In action and conspiracy movies, we identify with the hero the whole time. Even when the heroes are kicking themselves in the third quarter for being overconfident in the second quarter, we fully identify, since we shared their adrenaline rush, and we, too, failed to see the disaster coming.
Thrillers are trickier. We share the thrill of transgression in the second quarter, but we do see the disaster coming, and we withhold some of our sympathy even then. In the third quarter, when the sinning hero suffers consequences, we switch to a judgmental attitude and look down on the same transgressions that we just vicariously enjoyed.
In horror, we always empathize with the heroes, in that we share their fear, but we rarely sympathize, because their suffering is usually somehow their fault. The transgression usually happens much earlier, in the first quarter or before the movie starts, and we take no joy from it. Instead, our joy comes from a mix of sharing the heroes’ fear and sharing the evil force’s desire to punish them. As the advantage keeps shifting between the two sides, we win either way.
Transgression / Denial and Dread of Unseen Consequences / Horror at Visible Consequences / Triumph or Succumb:
- Frankenstein (transgression = creating life)
- King Kong (transgression = fetishization of the exotic)
- Rosemary’s Baby (punished for the ambition of her husband)
- Halloween (Laurie is punished for the sexual transgressions of her friends)
- Alien (transgression = defending company)
- The Shining (transgression = drinking and abusing child, happened before movie)
- Scream (transgression = lack of desensitization to horror combined with old-fashioned teen horniness)
- The Birds (Critics have twisted themselves into knots trying to figure out why the opening scenes justify the attack. I think Hitch’s true point is that people will always blame themselves for nature’s fury, even when they shouldn’t.)
- Night of the Living Dead (“What did humanity do to deserve this?” is the implied question, which is ironically answered by the final scene)
- The Exorcist (The priests keep asking why the devil would choose this girl)
- Saw (Victims try to figure out what they did wrong)
- 28 Days Later (Again, “What did we do to deserve this?” is asked many times)
Tomorrow: Drama and Tragedy