Move over Plato: The Allegory of the Horror

Move over Plato: The Allegory of the Horror

By Rebecca Rowland


I see allegory in everything. Perhaps it’s a side effect after decades of teaching high school English. Perhaps it’s the curse of having chosen to pursue a graduate degree in literature after finishing college (not for any career preparation but in order to postpone joining the work force: I admit it!). Or, perhaps it’s simply a quality of being a horror writer. Though we’re often pushed to the back of the literary prestige line, authors of the scare-narrative are cultivators of a masterful magic show that both ignites readers’ imaginations and, quite often, pokes at their most tender trigger points like mad scientist filmmakers splicing subconscious images into montages.

No matter the reason, it’s a reflex I’ve developed, for better or worse, even if my analysis doesn’t always jive with the director’s. Akin to those hidden picture paintings popular in the 1990s, what is seen cannot be unseen (I’m talking to you, Ari Aster, who, much to my chagrin, insists Hereditary is a film about possession and not, in fact, a story of a genetic propensity of mental illness. He’s wrong, but that’s a guest blog for another time).

I was prompted to write about allegory in horror after watching Scott Cooper’s Antlers this weekend. The film evoked a visceral response from me, and not just because of the sticky body horror or occasional jump scares. On its surface, Antlers is a story about a small town, an ancient myth, and the creature that sews the two tightly together with butcher’s twine. John DeFore writes in The Hollywood Reporter that the film is an “allegory of generational trauma,” but I’ll venture one step more specific and state it’s a powerful allegory of both addiction and domestic abuse. Ironically, some critics panned the film, criticizing what they deemed “heavy-handed” in Cooper’s incorporation of drug and child abuse imagery. Heavy-handed? This, in a genre that has produced every extreme visual and auditory terror our brains can fathom, has cut off heads (Aster, again) and appendages and then placed those heads and appendages onto other victims’ torsos, and—well, you get the idea—but embroidering a traditional monster horror flick with too much real-world horror imagery is…heavy-handed?

Don’t get me wrong: Antlers has its flaws. The dialogue is stilted at times. There are continuity errors. A few character backgrounds seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. For no fault of the actor, Rory Cochrane, for instance, gets the official “red shirt award” of 2021 for his cardboard-thin role of a cop who simply lurks in the background of just about every crime scene. However, I felt an ache in my chest when I left the theater, and I knew exactly why. Anyone who has cared for an addict on a downward spiral or has been trapped in a living situation similar to the one in which the Meadows were raised will likely experience the same.

When some authors tell people that they write horror, they receive one of two responses: confused shock or patronizing dismissiveness. I’ve heard this latter phenomenon be referred to as the “ghettoization of horror.” For those gasping for air on the high-brow high wire, horror is a fluff genre, best served as an occasional snack or dessert but never consumed in a well-balanced meal. However, the art we create often functions as more than just escapism. In its appeal to our most primal of instincts, survival, horror has the power to make connections other genres cannot. Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde paints a textbook case study of addiction as his protagonist tramples (literally and figuratively) through the stages of experimentation, risky usage, and dependence. Amazon’s mini-series Them follows a family struggling to survive the redlining racism of 1950s America while the ghosts of slavery and Jim Crow chase them in their work, home, and school lives. Brandon Christensen’s Z stealthily creeps about the terror experienced by a victim of childhood sexual abuse by hiding in plain sight the appearance of an imaginary companion. And, as Carolyn Drake noted in in her whip-smart article on Horror Tree last year, three contemporary films/series in particular “explore the female experience through allegory”: Jennifer’s Body, The Descent, and Alien/Aliens/Prometheus. The list of dark fiction that surpasses surface scariness is inexhaustible.

And so, I see allegory in everything, but mostly in horror in particular, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Antlers may have missed the mark in some minor areas, but the gestalt of its impact is powerful. I left the film’s gruesome images back in the theater, but the emotional resonance it communicated is one I won’t soon forget. Bravo to you, Scott Cooper. Just don’t tell me I interpreted it wrong.

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