Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Your Worldview Terrifies Me: Se7en and the Four Shades of Horror

When it came time to shoot the final scene of my short horror movie, Enter the Dark, I knew it had to have a certain tone.  This dark ending had to deliver a crushing psychological blow, like the amazingly resonant movies of David Lynch - especially Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

A few days before shooting the final scene, I got this gnawing feeling that I needed watch Se7en, one of my all-time favorite films.  As I sat in admiration of the incredible skill involved in that movie - the script, the acting, art direction, cinematography and of course, David Fincher's overall vision, I was mostly overcome by the absolute bleakness of its ending, and especially the amazing performance by Brad Pitt as he is forced to make an impossible decision with the realization that no matter what he does, evil has already won.

I knew I was watching the embodiment of what my ending had to be.

The night that we shot our ending, I had my actor, Charles step into my office, and we alone sat in the darkness and watched that ending of Se7en.  Then we stepped into my hallway and shot our scene.

This got me thinking - what about this movie (Se7en) makes it so above the ordinary for me?  Why does it emote such feelings of dread in me, while other so-called horror films seem so shallow.  It struck me that in this movie, the key issue is that evil has already won.  Throughout the film, Somerset tries to warn Mills that society is rotten to its core, but Mills only learns after he has paid the ultimate sacrifice. 

To me, it is this pessimistic worldview that ultimately terrifies me.  As I examined some of the films that have effected me the most, I realized that most of them contain elements of this same worldview.  Extrapolating this further, I realized there are really four different worldviews that a horror movie (or any story, for that matter) can be set in.  How a storyteller sees the world will greatly influence the shades of horror that he or she creates.

There are 4 primary worldviews: Light, Grey, Dark, and Empty(I know these may sound silly - bear with me with the names, you'll see where I'm headed in a sec.)

-LIGHT - In this world, people are inherently good.  The systems they create: Science, Education, Politics, The Media, The Police, The Military, The Church are all essentially good.  Therefore, the world in which we live is essentially good.  The occasional outbreaks of bad behaving people are anomalies that are swiftly and effectively dealt with by the systems we set up to protect us.

There is no evil - no monsters, no demons. There are simply misbehaving individuals that may have been damaged as children.  Rehabilitation is always the best way to deal with misbehaving individuals. They can always be fixed - there is always a cure.

Good ultimately and always triumphs.  The perfect refinement of our systems will ultimately lead to peace and nirvana.

-GREY - All people have good and evil within them.  Who they become is determined by their upbringing, and ultimately their actions.  Every one of us, every day by our own actions choose to be good or evil.

However, there definitely is real Evil in this worldview - some of which can never be rehabilitated.  The systems we create may be corrupted by this evil and at times work against us. However, Good can always battle back when enough people band together to take a stand and fight against the exposed Evil.

The battle rages on...

-DARK - People are inherently selfish, greedy, violent, sadistic and destructive.  The systems they create reflect their diseased state.  Occasionally there may be glimpses of people who try to do good, but they are ultimately taken down by the true wretched state of mankind.

The systems we create perpetuate a vision that they are protecting us simply to keep us passive - like sheep being led to the slaughter.

Dystopia and destruction are the ultimate outcome.

-EMPTY - There is no good or evil, no right are wrong.  Things just happen.  There is no meaning.

The systems we create do what we tell them to - no more or no less.

In this Nihilistic vision, there is no final judgement -no God or Devil.  What you do, how you treat your family, how you interact with the world matters not.

You are ultimately alone in the universe.

So, if we go back to my old pal, Se7en you might say that it lives squarely in the Dark worldview. I think that is what makes it so damn frightening to me.  If you were to draw a graph (and you know how much I like graphs) and place Se7en on a spectrum from Light to Dark, you might see something like this:

Now, most films will not live entirely within one of these worldviews, but will tend to have elements of one or more.  Looking at a bunch of my favorite movies, if I had a bunch of time to waste, I might graph them like this: (click on image to enlarge)

I find this to be an interesting way to look at movies, and horror movies in particular.  You can see that most of my favorite movies tend to live in the areas of Dark or Empty, or some combo of both.  You'll also notice that almost no horror films live in the Light worldview (no surprise there) so I added some stuff like E.T. and Care Bears Movie so you can see what would live there.  And if anyone can find a movie that is both Light and Empty, please let me know.  A happy, positively nihilistic film is something I'd like to see someone pull off - perhaps the ending of Life of Brian comes close??

Of course this is all open to interpretation, which is ultimately what makes it so interesting.  So, I invite you to argue with me, make your own graphs, chart tv shows, books, comic books do whatever.  It might help illuminate why you've always been attracted to or repelled by certain stories.

The question also becomes then, how do you view the world?  Where would it be charted in the above graph?  I think for me, I'd like to live in the Light world, but know that's a fairy tale.  More and more, I'm convinced we live in a Grey world - somewhere between Grey and Empty. Yeah, we exist in a world somewhere between Alien and Jaws.

Heaven help us all...


  1. My worldview definitely is Grey. Though when I write (which seldom happens nowadays, unfortunately) my worldview tends to shift to black.

    And I would also very much like to be able to write something in a Light worldview, tending to Empty. Because sometimes the coincidence of our actions and the ways in which they come together seems so laughably silly... Which sometimes leads me to think the villain may very well be killed by a piano dropping from the sky, ending the story and restoring everyone to a state of sheer happiness.

    Empty goes pretty badly with my religious views, but somehow I've not been able to incorporate God in a story in a believable way...

  2. Your idea for Light & Empty was on the right track, but got the wrong film. Meaning of Life.

  3. Ah yes, the Meaning of Life. How could I forget:

    So remember when you're feeling very small and insecure
    How amazingly unlikely is your birth
    And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space
    Because there' bugger all down here on earth.

  4. My world view is most definitely empty. It's interesting how jcz talks about an incompatibility with his religion and emptiness; With utmost respect I find more reason all the time to disassociate myself with religion altogether. Our own societal values are so entrenched that many are under the illusion of the existence of good and bad. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's meaningless however; I believe the lack of meaning is meaning itself.

    Hmm it made sense when I was writing it. Not so sure reading over it. Possibly because I'm distracted by The Eagles, and they're one of the few lights in the emptiness for me ;)

  5. first few things I thought of for light and empty were adult swim cartoons, ever seen 12 Oz. Mouse? Also thought of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Slacker, although it's not necessarily that they inspire trust in society don't show good & evil, more that the main characters are just so positive compared to most.

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