FANTASTICA Presents: Law and HorrorFearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
You’ve seen it before, you’ll see it again and you’ll see it coming from a mile away. It’s one of the most familiar plot devices in horror history: a family (or a married couple) will have just come in contact with some sort of malevolent force, and now, one of their own is injured or missing at the hands of said evil. Suddenly, someone grabs a phone, and without fail, someone will ask them who they’re calling. “We need to call the cops,” they’ll scream, exhausted and desperate by the ordeal. Suddenly, the phone is taken out of their hands by their loved one, who looks at them and spouts out a variation on the same line: “What are we going to tell them? _____ did this to our home? What will they think?” And with that simple line, the family (or couple) must turn to an outside source- often times an eccentric-type- to help them save their child and their lives.
In one swoop, this plot device discredits our protective agencies without question or doubt and allows the storyteller to bring in whatever unorthodox scene-stealing expert to the rescue. But it’s very representative of a specific theme among the horror genre, which is a sense of helplessness. In fact, the flip side of this coin in most horror films are almost as easily recognizable, usually with a cop sitting behind a desk saying, “There’s nothing we can do,” or, “We’re doing everything in our power,” which then leads to the scene-stealing expert. In any case, by accepting these plot devices over and over in the horror world, it’s incredibly representative to how we would perceive cops and government agents facing off against something paranormal, supernatural or predatory, and how much we truly underestimate our own justice system.
The relationship between the horror genre and the justice system is a strange one, as outside of the haunted house or teen slasher genre, cops and government agents do make it to the front lines of the genre fairly often. Whether it’s TWIN PEAKS, GOD TOLD ME TO, SE7EN, DELIVER US FROM EVIL or THE X-FILES, there will always be an interesting, emotional story to tell in the battle of good vs. evil when the protagonists literal profession lies in the former camp. But for whatever reason, telling these stories holds an inherent risk, especially among younger viewers, as it’s much easier to imagine a serial killer, creature or spectral being getting the upperhand on unsuspecting families and teenagers as opposed to a trained, gun-toting officer of the law. And on the other hand, horror stories also can also inject a cop figure into the antagonistic side of things as well. After all, how many slashers have revealed “the cop is the killer” beyond the likes of the obvious MANIAC COP franchise?
As much as the source of the evil matters to horror screenwriters, the actual portrayal of the justice system in a horror flick is more-or-less tied to the environment in which they’re presented. After all, how rarely will you see a hard-edged, self-sacrificing cop in a horror film out in the suburbs (besides, of course, in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS)? Likewise, in most genre films that take place in urban sprawls, the horror is much more intense, visceral and shocking, and require the same from their cop protagonists: after all, SE7EN, DELIVER US FROM EVIL and GOD TOLD ME TO all open with jaw-dropping imagery of crime scenes, moral absence and illogical murder for a very specific reason. Place those same cops into a film like SCREAM or THE CONJURING, however, and suddenly you’ve got a whole different beast on your hands.
Does that make horror writers lazy, in a sense, when it comes to figures of government authority? Not necessarily; in fact, if a character’s defining trait is their profession then there’s a chance the lazy writing is in the form of the bigger picture. But there is something telling about the idea that, in narrative horror fiction, a cop is more detrimental to a supernaturally-charged event than helpful, and is more likely to blindly jump to abuse or falsification over an attempt to understand. And while that perhaps is the more realistic route for the character, it’s far from the most interesting, and seeing a cop take the pro-active role in the proceedings would certainly be more realistic than the chance that there’s some eccentric expert on the occult that’s conveniently just a drive away.
But at the end of the day, ghosts, demons and psychopaths pay no mind to a badge as they do to the limitations of skin and bone, and in that regards, horror screenwriters have the right to portray the justice system in whatever way fits their particular terror tale. This writer doubts we’ve seen the last of the bumbling cop, the brooding cop or the inept underdog cop in the genre, but there is also hope that one day, the horror genre might find a truly unique spin on the cop character. After all, if crime dramas can have their FARGO and the westerns have their UNFORGIVEN, the horror world feels long overdue for memorable lawman of its own.