For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Horses make me uncomfortable.
Actually, anything with a face like that makes me uncomfortable, so most animals in the Equidae or Cervidae families give me the heebie jeebies. I’ve loved a ton of movies that have pushed the boundaries of the gross and the obscene or have wallowed in what can only be described as attempts at consensual psychological trauma … and yet the most traumatic scenes for me are the ferry and deer scenes in The Ring.
That’s not fair to horses or deer. They have a reputation for majesty, strength and loyalty. They carried us out West and brought presents every Christmas. It’s not their fault that they look like behemoths of the netherworld rising up to take my soul back to the Dark. It’s just … have you seen their mouths? Their eyes? Go to Google Images right now and look up “deer stag bellowing.” I’ll wait…
Anyway … I mention this because one of the best things about horror movies is the ability to create terror and unease in indirect ways, and 2017’s Raw creates that just as exquisitely in simple choices as it does in large, direct ones. From veterinary procedures to enthusiastic cannibalism, Raw delivers nothing but scrumptious morsels.
The story’s protagonist, Justine, is the second daughter to go to veterinary school, after her elder sister, both of whom are offspring of vegetarian-veterinarian parents. The veterinary school has a considerable hazing tradition for the freshman class involving busting into their rooms in the middle of the night — tossing all of their possessions, including mattresses, out their windows, and making them crawl outside (albeit to a sweet-ass rave), among other terrible things we do to others in the name of good fun.
During the class photo, the freshmen are doused in a blood-like substance and informed that the hazing will continue over the course of the week until an air horn signals the end of the rituals. The first task? Eating a rabbit kidney.
Justine refuses on the grounds of her vegetarianism and pleads with her sister, whom she presumes has also maintained the practice. To her surprise and disgust, Alex does not support her and says, “Everybody does it,” before eating one herself and stuffing another kidney into Justine’s mouth.
And this is our catalyst. A first taste. The opening appetizer — which happens to remind me that I seem to be on a human flesh kick for NSO lately — that confirms that this isn’t a coming-of-age comedy.
Horror movie fans may be familiar with this experience. October comes, and suddenly the hills (have eyes) are alive with friends asking for horror movie recommendations. The trouble is, what do they find “scary”?
Is Justine’s reaction (explained away as food poisoning) frightening when she wakes up in the middle of the night with a severe rash and peeling skin?
Do they find it unsettling to walk in on a roommate receiving oral sex? Or watching someone stare at him with equal parts sexual and cannibalistic hunger?
Is receiving a Brazilian wax, peer pressure, hazing or simply being discovered doing something taboo the thing that will make them shudder?
Or is it watching a horse be anesthetized, its mouth opened with a metal device, a large breathing tube inserted, and the horse’s body cranked up to be set on a table and wheeled out the thing that makes them avert their eyes?
The glorious answer is “yes.” As much as horror can occupy the space of the gore, the shock and the surprise, the simplest thing horror can do sometimes is envelop the traumatic. All humans have trauma Tupperware in their cupboards, containers they haven’t seen in years, perhaps, tucked away into their psychological recesses. They might drag them out, finding them cracked, discolored or only functional with a mismatched lid they borrowed from a friend. But mostly, they shove them back into the deep hollows of their minds and try to forget they’re there.
Anyone who has a lived experience most certainly has had a negative one. We’re collectively aware of the psychological trauma of severe PTSD and similar ordeals. These traumas are more obvious to us and seem so different that we wouldn’t ever think of ourselves as having a similar experience. But it is easy to forget that human experience exists on a spectrum, and even minor incidents stick inside our neurons, make us cringe and keep us awake. Horror movies are experiences that can crack those cupboards open. Maybe the stray lid falls out before it’s immediately shut again. Maybe the entire contents spill out onto the floor.
The question for those friends seeking scary-movie recommendations is really: “How do you want to feel uneasy?” I won’t engage in armchair psychology other than to note that some research indicates horror can be a space to engage with trauma. After your “deer stag bellowing” search, “horror movies treating PTSD” can be your next one.
A good horror movie to me is the one that makes someone feel uneasy in a way they want or in ways they can appreciate. Any movie that pushes them too far, opens those cupboards too wide, isn’t a successful recommendation.
So, sure, Justine ends up embracing a sort of cannibalistic life that is gory and unsettling because humans really shouldn’t do that in polite company. Some horror tropes are more universally reviled. Most of the time, we dislike the sight of blood and guts because we’re wired that way. Raw isn’t noteworthy for its creative use of gore, though. It’s noteworthy for how it can cut into human psyches. A dozen things might happen that are small and innocuous. And then there can be the one that induces that recreationally enjoyed trauma.
But as Tolstoy may say, “Disgusted people are all alike. But every scared person is scared in their own way.”