“War is war and hell is hell. Of the two war is worse. There are no innocent bystanders in hell.”
– Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H)
War is Hell
May 8th is V-E Day, which used to be a big celebration but (in North America, at least) has kind of faded into the background. V-E Day is the celebration of Europe’s victory in World War II. It commemorates the end of the fighting in Europe and Germany’s official surrender.
What does this have to do with horror? Good question. War fiction spans many genres: Military, Romance, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Drama and Horror. I’m going to be focusing on World War II horror specifically in this post. Which does narrow the field a bit but not much. World War II is a very popular ‘battlefield’ for horror writers. It could be because the Nazi party was rumoured to believe in the occult. Or, perhaps because it was the scene of so many horrors. Perhaps because the SS officers are scary looking. Perhaps because the Nazi ideology is more prone to breed monsters, human and inhuman.
Horror, in my opinion, is well adapted to the themes that war presents. It can delve into the psychological and physical traumas that war inflicts. Unlike other genres (excluding science fiction) horror and dark fantasy are not bound by reality so writers have a wider range to work with. Horror is also not bound to a certain genre, giving the horror writer that much more scope for imagination to wander. They can summon up our darkest nightmares, fears and psychology and place them in an easily recognizable theater.
There is a great variety of war horror ranging from zombies to vampires to werewolves to ghosts and the ghosts that haunt our own minds. Psychological horror tends to focus mostly on the mental state of former soldiers or civilians caught up in the brutality. All mediums are very effective in portraying it, although novels, to me, seem to be able to go more in-depth with this than movies. Movies can only go so far in portraying visually a character’s breakdown of reality (or the regaining of humanity). Novels, by dint of their length and attention to detail can portray far easier the thought processes behind actions and their subsequent effects on the morality of the character. Or lack thereof.
In the older action movies the Allies were always the ‘good guys’, the heroes. They suffered no mental consequences. Shell-Shock (PTSD) was the established term at the time but it was an embarrassing secret that no one talked about. The soldiers in these movies reinforced this idea by their heroes being larger than life.
Horror has the luxury of showing that things don’t always end well. Sometimes the Heroes aren’t as heroic as we’d like. Sometimes they fight their hardest but in the end things will still end badly. Stephen King said, “We make up horrors to cope with real ones.” To me that’s very applicable here. His novella Apt Pupil (from the book Different Seasons) brings forth the concept that evil ideas can bring forth evil actions. It can also be seductive and to awaken it in yourself or someone else is like opening Pandora’s Box. You can neither get rid of it nor put the lid back on it as easily as you had hoped. One of the more chilling scenes in the story is where Todd has his pet former-SS officer dress up in costume for his pleasure. It should be a ridiculous scene. Dussander, a frail old man dressed up in a shabby, historically inaccurate costume goose-stepping around an equally shabby kitchen. It’s not. It’s terrifying. Stephen King paints the picture vibrantly. He also does a great job with Todd’s character. Rather than make the character of Todd a macabre loner, he instead makes him an All-American Boy Next Door type. It hammers home the point that evil is not always identifiable. The story is far superior to the movie. Ian McKellan as Dussander is the only high point. The director watered down the violence and changed the ending to a pale imitation. I can understand why, in part. Perhaps he didn’t want the Holocaust to be entertainment. It’s understandable. It’s not something to be lightly shown. However, it’s part of the power of the book. The changed ending is annoying to say the least. I certainly recommend the story over the movie. The song ‘A Skeleton in the Closet‘ by Anthrax is based on this story.
Nazi zombies are very popular in horror fiction (The Night Boat – Robert R. McCammon), movies (Dead Snow, Outpost and many more), Comics (Nazi Zombies), and video games (Call of Duty: Zombies). While I do read, watch and enjoy Monkey Bombing the occasional zombie I don’t read as much of it as other horror buffs. I think the reason ‘Nazi Zombie’ is such a popular fictional character is that zombies are easy. I’m not trying to disparage zombie books and movies but special effects are easier, they’re easier to explain and they do look pretty cool in the uniform. I’d love to hear the opinion of people who read and watch widely in this category.
It isn’t just zombies that get their day in the sun when it comes to World War II horror. Vampires, demons and ghosts certainly get their midnight moments as well. Vampires, werewolves and creatures are usually more action-oriented. Groups of soldiers (on either side) battling the various creatures of the night. Ghost stories usually delve a bit more deeply into the psychological aspects whether through possession or literally being haunted by the ghosts of the past. Sometimes the ghosts are more in the mind or ambiguous in nature. Demonic stories can straddle both lines equally. A great example of this is The Gilgul by Henry W. Hocherman. A couple of my favorite movies deal directly with hauntings and the morality of war.
The first is Deathwatch. It is set in Word War I but the principles are basically the same. Since I am speaking to a lot of you horror buffs I’m sure some of you guys have heard of it already. However, since it often gets overlooked unfairly I’ll give you a basic rundown of the plot. A group of soldiers get lost in a mist and separated from their unit. They stumble upon a bunker in which they find a German soldier. The bunker may be more inhabited than it appears though. Although Deathwatch ends on a bit of a confusing note it certainly provides some thought provoking material. Who are the heroes? Are there any heroes? Where is the line of morality and humanity in certain contexts?
The second is Below, a submarine ghostly thriller. We’ve actually seen the sub they use in the movie. At least for the above water and dive scene. Trust me, watching it for the dive alone is worth it. It’s beautifully shot. The rest of the plot is a claustrophobic exercise in ghostly horror. It has it’s problems as well, but it keeps you on your toes and perfectly conveys the close circumstances of the submarine and how it can breed terror and paranoia. Throw in some ghostly vengeance and a terrible, tragic mistake and you’ve got one heck of a movie.
To wrap this up I’d like to add a few to the list for your reading and watching pleasure.
If I’ve missed any, or anyone has any thoughts on the subject, please don’t hesitate to comment. I’d love to hear from you!