The Poppies of Terra #19 - Shadow Horror
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Back to the Future (1985); Groundhog Day (1993); Freaky Friday (1976 & 2003); films like these are entertainment staples, evergreen joyrides of the imagination. Regardless of the specific genre labels, like “science fiction” or “comedy,” attached to them, these movies are essentially fantasies that use their speculative conceits–what if you traveled through time? got stuck in time? body swapped?–to spin fanciful, vibrant, character-based yarns. They’re thoughtful, occasionally poignant, and engage with questions of moral conduct, but above all they retain an exciting, cotton-candy element that makes them endlessly enticing and easy for us to digest. Engrossing plot escapades outweigh existential philosophizing; life lessons, and the colorful adventures that generate them, eclipse ponderous grapplings with mortality.
Now, imagine changing that feel-good recipe a little. Inject it with explicit death through a syringe made not of plastic but slasher-movie tropes. Back to the Future accelerates into Totally Killer (2023); Groundhog Day loops into Happy Death Day (2017); and Freaky Friday twists itself into Freaky (2020).
Is the candy tastier?
Any genre appears to be fair game; no touchstone picture is beyond the reach of murderous mayhem.
We’re seeing the emergence of a new type of tale: Shadow Horror.
A recent example is the dark companion to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), aptly titled It’s a Wonderful Knife (2023).
While the idea is fun–in the small town of Angel Falls, murder spree survivor Winnie Carruthers wishes she had never been born, and the aurora borealis grants her wish, only to pit her once more against a masked killer–the movie is let down by its muddled execution. It also suffers by association with the beloved seasonal classic. Wisely, the original spends the majority of its running time on George Bailey’s actual life, grounding us in all the painful ways things seem to be going awry, ultimately leading him to that fateful bridge. The alternate-timeline interval is relatively short by comparison. The new horror take on this material inverts this ratio, dispensing with its prime reality all-too-swiftly and stranding us in a cookie-cutter fantasy world without sufficient investment in Winnie and her relationships. Curiously, the film also seems to undermine its own thesis, namely how much of a difference Winnie’s existence makes, because even though, yes, clearly some people wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for her, all manner of other details in the stories of her family and friends seem to be identical to those from her own reality, enough so that she can reference these details in order to gain their trust, implying that maybe her life didn’t really have many ripple effects after all… If you want a smart and touching multiverse twist on It’s a Wonderful Life, I recommend Robert Reed’s “A Woman’s Best Friend” (Clarkesworld, December 2008) instead.
Based on the recent trend, I anticipate Shadow Horror continuing to fall upon us in the coming years.
What compels us to douse our cherished entertainments in blood?
Commercial profitability, for one. Every Shadow Horror story comes with a built-in audience: everyone who enjoyed the original. Surely, that’s enticing for studios and investors. But are there other impulses besides commerce at work?
In The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known, a modern classic of psychoanalytic theory, Christopher Bollas investigates ways that the assumed knowledge we carry around in our unconscious minds has the power to shape our conscious thoughts, behaviors and relationships. Accessing our “unthoughts,” Bollas argues, has great transformative potential.
Perhaps by casting storytelling shadows on the narratives that have entertained previous generations, we are rebelling against them. Perhaps these new movies complicate the past because we find ourselves feeling inordinately complicated by it. Unresolved trauma, anger, guilt, and pain can be projected through the deft interposition of slicing blades with any innocent, cherished sequence of your choice. Perhaps we’re accessing the very “unthoughts” Bollas wrote about, exploring opportunities for our own re-invention. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Shadow Horror knows!
From that perspective, it’s an enterprise rife with creative possibilities.
And yet, it’s not hard to imagine Shadow Horror quickly succumbing to formula, substituting the genuine ingenuity of a film like Happy Death Day for yet another set of rote cat-and-mouse chases set against a familiar backdrop. Sometimes, a DeLorean time machine is just a DeLorean time machine. Remember the X-Files episode “Soft Light,” in which a scientist researching dark matter generates a killer shadow (“My shadow isn’t mine. It’s... it’s like a black hole. It splits molecules into component atoms, it unzips electrons from their orbits, reduces matter into pure energy”)? Too much bloodletting in the silhouette of the classics, and we may find ourselves consumed by our own black holes of un-imagination.
Beware the power of shadows.