CURSED FILMS: Mitch Horowitz on the Evolution of Horror Films

A still from the documentary / horror series “CURSED FILMS,” a Shudder / RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Shudder / RLJE Films.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Mitch Horowitz has long been known as a historian and voice for alternative spirituality. His interest in esoterica, mysticism, and the occult have brought him awards and high acclaim from filmmakers such as David Lynch. He is now lending his unique voice to Jay Cheel’s new Shudder series, Curse Films, which looks at notorious cinematic mysteries that audiences have speculated about for years.

Horowitz sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about his interest in the esoteric and the new series he is a part of.

John Bucher: Tell me about where your interest in cursed films comes from. You’ve been someone who’s been interested in the more esoteric corners of the world for a long time, but when did you start thinking about these things in terms of film?

Mitch Horowitz: I’m not known as a commentator on film, certainly not as a film critic, but horror is one of those categories of entertainment – in fact, it’s probably the primary category of entertainment – that coincides with people’s actual beliefs. Given that my area of specialty as a writer is the occult and the esoteric, those themes underscore most horror movies, from the classics to the current day.

My contention is that if The Exorcist had never been released, the term “exorcism” to most of us today would just be a crossword puzzle term. It wouldn’t be something that everybody would know, that everybody would have some familiarity or opinion with, and I’m struck by the extent to which people’s notions about exorcism, or so-called demon possession, are so informed by The Exorcist to the point that even people who haven’t seen the film repeat its themes, just because they’re so deeply a part of our culture.

John Bucher: We are living in an interesting time, where the way that people psychologically embrace magical thinking has taken a lot of different forms, from conspiracy theories involving politics to all sorts of things. What do you think is the role of horror films in a world that is so immersed in magical thinking?

Mitch Horowitz: That’s interesting. Horror has perennial themes that touch upon how we feel that life is structured. It very often pits good against evil in some way, in some very primeval way. The earliest horror films are really stories about either humanity’s hubris destroying itself, as in the case of Frankenstein, or having to face down the forces of evil – zombies or mummies walking around, indicating that there’s some physicality to life that we don’t understand.

Very often horror will frame people’s ideas about the nature of existence, and sometimes horror will just frame our ideas about the difficulties of daily life. The Shining – even though it’s a generation old – is the perfect story for our time. In the age of COVID, it says something about the dangers of being cooped up together for too long a time. I suspect any parent who has participated in remote learning could watch The Shining with a rueful understanding of what happens to poor Jack and his family.

John Bucher: You mentioned some of the earlier films, Frankenstein and the early Lon Chaney stuff, and then we had this season of films like The Exorcist and Poltergeist, which the series covers. What do you think is the difference between those early films and those films from the ’70s and ’80s? It seems the way they approached darker subject matter had a shift that was very profound.

Mitch Horowitz: I think that’s right on. The early films tended to frame good and evil in a very binary way. You never had any problem knowing who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy in a movie like Dracula. Or if you have a film like The Wolfman, we understand that the character is a victim of tragic circumstance, but the demarcation of good and evil is very plain and is very clear.

Then when you get into a movie like Rosemary’s Baby, the so-called bad guys are these slightly wacky, offbeat, but rather likable neighbors. They’re nosy, they’re intrusive, but they’re not so bad. Or you have Rosemary’s husband, Guy Woodhouse, who seems to be a dangerous narcissist, but at the same time is handsome, funny, likable. And at certain points, it’s not altogether clear whether Rosemary is really experiencing any of this or whether she’s just maybe suffering from delusions, and that seems to be the turning point, in a way, for the horror movie, and that theme continues up through our own era.

The good guys and the bad guys fall into the gray areas. It’s interesting. You can even suggest the same is true with The Exorcist. You have the forces of evil represented by this demon who’s occupying the young girl. You have the forces of good, who are represented by the priests in the movie, but then you have this middle ground where you have all these accomplished, cocktail party, habituate friends of Regan’s mother who all seemed very ineffective and overly sure of themselves and hence are incapable of dealing with this bizarre situation. I think that human nature comes under more of a microscope, certainly, within contemporary horror films.

John Bucher: You have written quite a bit about the occult and ritual and things of that nature. What do you believe is the role of ritual when it comes to the process of making a film? Do you think that in the midst of the chaos of all these people trying to make a film, we see patterns and we try and create meanings sometimes where there may or may not be meaning? How do you think these ideas form that curses exist on these projects? Where does it come from psychologically?

Mitch Horowitz: It’s an interesting question. In this particular case, I agree with the perspective of the filmmaker, Jay Cheel. I don’t think that these projects were cursed in any metaphysical sense of the word. I think that there were accidents of human nature. There were mechanical accidents that probably could have been avoided if people were behaving more scrupulously on set, by which I mean certain people who were responsible either for safety, or in the case of The Twilight Zone film, the director. And yet at the same time, I take very seriously the prospect of an extra physical dimension to life.

A still from the documentary / horror series “CURSED FILMS,” a Shudder / RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Shudder / RLJE Films.

I don’t believe that we human beings are just flesh and bone, and that our psyches are the equivalent of bubbles in a glass of carbonated water: when the water’s gone, or when the carbonation is gone, the bubbles are gone. I think there is some extra physical dimension to our existence, but it’s very hard to walk that line because in making that declaration, that doesn’t mean that I myself want to encourage anybody to lean into credulity.

We have far too much credulity in our culture today, and there’s so much information to absorb, and just because life is complicated, almost all of us are forced to be generalists. I don’t want people to lean into some kind of excessive credulity, but I also don’t want educated folk or inquiring people to out-of-hand dismiss possibilities that our lives exceed the physical, simply because someone else is dictating to us that that’s the meaning of rationalism. The meaning of rationalism, I think, is probably an absence of approved risks, a willingness to question and the capacity to place your judgment, to play some sort of favorable judgment upon people who are well-credentialed, but not to sacrifice the sense of informed questioning.

John Bucher: I remember once Duncan Trussell called you a cross between Aleister Crowley and Alan Watts. You have a unique ability to really dig into some of the darker aspects of the human experience and find wisdom and find gold, as an alchemist might. What do you think there is to be gained in looking into these films that we can pull out and take with us? What sort of insights can we gain by looking at these films that some people have called cursed?

Mitch Horowitz: There’s two different perspectives on it. One perspective is that the whole series is really the story of how hubris and tragedy can play out in ways that human nature is unwilling to accept, so we refer to certain things as being cursed. The truth is, sometimes the forensics of an accident are just either a series of tragedies or a series of missteps and misjudgments that could have been averted.

Other times I think the films themselves, in terms of their stories, are a lesson in the pitfalls of hubris. One doesn’t necessarily have to believe that if you build your house on top of an Indian burial ground, as in Poltergeist, a clown doll is going to come to life and try to strangle you, but it’s pretty good statement that we should be aware of the price that has been paid by people who were on this soil before us, and we should be aware of our responsibility to the memory of those people and those cultures.

I don’t think that your cocktail party friends are going to hand you into the clutches of the devil by not believing in the supernatural, as in The Exorcist, but I also think it’s a decent lesson that sophisticated people, educated people, media savvy people are not always in possession of all the answers and that sometimes there’s the dimension of what might be called “fake” that figures really strongly and rightfully into a person’s life.

I think horror films do a good job of exposing us to human limitations, and sometimes we derive that from history, and we seem to perpetually have to relearn those lessons.

Cursed Films is now available in full release on Digital, DVD, and Blu-Ray.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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