My wife does not like horror films.  I used to think it was because she does not wish to be frightened, but we all, even prim Victorian ladies, enjoy a good scare from time to time, especially when we know we are safe.  Girl Scouts around the campfire tell stories about the murdered little girl whose ghost appears when the wind in the early evening stipples the shadowed surface of the lake, just the way it is doing now.

When I was a young man, it was a settled conviction that young women wanted to be taken to dramatic thrillers that would inspire them to throw themselves—for protection, of course—into your arms.  My suspicions were aroused when a girl asked me, on our first real date, to go with her to Wait Until Dark, and they were confirmed when I discovered that she had already seen the movie.  Even so, I was taken by surprise when she virtually jumped into my lap when the dead (supposedly) Harry Rote, Jr., leaped out of the darkness.  It was, admittedly, Alan Arkin’s best performance.

There are lots of hair-raising dramatic thrillers.  Hitchcock specialized in the genre, but he is only one of many directors to have played successfully upon our fears.  Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard are classics, but so are Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, George Cukor’s Gaslight, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, etc.  What are the comparable horror classics?  Some would include Cat People on the list, but that is absurd.  Tourneur’s film is suspenseful and even creepy, but the feeling is one of pity for Irena, the poor Balkan girl whose fear of sexual passion turns out to be justified.  Her people lie under an ancient curse for having sided with the forces of evil.

I suppose, apart from Tod Browning’s Dracula and Freaks (which hardly counts as a horror film), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is among the very best of the genre, but, again, the horror that Siegel induces derives from our fear of losing our soul.  Invasion is more like Ionesco’s Rhinoceros than The Texas Chainsaw MassacreRosemary’s Baby has a few disgusting scenes, but the real horror is not the psychedelic seduction scene but the realization of who her baby’s father is.  I am quickly running out of names.  Even enjoyable films like the original Frankenstein and The Wolf Man are, at best, entertaining junk.

In other genres, such as screwball comedy, there are plenty of banal formula films, but also a broad range of successes—from the delightful silliness of Bringing Up Baby to the sublime farce of Preston Sturges’s masterpieces.  There is no Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or even Billy Wilder in the horror genre.  To find a parallel for the consistently low quality of horror movies, we have to turn to sex romps and slasher films.  I think it is pretty easy to see the pattern: If filmmakers can get a laugh out of a dirty word or a thrill out of naked bodies, bleeding bodies—or, best of all, both—why go to the trouble of surpassing Dario Argento or George Romero?

To understand what is at stake, we need to invite Socrates into the conversation.  He would surely say something like this: We know, do we not, that sex movies are successful because women and especially men like to have their sexual desires stimulated.  We also know that if violent films arouse men, it is because men have violent propensities they cannot always distinguish from their sexual urges.  Then, it would follow that there is something in horror movies that is so compellingly pleasing, so stimulating, that we can take it raw without any art or effort at entertainment.  What do you say it is?

Not to put too fine a point on it, I think we know that it is our appetite for evil that is stimulated.  “But surely,” you are going to say, “there is nothing wrong in depicting evil if it is in a proper moral context?”  Before conceding this point too quickly, let us bring back Socrates—or, better still, his disciple’s disciple, Aristotle.  He will explain to us why in a Greek tragedy neither sex nor violence could be acted out on the stage, though messengers could relate the suicide of Jocasta and choruses could sing of the banquet of Thyestes or allude obliquely to Aegisthus as a wolf prowling in the lion’s bed.  Aristotle also insisted that a tragic hero, no matter what he had done, should not be evil or base, but a noble and serious character with a flaw.  Even lesser characters should not be depicted as gratuitously evil, as Menelaus is in Euripides’ Orestes.

The depiction of extreme evil, a Hannibal Lecter or a Leatherface, is hard to justify, even if it is set within a moral context.  It is not enough that evil is defeated in the end, if we have been aroused by it in the course of a novel or film, any more than pornographic novels can be viewed in a positive light so long as they are introduced (as they were in the 1950’s) by a New York physician explaining how the tragic lives of these sick people have a lesson for us all.

I would not lay down a hard and fast rule.  The Greeks were more hardheaded and cynical about human motives than we can ever be, but they had higher aesthetic standards, less tolerance for the grotesque.  There is no Grendel in Greek epic, and even Polyphemus, cannibalism aside, is not really a bad chap: It is his house and home, after all, that Odysseus and his crew are eating him out of.  Nonetheless, even if we agree to exclude cannibals, slashers, rippers, and sawyers of human flesh, we should still concede that moral evil can and should be dealt with in fiction.

However we interpret Aristotle’s statement that tragedy leads to a moral catharsis, a cleansing of pity and fear, we should understand that any work of fiction that goes beyond mere entertainment helps to bring moral clarity to the complexities of human existence.  Serious drama and fiction, at their best, take on the deepest moral conflicts and make sense of them.  This is true of Sophocles’ depiction of Oedipus as a liberated intellectual who destroys himself and brings suffering on his people, or Don Siegel’s depiction of the dehumanization we experience in modern life, or Fritz Lang’s amazing penetration into the Nazi mind-set in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  I was already 60 when I saw it, but my hair stood on end as I watched the scratchy and jumpy print of this German semi-talkie and began to realize that, while Dr. Mabuse was literally dead, his insane dream of evil lived on in his psychiatrist.

Ancient dramatists knew how to touch lightly on our deepest terrors by narrating or singing of, but never directly acting out, the incest of Oedipus and Jocasta, the fratricide of their two sons, the cruel death of their daughter Antigone, buried alive by her uncle.  Aeschylus hints at something even more horrible, when the messenger cryptically tells Clytemnestra of her lover’s death at the hands of a son she believed was dead: “I say the dead is killing the living.”  There is more genuine horror in that one line than in the entire “oeuvre” of Wes Craven.  Aeschylus hints at the legend of the vampire and at what Thomas De Quincey says somewhere of his brother’s fear that the dead, who vastly outnumber the living, are waiting for the chance to take back the world of the living.

Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra, though certainly evil, is a noble character who has been doubly wronged by a husband who literally sacrificed their daughter to his ambition and has now introduced a mistress into the home.  What Aristotle might say of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, we need not ask.

Most horror villains are not interesting enough to be truly evil in themselves.  They are either psychopathic or, in the case of the misnamed zombie movies, dead.  George Romero and his fans are not so much evil as just plain stupid.  What records, do you think, would a zombie take to a desert island?  What do zombies talk about when they are alone?  Do zombies cheat at cards?  Do they prefer white or dark meat?

The undead Dracula is far more interesting and far more evil than any zombie, whether the voodoo slaves or Romero’s corpses, and, treated intelligently, the dismal “life” of Dracula might persuade anyone that pacts made with the Devil do not pay off.  Sam Francis used to say that there were two kinds of alien movies, those in which the aliens were evil predators and those in which they have come, speaking in a cultivated accent (Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still), to bring the secrets of a higher and nonviolent civilization to the monkey-men of earth.  Apply the same insight to horror movies, and you will know what to make of a writer or filmmaker so insane as to depict vampires in a positive light, to show them as misunderstood or even noble creatures and capable of loving and being loved.  John Carradine’s Dracula (in House of Dracula) is the exception that proves the rule, because Dracula, while desiring to be healed of the affliction he has caused himself, is the prisoner of his own evil.  Inevitably, the kind of academics who make a dishonest living writing theses on popular culture see Carradine’s tortured Dracula as an anticipation of the vampire-heroes of 21st-century fiction and movies.

If we asked Aristotle (or Saint Augustine or C.S. Lewis) what he thought of a writer or director who ennobled the vampire, he would tell us that such a person, surely, would be condemned by all halfway decent men and women as perverse, as a corrupter of the young.  But no, there are conservatives and Christians who positively liked Joss Whedon’s necrophilic Buffy.  Yes, I know, the good guys win or are supposed to, but, then, how did Angel get his own show in which, as an undead Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, he helps the helpless?

The evil we are taught to love in modern horror films is not just ordinary evil but metaphysical evil, the wickedness we associate with that creature Greek-speaking Christians have always called the Poneros, the evil one from whom we pray, following our Lord’s instructions, to be delivered.  “Deliver us from evil” is a very weak and misleading translation that makes it sound as if we are trying to avoid a heart attack or an automobile wreck.  No, it is the Tempter himself, the Slanderer, the Evil One into whose clutches we are mortally afraid to fall.  If the Christian prays for deliverance from metaphysical evil, the watcher of horror films invites him into a soul that he has cleaned and swept for the arrival of his master.