever I come into contact with a movie that can accomplish this, my life is never truly the same. Situations and people I come into contact with can conjure up memories of the film instantly, coloring the way I respond.
In this way, Rebecca constantly reminds me of the dangers of self-doubt. Because the main character never had anyone to really talk to and voice her fears and worries, she slowly descends into a self-fulfilling spiral of uncertainty and unhappiness. The best kind of lesson is one that shows you the downfalls of not learning from the lesson. Horror will never be able to do the same for me.