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Reel Dread
Good Grief!

By Desmond Reddick
11 June 2007 — I lost my grandmother the other day. I'm not trying to be a downer, but it's hard to write anything else. My relationship with my grandparents was always strong. I was in part raised by them; I spent so much time with them. My temperament, sense of humor, moral code and taste in movies is drawn directly from my grandfather. When he passed away four years ago — after a long deterioration in health — it was devastating. My grandmother, on the other hand, has always had a leaning towards the morbid, or at least a strong footing in pessimistic reality. I learned much of the history of the last century through this amazing woman who lived it herself. Gramps never talked about the past much, the war has a funny way of locking that door for some men. It was my grandmother who taught me much of the way the world works. So, I suppose, this is for her.

Grief is a mainstay theme in horror films. It has been for a very long time. Death and grief go hand in hand, and what is more prevalent in the genre than death? It is interesting how grief is portrayed in horror films. I'm going to look at the seven stages of grief, popularized in the book On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Denial is the act of refusing to believe that something is happening. It also happens to be the most prolific of all the stages when it comes to horror films. People who refuse to let go are found throughout the genre; most notably, Nicole Kidman's character in 2001's The Others. As a widow who lives in fear of exposing her photosensitive children to sunlight, she tries to lock the house in bland darkness while under siege from supernatural forces. She is harrowed by the entire experience until, of course, we learn that her and her children are dead. As a ghost she is so adamant that she is still alive she can't possibly fathom that she has been dead for years. This is a theme, and plot point, first done in The Sixth Sense. The Omen depicts Gregory Peck's character — so distraught at losing his son during childbirth he works out an illegal adoption to replace him without his wife knowing — physically acting on his denial in a misguided, yet loving attempt to save his wife. Of course, like all of these examples, it doesn't work out well.

Those lucky enough to move on face anger: hand in hand with blame, anger is usually directed at God or any other perceived responsible party. It is easy to take anger and replace it with revenge because, in essence, anger is kind of boring if it's not acted upon. The quiet rage and terror exuded by the lead in the independent British film Dead Man's Shoes is terrifying. It's hard not to relate to him like it is with Paul Kersey in Death Wish (not quite a horror film, but nobody speaks ill of Bronson on my watch), but it makes one a little queasy after doing so. Any slew of slasher films will also have examples of this as well.

Bargaining is usually saved for terminally ill patients wanting to live for some event: a wedding, a graduation, a birth, etc. However, in our case I'm going to use the "playing God" clichι. Pet Sematary is a film fraught with death. A man so overcome with grief decides to bury his son in a cemetery he knows resurrects the bodies of animals. When his son returns, things are not as they once were and the man is forced to come to terms with what he's done. But, we see that he does not learn a lesson from all of this in the film's eerie ending. In a slightly more entertaining example, Bride of Re-Animator has Herbert West convincing his reluctant colleague to allow him to create a new body for his dead girlfriend. The colleague, Dan Cain, goes along with it and is even swayed into believing it's all for the best when West himself is only interested in the scientific experimentation of it all. As movies have always taught us: when science plays with nature, things go bad.

Depression in the stages of grief is the inability to go on. Again, not the greatest subject for a film, but there are some glaring examples. The Descent tells the story of a woman who is taken on a spelunking adventure on the one year anniversary of her husband and daughter's deaths. It is very clear that she has not moved on from the experience, and, though she enjoys herself, there are several instances of her sadness: mainly the hallucinatory visions of her daughter. By the end of the film, without spoiling, she moves from depression to madness. The first half of Signs contains a great example of the depression stage. Mel Gibson's character is a priest who has lost his way. He quit the church and asks people to not call him "father" as he tries to live his life on the farm with his brother and three children. His wife, killed in a car accident some time earlier, haunts his thoughts. It is very clear that he is deeply saddened by his lot in life. But, as we see in the film, through various machinations and the iconic Shyamalan twist, he moves into the final stage of grief: acceptance.

Acceptance — the move into a state beyond intense grief where one can move on with their life — is not always a happy story. In Takashi Miike's Audition, a man comes to terms with himself seven years after the death of his wife. At the urging of his friend and teenage son he sits in on fake auditions for a nonexistent television show in order to find a suitor to his liking. After finding a young woman who fascinates him he continues to dedicate himself to her. She, however, is dedicated more to the twitching duffel bag in her living room than this man. The film culminates in one of cinema's most intense and wince-inducing scenes to teach us that it isn't always healthy to move on.

I'm not so sure what the point of all this was. If catharsis is what I intended, I certainly don't feel any different. If I intended to shed some light on the subject, I'm not even sure I did that. I refused to write something I wasn't feeling at the time, so you got this for better or worse. Grief may not be the most exciting or even uplifting of topics, but I do know that grief and mourning can be a very strange and scary period in anyone's life. Strange and scary is what I live for. And live, is all any of us can ever do.


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