My dislike of horror films goes back to an aversion to lack of control. I can still recall having the bejeezus scared out of me in that scene in The Princess Bride where Fezzik throws a rock at Westley’s head. The Fire Swamp and the ROUS were no problem, but for the first couple dozen times, though I knew what was coming and when, I’d still look away or leave the room until it was over.
Even today I watch scary movies by focusing on the lower left-hand corner. I found this advice a long time ago, that nothing ever happens there. It’s the combination of the visuals and the sound that cause my primitive lizard-primate amygdala to kick into high gear.
Friends of mine who love horror films, and even commentaries I’ve read on this, all talk about how the allure of the genre is that it makes you feel alive. In witnessing the (albeit simulated) gruesome ends of other human beings that, with the adrenaline rush and flood of other hormones, the viewer appreciates the fact that they’re not being devoured by zombies or vivisected by a crazy man with a chainsaw. It’s the relief of knowing the other monkey got eaten by the tiger and that you’ve lived to peel another banana. And, on some level, it speaks to the Marquis de Sade lurking in all of us.
It’s not that I’m squeamish. One of my favorite shows is Showtime’s Dexter, where a serial killer conscientiously (and creatively) dispatches other killers who slip through the cracks in the criminal justice system. It’s a show that has brought “kill room” into the cultural lexicon. It’s more that horror films have a way of haunting and lingering in my already overactive imagination.
This past weekend I discovered a new way of staying clear of horror movie dread. My boyfriend and his family enjoy scary movies, and the other day we were watching a 2007 German film called Butterfly: A Grimm Love Story, a 2003 movie inspired by the Armin Meiwes cannibal murder. If you can’t recall this story, it’s the one in which a German man (Meiwes) wrote an advert seeking a male volunteer who wanted to be killed and eaten. His lamb (or pig, I suppose, since human flesh allegedly tastes like pork) came in the person of Bernd Jürgen Brandes. In the film the names are changed, but the events mirror reality, as summarized by the Wikipedia page on Meiwes:
As is known from a videotape the two made when they met on 9 March 2001 in Meiwes’s home in the small town of Rotenburg, Meiwes amputated Brandes’ penis and the two men attempted to eat the penis together before Brandes was killed. Brandes had insisted that Meiwes attempt to bite his penis off. This did not work and ultimately, Meiwes used a knife to remove Brandes’ penis. Brandes apparently tried to eat some of his own penis raw, but could not because it was too tough and, as he put it, “chewy”. Meiwes then fried the penis in a pan with salt, pepper, wine and garlic; he then fried it with some of Brandes’ fat but by then it was too burned to be consumed. He then chopped it up into chunks and fed it to his dog.
In a post-Saw and –Hostel movie market, it’s perversely refreshing to find a film based on actual events instead of merely the sick and twisted things that people dream up. Hostel, according to the filmmakers, is supposedly based on “actual events” – in this case, rumors of $10,000 Thai “murder vacations.” This is not entirely far-fetched, for as writer David Sedaris writes in his book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames:
Tell someone the police picked you up in Bangkok, and they reasonably assume that, after having sex with the eight-year-old, you turned her inside out and roasted her over hot coals, this last part, the cooking without a permit, being illegal under Thai law.
Jason and I were watching Butterfly in his bedroom one evening a few hours before bed – you know, to unwind. He recently inherited an armchair from his grandmother, and it now rests adjacent to the television. It’s positioned so that it’s possible to lean comfortably (and safely) over to see what’s happening on screen. So while he was on the bed watching the movie, I was in the armchair with my trusty 760-page Jon Meacham biography of Thomas Jefferson (which is an absolute marvel of nonfiction and highly recommended, in my opinion).
Occasionally something would happen or Jason would make a comment about the movie, and I’d look up from my biography to peer over. My take on the movie is that it tries to put a desperate sympathetic spin on some very sick and twisted people. In the film, Meiwes becomes Oliver Hartwin, a gay man whose crazy, possessive mother drowned, leaving him riddled with guilt over her death. Brandes becomes Simon Grombeck. Keri Russell plays a criminal psychology student who’s obsessed with the case.
Throughout the movie I kept waiting for the Sassy Gay Friend to swoosh in to scold everyone, yelling, “What are you doing? What, what, what are you doing?” It’s a story of people making extremely poor life decisions; of looking a gift lion in the mouth and doing a triple salchow into its gaping maw.
No, that’s not a half-digested gazelle carcass in the lion’s stomach. It’s your own butchered and mangled corpse sizzling in a frying pan!
It wouldn’t have been so horrific had this not been a true story: that a grown man let another man try to bite his penis off. Most people watch this and wonder what could happen to bring two people to the edge of that cliff: a cannibal writes an ad, an equally crazy victim answers it, and then both of them jump off into the unthinkable.
I watch it knowing how close we probably are to becoming our own horror stories.