(Spoiler warning: This article examines key plot points in American Psycho, Spec Ops: The Line, and I am Legend. If you have not watched/played/read them, please do so because all three are amazing!)
Halloween is a wonderful time of year! People wear costumes, buy and consume unholy amounts of candy, and start buying Christmas decorations (grrr!). We also watch and discuss scary movies, a genre I have, personally, never gotten into, because I do not find many of them scary. The typical staples of the season are the big horror franchises: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Paranormal Activity, and Saw, and other than the first three Saw films, I have never found myself scared by any of these movies. I have also never been bothered by ghosts, demons, undead, and general monsters. If I am not frightened by any of those ‘terrors,’ then what keeps me up at night? Simple answer: The thing that scares me the most is what one regular human being can do to another regular human being. By regular human I mean people who operate within the realm of human capability (note: slashers like Michael Myers and Leather Face are not human per this definition).
Some Scary People Doing Scary Things
Where, slasher and monster movies do little to frighten me, movies like Se7en, American Psycho, and Kalifornia leave me afraid to leave my house. Slashers and monsters mainly trade in gore and jump scares, which are often gross and startling, but when the movie is over, they fade away. Movies about people who do horrible things are unsettling as they dig into the viewer’s mind and fill them with a sense of dread. That lingering sense of dread is what I find most effective in horror, and the characters that bring that sense of dread stick out in my mind. Characters like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Captain Martin Walker from Spec Ops: The Line, and Robert Neville from I am Legend (the novel, not that disappointing movie), do unspeakable things to people who do not deserve it and their disturbing stories dig into my brain and nestle there.
In American Psycho, Bateman is a high-power, egocentric businessman. The things that occupy his thoughts are drugs, sex, his own body, business cards, and murdering people. By the end of the movie, the viewer is not sure if he actually kills anyone, but I submit that all those murders happening in his mind is not much better than actually committing them. His murderous nature is not the scariest thing about him. As I watch the movie, I find myself unnerved by the way he describes a business card like he is looking at a painting, his discussions of music, and the way he talks to other people.
Captain Martin Walker is a soldier in Delta Force, a highly trained badass. Over the course of Spec Ops he does some truly terrible things like, bashing in the heads of wounded soldiers (a game mechanic to get more ammo out of enemies), destroying the water supply of a crumbling Dubai (unintentionally but that does not matter to the thirsty people), and using white phosphorus mortars to deal with a group of soldiers who were in the way and had civilians with them (also unintentional but I dare anyone to defend him). Like Bateman, his despicable actions are not the worst thing about him. Instead of reporting in to his superiors or trying to leave Dubai, he justifies and distances himself from his actions via the “they made me do it” rationale. And, with this rationale employed, he trudges through the game’s conflict, making everything worse for everyone, until, at the end, there are no more lives to ruin.
I am Legend‘s Robert Neville is a man of average intelligence who teaches himself, over the course of the novel and several trips to the library, anatomy, physiology, pharmachology, etc., so he can experiment on the monstrous beings created when a virus sweeps the world (as far as he knows) and changes the human race into vampire-ish creatures. The novel is a great example for the potential of the average person (I am very annoyed that every smart person in media has to be a super genius), but what Neville does with his potential is truly frightening. Throughout the story, Robert captures and experiments on the inhuman creatures to figure out how to fight them and possibly change them back into humans. However, toward the end, he realizes that these vampires have intelligence and social skills and the beginnings of a new society. They are the new humans, the feral creatures are an unfortunate evolutionary middle step, while the human physiology was figuring our how to adapt to the virus. Neville learns that, in this new society, he is the boogeyman. Robert Neville is the monster that takes them away from their families to torture them and experiment on them.
Now, how are these people scarier than demons who drag people into hell, or ax wielding superhumans?
Answer: These characters are not monsters and their action are not evil. They are humans and their actions are human. Patrick Bateman’s appreciation of art, Walker’s rationalizations, and Neville’s experiments are frightening because they are very human things to do. These three characters are grounded in human capability, which means the things they do are things that every person can do (context allowing, of course). If appreciating art is human, then so is murder, and that idea scares me more than anything else.