Much has been made lately (and has been made before and will be made again) of the question “is ________ really a horror movie?” This has become even more ridiculous with the questioning of Stephen King’s It, a story about a shape-shifting clown who hunts and eats children. If that’s not horror, what is? But regardless, the goal of a horror movie is, at its simplest,to frighten. But there is no way to guarantee every member of the audience will be frightened of the same thing. We all bring ourselves into the experience of every movie. So, what scares you, may leave me bored. So, we can argue over the effectiveness of certain horror movies, but not what is horror. Now we come to what really scares me, to my very core.
One thing to know about your author before we start, is that I was raised very religious. So religious in fact that I got upset with my own family for trying to explain to me that Adam and Eve was “just a story.” My young brain could not parse the difference between a parable meant to teach a lesson and clergy telling me that the creation story was absolutely true. Things have changed quite a bit. I left the church (after being told I was going to hell on more than one occasion) and now call myself an atheist. This is not to denigrate people with faith, I appreciate their perspective and they have every right to have that belief. If I’m being honest, I envy that more than a little bit. But it cannot be denied that within every group, religious ones included, there can be extremism that is frightening, especially if you are of a disadvantaged group, such as POC, LGBTQI, or a women.
There is nothing scarier to me personally than Michael Parks’s portrayal of Abin Cooper in Kevin Smith’s 2011 horror movie, Red State. His character is an obvious corollary (mentioned by name) to Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church. The amount of hate spewed by that hideous church is encapsulated in our introduction to Cooper. This monologue chills me to the bone. Watching it through another time, I realized that the terror is not from the hate. And there’s plenty of that. The script goes as far as to have him and his constituents blame “the homosexuals” for everything, including the demise of heterosexual marriage. All of this ugliness rang true during the battle for gay marriage in my home state of California. I remember thinking about how little sense that argument made, but Smith’s direction in this scene puts Cooper above us, in a place of respect, where we have no choice but to listen. It is actually unclear whether that point of view is from that of the imprisoned protagonists or the blissful believers.
Despairingly, this hideous speech rings even more true in today’s world. Given the United States’ current political climate, there is a need for scapegoats. Any person in one of these disadvantaged groups knows the fear of being that victim, especially starting on our last election night. This is something that extremists of every stripe have always excelled at providing. I was struck by the nodding masses in the church buying into these hateful ideals. And it is easy to write them off using whatever slur you would prefer. Stupid, hick, redneck, racist, zealot, you finish the list. But the truth is, these are people with families, jobs, hopes, and dreams. This is what leaves me sometimes feeling quite helpless against the hatred we see in everyday life. It could be anywhere. Smith’s focus, throughout the film, on not just the evil message, but the audience buying into it is remarkably effective.
But that is still not the scary part. The scary part is Cooper. There are hateful people everywhere. But there are precious few hateful people who can turn a crowd. Parks’s portrayal is downright charming, despite his words. In that monologue, his homily of hate, I found myself disgusted, yet in awe. The man knows how to convince people of his beliefs, with little more than a chuckle and a knowing smirk. And this, in a terrifying manner, humanizes him. He cracks jokes, he cares about the children in his church, and he dotes on his followers. His affable nature, at odds with his willingness to murder not only gay men, but young straight men looking for easy sexual outlet, is designed to make you squirm in your seat. There are many horror films in which you root for the villain, sometimes because the victims are “so stupid.” Red State separates itself here. It can be argued that the film does more to focus on the villains rather than the people in real danger.
This focus does two things. First, it places the audience in the place of the protagonists. They could be anyone. Anyone who made a foolish decision as a teenager, so yes, anyone. The worst thing they did was desire sex and drink alcohol, which is kind of the bedrock of being a teenage boy. The church decides to use the “devil’s tools” like the internet to lure them in. This is not a case of these boys even sinning or committing a cardinal sin. They desired. That’s it. That’s enough to sentence them to death, and in the church’s mind, eternal damnation. The second thing that it accomplishes is making us unsure of who to root for. Yes, these members of the church have done and said horrible things. But why? Are they evil to their core? Or is it something more insidious? All of these horrific ideals are taught, and repeated. These people have been indoctrinated with hate and now react exactly as we would expect them to. As many of them are picked off, I found it hard to celebrate their deaths as you would in most locked room horror films.
People, in general, are more likely to follow than lead. This is the danger of the cult of personality. The charismatic authority of Cooper and many like him, drives people to not only do things for the wrong reasons, but to incite them to violence and hatred at every turn. The allure of being “chosen” is not a small thing. In a world of billions of people, many of us cry out to be noticed. I can imagine being noticed by a man as charismatic as Cooper could easily turn into an addiction.
Now it’s possible that my history with organized religion colors my reaction to Red State. As I mentioned, we all have our biases. But if it was simply my past, it might be easy to write off this pastor as just one more crazy religious extremist. But the the power he holds and the way we have seen this enacted in the real world chills me. False prophets of every shape and size abound, and it is harder than we might think to pick them out of a crowd. We all have our terrors, mine was created by Kevin Smith. What’s yours?
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