Friday, November 6, 2015

Elements of Horror: Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters are as old as stories themselves. Lots of monsters in ancient mythology were shapeshifters. Trickster gods like Loki or even the horny Zeus were known to change shapes at will to mislead hapless humans into bad decisions. I have talked a lot about the fear of the Other but Shapeshifters get at an even deeper fear that lies beneath the Other, ignorance.

Being caught physically short is scary enough but it can happen to any of us on the best of days. Jump scares in movies are a tiny taste of that idea, that we aren't ready for whatever is coming after us. To be physically ill-prepared is one thing but to have no intellectual grasp on a situation is even more frightening. For example, what's scarier: knowing that zombies are real and are trying to eat you or wondering why your father is lumbering toward you with blood all over him? At least in the first scenario, you know where to start (barricade the house!) but in the second, you are in a knowledge deficit that could easily lead to your death. Is my father ok? Is he a zombie? Are zombies even real? Whose blood is that? Was he hurt and that explains the lumbering or is he undead and shambling towards me? Do you run or go help him? I think the second scenario has much more intrinsic anxiety if not fear.

Shapeshifters tap right into that ambiguity. If you were to even know there was such a thing as a shapeshifter, how would you ever prepare yourself for them? They could literally be anything or anyone. Who could you trust? That's the real heart of the horror with something that shifts shape. Not only can you not trust anyone or anything you meet, you can't even trust your own senses to give you proper warning.

Like mutants, shapeshifters are also personifications of our fear of change. We like things reliable and sane. We need to know that the person we lie down next to at night will be the person we wake up beside. Other monsters, like Werewolves and Vampires, have a degree of shapeshifting within their own power set because it is a universally creepy idea that one thing can become another without us knowing.

Having recently watched 31 horror movies, I can tell you that Shapeshifters are making a comeback. Movies like Wolfcop and Honeymoon play around with the idea that the people you know aren't always what they seem.

If you could look like anyone else for one day, who would it be and why?

Next time: Dreams!

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