A girl lost in the woods with two male companions discovers some artfully arranged twigs outside her tent and completely loses it. As does the audience. Why such a seemingly innocuous image both terrified and obsessed theater patrons across the nation is just one of the weird wonders in The Blair Witch Project in particular, of horror in general, and of the great horror boom of 1999. The number of horror films given wide national release (defined by Exhibitor Relations, the nation's oldest box-office tracking service, as distribution to more than 700 theaters) has gone from 13 in 1998 to 27 (and counting) in 1999. This may not seem like a lot, until you consider that only 108 films total have thus far gotten wide release in 1999. Nearly a quarter of this year's major releases have been horror film, and they are achieving unprecedented success: As of this writing, "The Blair Witch Project" has earned more than $140 million -- making it, reportedly, the most profitable film of all time; The Sixth Sense has taken in more than $273 million in box-office receipts, the 12th-biggest gross in movie history. The horror market is so bullish that even a terrible but thematically rich film like Stigmata can turn a good profit.
So to say we're in the middle of a bona fide horror boom is something of an understatement. But after about 14 years of near disinterest on the part of mainstream audiences and filmmakers, the question is: Why now? Horror films are all about locating our psychic pressure points. Sexual angst ("Stigmata," The Rage: Carrie 2), money woes (Stir of Echoes, The Haunting), fragmented families (almost all horror films since the '80s), fear of the past (all ghost movies), fear of the present (all horror movies) and fear of the future (most cinematic sci-fi, such as this year's The Astronaut's Wife, is horror with a techno gloss) are all prime grist for the horror mill. Chaos and death add emotional heft to these fear-film verities. As "Scream" director Wes Craven -- the former Johns Hopkins University grad student whose name is now as synonymous with horror as Alfred Hitchcock's is with suspense -- points out, "We always think we can legislate a democracy and things will run according to reasonable and conscious behavior, and we often find that it all suddenly goes right out the window because of -- we don't know what."
Without addressing one of the themes listed above, a horror movie simply does not work. The biggest hits usually play on a combination of these themes or images. Horror allows us to vicariously deal -- consciously or not -- with all sorts of fears. As Joshua Leonard, playing one of the doomed filmmakers in "Blair Witch," says during a tense moment in that film, "It's like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what's on the other side." Because horror operates in such primal registers, notions of whether a film is "good" or "bad" are often less important than whether it effectively plays on these themes. (Renny Harlin's technically assured Deep Blue Sea is a fear-free bore, but an incoherent mess such as Neil Jordan's In Dreams can haunt you for years.) In horror cinema, the message, not the medium, is key. In a time when all information is filtered through corporate media, Craven says, the genre has particular appeal because horror films "are not as processed. [People] are barraged with so much massaged information that there's a sense that nobody knows what the truth is. You can't get a more primitive, primal, absolutely guaranteed 100 percent true truth than 'we're mortal.'"
To some degree, all filmmakers reflect their world in their work, but horror films, which by nature trade in exaggerated takes on topical terrors, report on the culture in which they operate with particular -- and surprising -- acuity. Every generation gets the nightmares it deserves -- or, perhaps, needs, in order to exorcise its particular demons. Indeed, film audiences have always looked to the big screen for nightmare fodder. In the 1930s, a foundering studio called Universal noticed that "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" were two of the rare novels that had never been out of print since first being published. The studio made incredibly successful film versions of these two horror classics, and thereby founded an empire.
Universal's success might seem like a fluke until you look at America at the time: reeling from the Depression, hung over from the hedonistic excesses of the Jazz Age, and wary of developments in Europe. How could a movie character such as Dracula, who symbolized all these fears, fail to click? Meanwhile, public unease over the new methods of "scientific" mass slaughter utilized in World War I resulted in a decade-spanning slew of mad-science features.
The major studios of the 1940s, fearful of the effects of cinematic horror on audiences weary from the real thing overseas, largely stopped producing horror flicks -- until the '50s, when the fear of imminent atomic annihilation filled theaters with nuke-spawned, city-wrecking monsters.
A pattern of cultural-mirroring had set in: In the '60s, Time magazine asked "Is God Dead?" and the movies answered in the affirmative via "Rosemary's Baby." The '70s saw fears about the generation gap and untamable youth represented by a nice, upper-middle-class girl turned obscenity- and bile-spewing menace in "The Exorcist."
To British author/film critic Kim Newman (author of "Nightmare Movies"), the current climate for horror was seeded during the '80s, with the policies of Thatcher and Reagan. "They were so monolithic and the unfairness in society they fostered so blatant that all oppositional thought withered, which lends an edge of despair to the films of the '80s," Newman says. The resulting horror films displayed a nihilistic urge to "trash everything, to turn out films denuded of meaning."
From about 1989 on -- with the rule-proving exception of 1991's "Silence of the Lambs" -- horror held steady as an artistically stagnant niche genre serving only adolescents and cult audiences until, in 1996, "Scream" found a comfortably postmodern context for its story of media-twisted teens. Its commercial success (approximately $174 million in box-office receipts to date) revealed a new audience waiting for a decade's worth of suppressed darkness to hit the screens.
The new horror boom is all about premillennial tensions. It's pretty clear what America is screaming about: the link among the changing roles of women, the economy, and our shared -- or perhaps unshared -- future.
What the new horror films envision for women is the promise of a postfeminist, post-"grrrl," economically based empowerment that will see you through anything, as long as you are accessorized with attitude, media smarts and the correct array of consumables. The tension in these films comes from the possibility that all this may prove worthless in a pinch. The most successful of this year's crop, "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense," are also the most obvious cinematic manifestations of this conflict.
In "Blair Witch" media-raised youths come up against the ineffable, and not even Hi8 cameras and pop-culture savvy can save them. Our heroine, Heather (Heather Donahue), despite her single-minded '90s-careerist determination -- which seems to have consumed her sex drive -- can do nothing to save anyone from anything. Stripped of her film-school hipster veneer, and with no deeper resources to draw upon, she becomes a weeping shell of her former self.
In a film touted as being cutting edge, Heather's dissolution is stereotypical female cinematic behavior. Would audiences have been as willing to accept as their on-screen surrogate a male who makes hare-brained decisions, loses the way, breaks down in tears when things get rough and finally ends up praying into the camera for forgiveness? As culture critic David J. Skal (author of "The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror") notes, "A lot of the film's narrative interest comes from an underlying sexism: That the girl's belief in her own intuition drags everyone to hell. 'Mushy' feminine logic ruins everything."
"The Sixth Sense," among other things, is practically a catalog of glamorized female loss and daunted expectation. Many remember Haley Joel Osment's indelible performance as the film's haunted child. But in many ways, the plot of "The Sixth Sense" is a red herring. The heart of the film lies with its women.
A supportive wife (Olivia Williams) is widowed by her psychiatrist husband's attention to a child client who represents a redemption she has absolutely nothing to do with. Meanwhile, the kid's mom (Toni Collette) is a vaguely "ethnic" person trying to raise her strange kid with no husband in sight. (In '90s horror, it's a given that the nuclear family is history.) Despite its vaguely uplifting finale, "The Sixth Sense" seems to imply that the only safe harbor left is heaven. Or hell. And you'll probably be going alone.
All of this bleak lonesomeness is presented to the audience in the familiar wrappings of classic horror. Without the comforting distractions of Tak Fujimoto's high-gloss gothic cinematography and director M. Night Shyamalan's clockwork injections of standard horror shocks, "The Sixth Sense" might have played too unbearably close to home.
Although it plays some of the same notes sounded by "The Sixth Sense," "Stigmata" is engaging trash that lacks the wit to be subtle. It features a trendily vacant Patricia Arquette as Frankie, whose job as a hairdresser somehow rewards her with a massive, art-strewn loft and the latest designer fashions. Frankie is presented as a modern-girl role model nonpareil: Guys lust for her while her girlfriends -- including a light-skinned black girl -- emulate her. Even a hunky priest (Gabriel Byrne) considers abandoning his collar in the face of her charms.
After a precredits zipless fuck, Frankie drops by an outdoor vendor for breakfast and worries about being pregnant. The film cuts to a frying egg. For today's audiences, it would seem that one toss-off joke is all a century of argument about reproductive rights is worth.
Frankie then begins, for no particular reason, to get stigmatized, which in the movie looks like a subway-set S&M session with God Himself, resulting in lots of discretely bleeding wounds. In the end, all matters of gender and identity are neutered as Frankie's body and that of a male priest morph into one another for obscure reasons.
As is often the case with horror, the fact that all this is illogical pap is almost irrelevant. "Stigmata" still functions as a sort of addled fairy tale, and so becomes an ironically effective critique of its female protagonist. The final frames imply that Frankie, after stigmatization, full of "grace" and deprived of MasterCard, is a more substantial person.
Meanwhile, "The Rage: Carrie 2," the belated sequel to Brian DePalma's horror-of-menstruation classic, is just as terrible a film as "Stigmata," but an even more extreme indicator of '90s gender-role bafflement.
In the original 1976 film, "Carrie" (Sissy Spacek) is a gawky outsider with a religious nut-job mom and radical telekinetic abilities. After the onset of her period, she's thrown into the complex and heartless social microcosm of high school. She falls for a decent semijock (William Katt), but the shit hits the fan when some rotten kids play a vicious prank on her at the prom. Carrie telekinetically obliterates the school, then goes home and does in Mom. Alone in a lousy universe, Carrie tears everything down and dies.
As the title character in "Carrie 2," Emily Bergl is a total fox from the get-go. The school jocks are complete weasels who rate their latest sexual conquests by score card. So, of course, Carrie falls for a jock, despite a friend having just killed herself as a result of their fuck-list shenanigans. When the guys play a video of Carrie having sex with her jock lover, she blows up her high school. But, being a modern movie girl, she can't even pull this off without causing a girder to crush her. Dying, she simpers to her jock beau: "Please! Don't leave me! I don't have anyone!"
One could glibly speculate that the film failed at the box office because of the new Carrie's lack of balls (that, and its overall dumbness). Whatever the case, it's no ad for girl power.
Finally, "Stir of Echoes" presents us with Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), possibly this year's most fully realized female character in any film. She has a job, is vulnerable yet able to deal with husband Tom's midlife ghost problems and, in the end, kicks serious supernatural butt. Audiences stayed away in droves, despite a first act that handily eclipses "The Sixth Sense" in terms of sheer creepiness. The reason may be that, unlike "The Sixth Sense," "Stir of Echoes" neglects to create the all-important distancing effect of glamour and easy shocks. As opposed to "Stigmata's" consumer-culture icon Frankie or "The Sixth Sense's" attractively suffering wife, Maggie is simply too realistic a reminder of what a good deal of the audience is: struggling, flawed, conflicted.
No matter how incompetently presented, there is in these films a sense of straining against the ultimate emptiness of a Gap-ad world, and an urge to break through narrow definitions of female -- and male -- identity for something more. But, this being America, it'll cost you.
As of this past July, according to U.S. Census figures, more than 36 million people were living below the poverty line. Approximately 49 million Americans -- 20 percent of the population -- reported having trouble paying their rent or mortgages. The boom of horror films is, ultimately, most concerned with what Craven calls "the reality that's behind the skein" of the reported economic boom of the '90s.
Skal goes further: "Horror, in America, is inextricably wound up with the fear of economic disenfranchisement and social ostracism. Stephen King mines this territory endlessly. People seem to enjoy addressing these issues indirectly, through a rubber horror mask."
Without exception, 1999 horror films define their characters via economics. The upwardly striving couple played by Annette Bening and Aidan Quinn in "In Dreams" attempt to re-create a one-income nuclear family. Their efforts result in Quinn's character dying and Bening's losing her mind and her child. "The Sixth Sense" opens with Bruce Willis' character and his wife celebrating a career-enhancing moment, only to be attacked by a person who was an accidental victim of the doctor's rise to fiscal security. The mad-science plot devices of "Deep Blue Sea" and Bats are powered by greed or power-lust resulting in lower-income characters being gruesomely dispatched, while "The Haunting" creates a literal representation of the gulf between the haves and have-nots via its Gorey-meets-Getty mansion, a nearly phantasmagoric icon of unattainable wealth.
"Stir of Echoes," again, doesn't provide much cathartic relief. Kevin Bacon's Tom is a telephone lineman with a working wife, one kid and a lousy little house in a withering Chicago neighborhood the economic "boom" missed. The film's supernatural angle almost doesn't matter; its "reality" is scary enough. Perhaps expectedly, even poetically, the film falls apart at the end, as it opts for conventional solutions to its crises.
With Y2K and its assorted nightmare scenarios, one assumes the horror films of 1999 would be rife with techno-terror. But the scariest thing about horror films and technology in a decade defined by the ascendance of the computer is how little horror, horror-tinged sci-fi films or any sort of films have to say about technology or its implications. Techno-horror has most often been downsized into a tiny plot element used for quick, easy scares best not dwelt upon. The Matrix smartly employs an incredible horror image -- a shot of thousands of crablike automatons clawing at sleeping babies -- to capitalize on our residual distrust of tech while calming any fears we might have about our PCs getting out of hand via its main story of a band of master tech-users utilizing Good Science for what will be, unequivocally, a better techno tomorrow.
The only successful 1999 film to address this neutral and/or submissive relationship to technology is "Blair Witch." Our trio's assumption that wielding their cameras will somehow make them impervious to the baser elements only proves the deadly uselessness of technology when confronted with the unexpected.
But we don't want to hear that technology can't save us. Without the benefit of the mockumentary gimmick or grass-roots marketing of "Blair Witch," a slew of movies from the last few years that dealt with the possible dark side of tech or were openly critical of it -- Virus, Dark City, "Event Horizon," "Alien Resurrection" -- nose-dived at the box office.
Most probably, our Y2K fears are simply too immediate to make comfortably discomfiting horror entertainment. Seen in this light, the incredible popularity of ghost stories-- this year's genre staple -- makes complete sense, as ghost stories dwell exclusively on past events.
Perhaps the Great Horror Boom of 1999 reflects not only our fears, but our overreactions. Maybe the future isn't really this grim. This is the year before the millennium. People get weird.
Whatever happens when the ball descends in Times Square, 2000 looks to be another banner year for the macabre. Right away, we'll be seeing lots of sequels: Craven's "Scream 3," "The Crow: Salvation" and "Jason X" await release; the inevitable "Blair Witch" sequel is in the works. And with a "Silence of the Lambs" sequel in preproduction, and "I Shot Andy Warhol" director Mary Harron's version of Bret Easton Ellis' yuppie-cannibal shocker "American Psycho" ready for release, we'll see the logical culmination of current economic horror trends in films in which the rich literally eat the not-as-rich.
But just as nobody knew that America was ready to catapult "The Sixth Sense" into cinema history, one can only guess what fresh hells we'll choose to explore in the early 21st century. That those hells will be explored is dead certain.
"In an age when we say that all frontiers have been explored except for space," Craven says, horror allows us to explore "the frontiers of human consciousness, the wellsprings of human erratic behavior, irrational behavior, dark behavior. And evil."
Or, as Ian McKellen reminded us earlier this year in Gods and Monsters, tapping his forehead: "The only monsters are here."