What happens to us after we die? Is it true that our souls go to Heaven to meet our Lord God? Or is there even a God to believe in in the first place? These are questions that have probably been asked by humanity for decades and decades, yet, they still seem to have no answer. Many branches of Philosophy and Theology say that the notion of God is incomprehensible, that we may never really understand it until the day that we’re actually face to face with Him, if there is even a Him to understand. Interestingly, the same goes for the genre of horror. There seems to be no true definition of what horror actually is, given the plethora of movies that exist. Many scholars and critics argue that this genre cannot simply be constituted to just a particular set of characteristics (eg. the slasher, the monster, the zombie, or simply the presence of blood in a film), that horror goes beyond what people believe to be its conventions. These are two different ideologies that the film Martyrs (dir. Pascal Laugier, 2008) tries to reconcile.
So many questions filled my head in the beginning of the movie, especially as to the direction where the film was headed. It seemed to me as if it was a typical revenge-movie at first, with some curiosities present in my head as to what really happened to Lucie. It got me thinking really hard whether everything was just a figment of her imagination, or if things were actually there. As the movie played on, it was quite difficult for me to grasp what the true concept or narrative it was heading to, but ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised as the third act arrived, when the concept of their pursuit of martyrs were introduced. I did not realize how layered the film would be in the beginning, but having had seen it as a whole, I could say that it’s one of the more moving, even philosophical horror films that I watched.
That’s the thing about horror film. You don’t really know what to expect, but the whole experience [more often than not] pays off as the credits roll. For all the misconceptions there are about how low-brow, petty, or blatantly violent the horror genre is, there are movies like this that show how nuanced and calculated it can be. Beyond the gore, there’s something else that certainly makes you want to crave for more. This is supported by the two readings, Learning to Scream by Linda Williams, and Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female Viewers of the Horror Film by Bridgit Cherry.
In Learning to Scream, it is revealed how films in the horror genre are subject their audiences in a certain kind of procedure and discipline to be able to elicit reactions of terror from them. This idea had its origins in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, where moviegoers started the discipline of entering and leaving the theater on time, which led to the whole experience of watching horror an attraction that gives out thrills and screams. This kind of procedure, for me, shows how meticulous auteurs of the horror genre could be in setting up their audiences to feel what they feel. This definitely applies to Martyrs, as Laugier seemingly structured the film from the typical scary fare to the more transcendental ending that leads the audience to think deeply about what happened.
And speaking of the transcendent, Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female Viewers of the Horror Film constitutes that horror is more than just a genre of film to be associated with bodily pleasures, but also of higher faculties involving quality and deeper meaning. Cherry looks into what makes a certain demographic of female audiences interested in horror, and discovers some qualities as to why they do like watching the genre. Such qualities involve high production value, art direction, representation of women as strong characters, and most importantly, the presence of thought provoking ideas. This is clearly evident in the film Martyrs as well. There is so much depth in the whole message of the film, as to why it let us watch the character Anna suffer through so much pain. It did not simply end in the gory killings, but the character’s experience opened up a higher level of discourse into the meaning of life, death and religion.
Martyrs was probably the most striking and thought provoking horror film I’ve seen to date. I have never felt as heavy watching any other horror film, most likely given the heavy subject matter. It does not only give the pleasure of seeing the craziness and absurdities common horror film, but it is a film that transcends beyond the misconceptions of what horror is – provoking so much insight and thought not just about what horror is a genre, but what we aspire for in life as we move towards our death.
Linda Williams, “Learning to Scream.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).
Brigid Cherry, “Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female Viewers of the Horror Film.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).