(Contains Spoilers for 2008’s Martyrs)
Three years ago, I planned to meet my friend for a quick happy hour drink at Faust, our favorite watering hole on the St. Mary’s Strip in the Midtown District.
The bar’s namesake is a Goethe novel about a doctor who infamously sells his soul to the Devil, which tells you plenty about the locale’s dark and spooky atmosphere—but, I would add that we also have a handful of nicknames for Faust, including “The Trinity Vampire Lounge” and “The Coziest Little Hellhole in Texas,” which may or may not tell you more.
On this sunny day, I first encountered the French horror film Martyrs, which was playing on a large screen mounted onto the bar’s wall. The scene playing before us was a gruesome but pivotal one—Anna, the movie’s protagonist, was being skinned alive by a religious cult that aimed to create a contemporary martyr who would finally prove the existence of the afterlife.
“Dude,” said my ex-boyfriend, who was working at Faust that afternoon. “This, like, is my favorite movie.”
It was absolutely disgusting.
But, in my ex’s defense, that film is something that I still think about. To this day, Martyrs is the only movie that I profess an immense admiration for—but that I would never, never recommend to anyone. I could talk about this film endlessly, but I can’t stand the idea of emotionally scarring my friends with it, either; it’s incredibly thought-provoking and incredibly repulsive.
There’s a long history of horror stories being implemented as a vehicle for metaphysical investigation. I hesitate to say it begins with Goethe or the Brothers Grimm even—because the fundamental experience of fear is such a crucial part of the human condition—but I feel comfortable naming Edgar Allan Poe as the principle figure of horror as a uniquely American genre. While his short stories initially found greater success in France, they still possess significant cultural legs right here, in the States. For example, following Roger Corman’s “Edgar Allan Poe Cycle” from 1959 until 1964, film connoisseurs started to take horror seriously as a genre (“The History of Horror”). These B-films, or low budget commercial movies, included the 1960 adaption of House of Usher and 1962’s Tales of Terror, an anthology combining “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Poe. Although lacking in artistic merit, such films enabled “the Occult period” of horror film, starting with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and The Exorcist in 1973—films largely recognized as classics today (“The History of Horror”).
Pinpointing exactly why we return again and again to horror stories for entertainment is a task that could make for an entire syllabus—but, as a pretentious asshole with a blog, I would at least like to try… Stories such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are profoundly terrifying because they are actually portraits of ourselves, in a sense. Narrated in the first-person perspective of the murderer, they transport the reader to a dark place that exists within her imagination—that is, into the convoluted mindset of a complete monster. Although we deny it—even going as far as to push it into the B-rated fringes of our popular culture—that monstrosity is an integral part of us. Indeed, to paraphrase anyone who studies film, the true project of horror is realizing that we are the real monsters of our own stories.