(Note: This piece contains specific plot details about several horror films.)
Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done. Now: Why did you do it? Maybe you have some vast network of rationalizations for it, or maybe it was because you were bored, or curious, or angry, or drunk. Or to this day, maybe you have no idea, and that’s why it sticks in the back of your mind still, because human behavior, even your own, can be so inexplicable and unknowable.
Which is scary, the idea that after 6,000 years of modern civilization, we still have such a dim grasp on why people do what they do. Even the most notorious psychological experiments to have explored the pliability of human behavior and a near-universal capacity for what most of us would consider evil just raise more questions. Why do “good” people sometimes do bad things? Why do “bad” people sometimes do horrific things? Our best answer is still more or less a shrug.
This is even true among the worst of those bad people. Mass murderers and serial killers often do share certain commonalities—childhood abuse, isolation—except when they don’t. For every John Wayne Gacy, molestation victim and the son of a mean drunk, there’s a Dennis Rader, whose childhood was by all accounts unremarkable, except when he was killing neighborhood animals and fantasizing about tying up members of the Mickey Mouse Club.
It’s perhaps telling that a recent study found that one of the biggest links among mass and serial killers, alongside childhood abuse, is something as mundane as getting hit on the head as a kid: The reasons for acts of great evil can be oblique or even totally banal. Above all, they remain obscure and largely inexplicable. The researchers behind that study called the urge to kill the “result of a highly complex interaction of biological, psychological, and sociological factors.” H.H. Holmes, killer of possibly more than 200 people and himself the son of a mean drunk, put it another way, writing in an 1896 confession, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
The best horror films fundamentally get this—there is no one single “why” that can explain a monster. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of horror out there that doesn’t.
The seam running through so much of that lesser horror is pat pop psychology that tries to diagnose a monster—even a non-human or supernatural one—by ascribing the source of every murder, every heinous action, to one factor or traumatic event. In the Saw movies, the Jigsaw Killer, it turns out, was a successful professional who became a sadistic torturer because his kid died, he got cancer, and he wanted people to start appreciating life, an idea that makes as much sense in practice as that summary would suggest.
The first Scream movie, as much dark comedy and genre sendup as actual horror movie, seemed to be riffing on this unfortunate tendency by revealing the killer as an otherwise normal teenager (working in concert with his really, really peer-pressure-susceptible best friend) who resorts to mass murder because he’s pissed off about his parents’ divorce. But the too-clever-by-half sequels get even sillier in arriving at the twist in which Random Character X was the killer all along, triggered into action by something minor. Even worse in this practice was the cottage industry of ripoffs that Scream spawned—movies like Urban Legend, where the killer is one of our ostensible protagonists, who’s been gruesomely murdering her friends because two of them inadvertently ran her boyfriend off the road.
That there would be some tidy pop psych explanation for a killer’s actions was also all but a given throughout much of the ’80s horror boom. The nadir of this tendency has to be either Jaws: The Revenge (where a shark avenges his shark buddies’ deaths at the hands of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody in Jaws 1 and 2 by systematically targeting Brody’s family, chasing them around the Atlantic) or Sleepaway Camp, which adds a dollop of transphobia and homophobia to the proceedings.
All this, in spite of the fact that the stronger genre movies that preceded the boom largely eschewed pop psychology explanations. Halloween makes no attempt to rationalize Michael Myers and is the better for it. Same goes for Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas’s Billy. There’s a revenge element to A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, but he’s ultimately just a stone-cold killer, just as he had been in life. The recent remakes of every single one of these movies go past unnecessary into exasperating because in every case, they only add armchair psychological explanations of killers whose scariness had been premised on being unknowable.
Remakes, reboots, and sequels do tend to be particularly vulnerable to this tactic. Lacking any other reason to exist, they try to delve into a monster’s backstory but inevitably only end up neutering them, both by eliminating the mystery that made them menacing in the first place and by crafting explanations that aren’t believable.
Hannibal Lecter, a character who leaves such an impression precisely because he is unclassifiable—the very first account of him, as given by Will Graham in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, describes him as “a sociopath, because they don’t know what else to call him”—gets a truly awful and unconvincing backstory in Hannibal Rising. Rather than anything nuanced or mysterious, Lecter’s murderous, cannibalistic streak is given an explanation that would be right at home on the cover of some ’50s pulp paperback: “Nazis ate my sister!” Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV series smartly restored Lecter’s menace and mystery by at turns ignoring and subverting the Hannibal Rising backstory.
Similarly, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is scary because he’s unknowable, his motivations obscure. Scenes from the book still have the power to shock and unnerve more than a century on because of this: Dracula tossing his brides a wriggling sack containing a village child for them to devour; Jonathan Harker peering out the window and seeing Dracula skittering lizard-like up the castle wall. F.W. Murnau’s unofficial adaptation Nosferatu got this, as did, to an extent, the iconic 1931 Dracula. Werner Herzog, who understands more than just about anyone the terror of a cold and irrational universe, got some mileage out of remaking Nosferatu in 1979 by keeping what worked in the novel and in Murnau’s 1922 film and leaning heavily into the vampire’s weltschmerz. When it came time for Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula in 1992, though, he bungled things by turning the demon into a romantic antihero. Instead of an inscrutable monster rolling across Europe and to England’s shores like the plague, we get an avenging fallen angel just trying to be reunited with his lost love.
To be fair, even some of the great works of horror fall victim to the pop psychology trap. The weakest part of Psycho comes at the end, when the doctor mansplains the pat psychological reasons for Norman Bates’ psychotic break:
Imagine the movie with that one scene cut: We go straight from Lila Crane discovering the desiccated corpse of Norma Bates and narrowly escaping death at Norman-as-Norma’s hands to Norman in the hospital. Keep the Norma voiceover, keep the fly, keep the crosscut to the car being hauled out of the swamp, definitely keep the superimposition of Norma’s face on Norman’s. Just lose the pedantic doctor over-explaining Norman’s actions with dusty Freudian rationalization. You’d end up with a stronger, more unnerving film, without losing an ounce of plot or comprehension—something like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, which only faintly suggests that our killer is acting on past sexual trauma, without ever needing some dude to show up and explain her behavior to the audience.
The best horror drops the pop psychology altogether. Just as in life, there is no one factor, no “aha!” pathology that explains Jack Torrance in The Shining, Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs, Raymond Lemorne in The Vanishing, Harry Powell in The Night Of The Hunter. In The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Suspiria, literal demons embody the horror of a world in which evil and suffering sometimes have no rational explanation. The all-consuming shapeshifter in The Thing is just fulfilling its biological imperative.
For a time, it seemed like genre filmmakers hadn’t learned from those sorts of examples. The industry got busy making ersatz Screams and then tepid J-horror remakes filled with single-minded vengeful ghosts. When those wells ran dry, it moved on to new Saw sequels and depicting a home life for Michael Myers indistinguishable from that of Freaks And Geeks’ Kim Kelly. Subtlety and mystery were largely left to proper auteurs like David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, and Michael Haneke, who don’t make scary movies in the conventional sense, but do understand the horrors that fate and individuals can wreak for no apparent reason, or for the most banal of reasons.
Lately, though, we’ve started to see movies like You’re Next, It Follows, The Babadook, and Goodnight Mommy: Movies that have no interest whatsoever in trying to find a tidy pop-psych explanation for the horrors on screen. The twist in You’re Next works precisely because the murder spree’s motive is so shockingly ordinary. The Babadook manages to pull off a monster that is the manifestation of some clearly drawn psychological baggage, but it’s all handled deftly and without the oversimplified view of the human mind that afflicts so much other horror. There’s been plenty of big-studio schlock, sure, but it’s clearly a good time right now for truly sophisticated horror.
Academics who study conspiracy theory contend that the theorists cling to ideas like mass shootings really being false flags dreamed up by a government looking to seize guns, because people desperately want, sometimes need, to believe in a rational, ordered universe. It’s less terrible for a disturbingly large number of people to believe that the federal government routinely engages in vast, fascist conspiracies than to recognize that people can do terrible, monstrous things for no good reason. Nothing is scarier than the idea that there are terrors in the world that can’t be framed or understood in any simple or rational way. Truly great works of horror understand that.