Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: A Short Reflection On True Horror

Photo Credit: Carmen Taylor, AP
In the opening of the movie Apocalypse Now there are scenes with flames, backed up with The Doors' depressing and ominous mantra, The End.  I've always been affected by that particular sequence because it just seemed so final - and the film hadn't even started.
And I remember feeling that similar anxiety on 9/11, watching scenes of the World Trade Center and Pentagon in flames.  I could hear that Doors song in the back of my head while all the television reporters raced around like monkeys and the world stood frozen in time, stunned at the outbreak of unbelievable violence that had happened on America's home turf.

I'm not a political person.  And this is obviously not a political blog.  But for someone who has seen unimaginable frights and outrageously violent scenes put to film and enjoyed it, I felt I needed to take a minute and recognize a moment in time that probably terrified me more than any horror film I have ever seen (or will see for that matter.)

I read somewhere once that 'terror is stronger than horror, though it usually lasts for a shorter time'.  For me, those words could not be farther from the truth.  Terror leaves a scar on your soul that never goes away.
Ten years ago I was working the front desk at a medical office (where I am still employed).  We had barely opened when we heard the report on the radio of the first tower being hit by the plane.  We all gawked at each other, and made comments with the patients about how bizarre it was - had that ever occurred before anywhere else?  What a crazy thing to happen!  Of course it wasn't long before the report of the second tower being struck, and I recall getting this unnerving feeling in my gut.  Something wasn't right.  The words terrorist attack started flying out of not just the newscaster's mouths, but the patients in the waiting room were buzzing.  By the time the Pentagon got hit, everyone was utterly rattled.   I recall our cleaning lady calling to ask if we wanted her to bring in a little TV (we aren't one of those fancy offices with televisions running CNN 24/7) so we could watch the coverage - of course we said yes. And in between seeing patients we would all gather around the TV and watch in horror.  I remember how I couldn't wait to get home and glue my eyes to the TV and gather everything in, to try to understand what happened.  
I also couldn't wait to see my husband.  There were moments - and I'm sure it was this way for everyone - in which I got this "doomsday" feeling that morning, as if the whole world was going to implode and I wouldn't get the chance to tell everyone I cared about just that. 
I'm no spring chicken.  I wasn't ten years old when the towers were hit, I was 33.  It affected me, and I remember it like it was yesterday.  September 11th didn't mean I threw a fit because I wasn't able to go to the playground that day, it meant my supper was take-out pizza sitting around the TV watching CNN.  For the next two weeks!  It meant feeling helpless and paralyzed with fear about the future.  It meant horror movies could take a siesta because what I saw was more chilling than the best Hitchcock film out there. 

As fans of horror movies, sometimes we are outcasts to society.  People shake their heads and wonder just what the hell is wrong with us - why on earth would we want to witness fake death and see such horrific things done to people?  And why the hell would we pay money to do so?  

All of those people are hypocrites of the most colossal kind.  For these are people whose eyes were also unable to look away on 9/11.  They too, wanted to see those poor folks jumping to their deaths from the burning towers.  They hoped to catch a glimpse of someone who actually made it out and was bleeding from every orifice.  They are no better and in fact quite possibly worse than we "horror fans". We pay to see artificial death- so maybe we're the stupid ones, because we can get it for free on the ten o'clock news for heaven's sake.  We are ALL curiosity seekers - be it morbid or not.  I don't think there is a soul alive that wasn't affected in some way by 9/11.  And no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't look away.

Imagine for a moment, being on a flight that is suddenly hijacked by terrorists.  Once you find out, you're scared, terrified even.  But you probably just think you're not going to land in LA, that the hijackers have some sort of ulterior motive, another city they want taken to. Maybe everything will be okay if the pilots just land where they want. I'm sure it didn't cross any minds right away that they would be crashing into a building. On purpose.  But once that horrific realization set in, can you imagine anything more frightening than knowing the pilot isn't flying the plane anymore? Or than trying to make that final phone call to your husband or wife?  Knowing that you're going to die in minutes?  Your guts are churning because the plane is descending 10,000 feet a minute, and in the end all you can see is the World Trade Center getting closer and closer?  Alternately, imagine being inside the tower and seeing a plane barreling towards your office window.  To me, this is more shocking and ghastly than anything I have ever, EVER seen in a horror movie. 

In the days after the attacks, it's true, America changed.  I remember driving to work on September 12th and all I could see throughout my little town was red, white and blue.  EVERYONE had their flags out.  Even though it was the worst time in the history of the nation, my heart swelled with pride that I was American.  The events regarding Flight 93 hit home for me because I live only 85 miles away from Shanksville, Pa. where the passengers took control of the plane and crashed it into a field to avoid further mayhem.  The bravery those passengers showed was unsurpassed, but I know I would have been totally behind them if I'd have been on that plane and would have done whatever I could to help foil the plans of those terrorists. 
Watching the change that has overtaken the USA over the last ten years, I realize that in the past we hoped nothing bad would happen, but these days we expect it.  We're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The constant fear of another terror attack, nuclear holocaust, further military advancement in the Middle East, hell- even natural disasters.  We know something is coming, we just don't know when.  The hint of real-life horror is always overhead, waiting. 

So then why do I watch horror?  Why do I want to subject myself to such things when all I need do is read the paper or turn on the evening news?  I can see men abusing and killing their wives, children being molested, racial turmoil, natural disasters wreaking havoc on a regular basis, foreign countries warning us of impending's all there for the taking.  And it's also part of the reason I almost cannot stand to watch the news.  Most of what I get I see online.  Because real-life horror is so much tougher to take.  Give me a nasty revenge film any day over real-life footage of a man who has kept his stepdaughter in a dungeon basement for thirteen years.  I can take the simulated violence.  It's the real stuff that keeps me up at night and changes my way of thinking.  And 9/11 only exacerbated that fear.

I guess what I'm trying to say in this rambling post is that it's not enough for me to just remember the events of 9/11, I have to hold it in my heart.  It's changed me, and my outlook for the future.  It's hard to remain positive when things have become so grim.  And when someone asks me again why I watch horror - how can I watch it with so much real-life horror going on -  I'm just going to tell them it's my defense mechanism, because I've grown to think of it that way. After all, truth is stranger - and much more unsettling - than fiction.

"This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into your eyes...again"
              ~The Doors


James Gracey said...

This is a great article Chris. Nothing we see in horror cinema can ever top the horrors that occur on a daily basis throughout the world – or those depicted on the news. I can only imagine the pandemonium in New York (indeed, the States in general) all those years ago.

Growing up in Northern Ireland throughout the Eighties when the news ALWAYS featured stories about terrorist bombings and killings kind of hardened me and numbed me to ‘real life’ horror, which is a horrible thing to admit – but that was just the reality back then. Hearing about places and people you were familiar with being bombed or murdered was just relentless. I even remember being in several bomb scares myself growing up - there was a kind of dreadful excitement. Perhaps all this has attributed to my love of horror.

I guess watching horror provides us with a (safe) outlet for our anxieties – it channels them and distracts us from the horrors of real life. And you’re so right about everyone having morbid curiosity – at least horror fans are honest about theirs.

I think Stephen King once said that what made us human was the fact that we’re the only species aware of our own mortality. Horror helps us deal with that.


: said...

Now that's what I call a blog post.

Absolutely CHILLING.

Wonderful work.


Christine Hadden said...

James (Gracey): I've often wondered what it must have been like for you to grow up amidst all the violence in NI, how it affected you. I see similarities in how I have dealt with 9/11 and how you have dealt with all the ongoing strife over there. Sometimes I think we have to be a lot healthier, at least mentally/emotionally for being horror fans, we deal with things in our own ways - whereas many people simply can't deal at all. The world will always be filled with violence...I'm just glad we have our own outlets to get some relief. And glad we can find kindred souls out there that mirror ourselves. xo

And (the other) James: Thanks much for the compliment. While many people either ignored or couldn't find a way to deal with 9/11, I just felt like I had to say something. Coping mechanism, you know? :)