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Confessions of a Horror Virgin: Uncomfortable Truths

Horror and disaster flicks often employ a common trope by creating a villain who is universally loathed, who’s so awful the audience is rooting for their demise. It’s natural to want to believe we’d all do the right thing in a crisis, that we would save people’s lives and be heroes. The truth is, many of us might fail because of our fear or worse, we might actively sacrifice others to save ourselves.

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Train to Busan: Peninsula will be available on digital October 27. It definitely looks darker than Train to Busan, but if you need an excuse to rewatch Train to Busan—and really, does anyone need an excuse?—the upcoming release of Peninsula is a good reason for a rewatch. 

I was thinking about Train to Busan the other night because of a different movie. It wasn’t great, and when it was over, I mulled over a specific trope. There are a fair number of horror stories that involve the hated character. The one who is selfish, who will sacrifice others to save themselves in a heartbeat, whether it’s an elderly lady or a young child or a pregnant woman.

In Train to Busan, Seok-woo is a deadbeat dad. Oh, he pays the bills and he’s willing to throw money at his young daughter, but not much else. He can’t even remember what toys his daughter already has. 

While he’s easy to dislike from the start, there’s another character who’s worse. Yong-suk is only out for himself. He lies. He leaves other people to die. He creates situations that cost people their lives. 

While Seok-woo gets a redemption arc and rises to the occasion to save his daughter and others, the audience’s desire to see Yong-suk get nommed by a zombie multiplies steadily as the movie progresses.

Which is the way I felt about The Walking Dead’s Shane. Oh, I hated him. He was just the first in a long list of hate characters on that show, and some consider him the greatest villain the show has ever had. 

Ask me who my favorite characters are in any movie/show/book, and in the past, there’s one thing they almost always had in common. They’re good guys. Although there are a few exceptions, most of my favorites in the past have been the ones who fought on the side of angels.

The thing is, villains reveal an uncomfortable truth about us all, particularly in disaster or horror films. I’m not talking about the villains in crime shows; their motivations are different. In disaster and horror films, villains are usually driven by fear or opportunity. They’re either terrified of dying and will do anything to survive, or they see a possibility for profit or some personal gain from the situation. 

Audiences love to see those characters get their due, but it’s less common for us to really examine what these characters reveal about ourselves. We’d all like to believe we’d be Sang-hwa in Train to Busan, because he’s likable and funny from the start. Or at least Seok-woo. But nobody wants to be Yong-suk. 

Nobody wants to be the asshole.

But if I’m honest with myself, I realize I could be.

Until we’re in a situation where our lives are on the line, until we’re facing an unexpected horror, we don’t know how we’d react. Even good people can do the wrong thing in a scary situation. Think Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, at the time you hate him because he betrays Han, but we quickly learn he sought assurances to keep Han and the others alive, and he quickly acts to protect them all. 

Perhaps one of the reasons many stories don’t really interrogate the motives of villains and blur the lines between good guys and bad guys is because the writers don’t want to examine the darkness within themselves. Maybe writers also realize a lot of people like simple good versus evil stories, and that stories emphasizing characters who are various shades of gray can make the audience uncomfortable. And there is a time and place for this type of storytelling. After all, movies, shows, and books are entertainment. They aren’t all designed to make us search our souls, and I suspect one reason for this popular trope is to allow the audience to easily identify and relate to the good guys.

After all, if we’re rooting for the good guys, doesn’t it suggest we’re also good?

After some soul-searching, I’ve realized it’s when storytellers go beyond the surface presentation of good and bad that you rise above the common trope and flesh out characters who are compelling and memorable. I saw this quote on a blog or writing article somewhere and made a note of it:

The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold. -Norman Cousins 

It’s true. Exploring contrasting motivations can be a great way of building tension, causing conflict in the story and in the reader/viewer’s heart, and really fleshing out those characters and making them memorable. 

I have a horrific memory and quickly forget character names, book titles, and movie titles. However, once I started considering this topic, I realized that the stories that have stayed with me the most are ones where the characters did blur into the grays, where the authors avoided simplistic tropes, and often where they examined the darkness lurking within their protagonists.  

Going back to The Walking Dead, Carol was one of my favorites when I watched the show. Her circumstances elicit sympathy from the start, because her husband was an abusive jerk and then she loses her daughter. Carol somehow finds the strength to survive, and it’s that strength that enables her to do some things others couldn’t. She kills Karen and David at the prison, and later kills Lizzie. In both situations, Carol was able to step up and do what others couldn’t in order to save lives, but the responses were drastically different. She was exiled from the prison for Karen and David’s deaths. When she helps rescue Rick and the group from Terminus, she’s welcomed back. The show used situational ethics to add to the complexity of her character and show how sometimes, doing what’s considered the wrong thing may be the right choice. It prompts the viewer to interrogate those complexities, and casts doubt on the idea of absolute right and wrong, which can be frightening to consider.

One story that comes to mind for me is The Bone Shard Daughter (reviewed here). There are multiple point of view characters who all have their own narrative arcs in the story. Each has their own nemesis, and in that respect, it can seem like you’re reading multiple good versus evil stories, where it’s clear who we’re supposed to root for and against.

However, something happens throughout the story that turns this on its head. To avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, I’m using the content warning block to reference this. 

By the end of the book, the storylines following some of the POV characters intersect. While it was easy to champion them throughout the work, some of them have opposing interests. This sets the stage for book 2, where characters we once championed will be pitted against each other, and this promises to be an intriguing development. My exact reaction at the end of the book was, “Oh, hell no,” because I realized I might find myself hoping for the demise of someone I’d once been rooting for.

You could also argue that Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun plays with the development of characters who are not all good or bad. Serapio’s mother is the first that comes to mind, but there are others. And, again, to avoid spoilers I’m going to use the content warning bar:

The end of the book potentially pits sympathetic characters against each other, and I have no idea who I’m rooting for.

Can you think of stories that embraced this evil character trope, or turned in on its head and used it in a compelling way? I may not always like the uncomfortable truths these characters reveal about humanity, but I realize now that these are exactly the kinds of stories I want to consume. Who do you feel dirty cheering for, but are compelled to root for anyway, no matter how bad they get?

Published inHorror Book Reviews
©Sci-Fi & Scary 2019
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