Feeding the Beast: Addiction in Horror Films
In Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels, Harry D’Amour knows exactly what he is holding when he picks up the Lament Configuration, but he can’t help himself. He touches it compulsively, his fingers tracing the puzzle box’s golden patterns and receiving a jolt of pure marrow-deep pleasure for every correct motion. He doesn’t want to open the thing; he’s just curious. But he can’t put it down.
His fingers work the box without his conscious consent. He’ll put the thing down, he tells himself, in a moment. But surely it’s still safe to work it a bit longer, to excavate a few more pangs of pure bliss. By the time he finally lets go, it’s too late. The Lament Configuration has taken over and is solving itself. The gate opens, and Harry finds himself at the threshold of Hell.
I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for the very real horror of addiction.
Horror is treated as the bastard child of fiction, probably because it’s the most honest. Horror finds those deep, primal fears that fester inside us and brings them to the surface, where we can face them, examine them, and ultimately release them. Horror is necessary.
One of the truths horror excels at outing is addiction. It’s a part of the human condition so common that it touches nearly all of us, either through personal struggles or those of our family or friends. What’s more frightening than knowing we’re built with a mental short-circuit that, when left unchecked, can make us lose interest in every other aspect of life, including base survival, in favor of the object of our fixation? Addictions come in many guises, both chemical and psychological, and you never know which ones you’re prone to until the hooks are dug in bone-deep. That’s some scary shit right there.
It’s no wonder that so many horror films deal with addiction of one form or another. Here are some of the flicks that do it best:
Habit (1995 – dir. Larry Fessenden)
Vampirism as a metaphor for addiction is a well-worn trope. Hell, there’s even another low-budget 1995 vampire movie called The Addiction. But director and star Larry Fessenden does something very clever with Habit. For Anna, the vampire in question, drinking blood is just sustenance. What she’s addicted to is starting new relationships. This makes sense because she eventually drains the life out of all her lovers. The addiction theme is compounded by the protagonist (played by Fessenden himself), who is a raging drunk. He’s the guy who shows up to a party five beers ahead of everyone and whose friends are surprised when he manages to leave the party on his feet. He’s also fresh off a break-up when he meets Anna, a mysterious stranger who won’t reveal any personal information. Anna seeks out emotionally damaged people and feeds off their life force before moving on. In fact, the film is an extended metaphor for emotional vampirism, which, while not a substance problem, is another form of addiction.
Evil Dead (2013 – dir. Fede Alvarez)
Drug addiction is more of a plot device than an overarching theme of Fede Alvarez’s reimagining of Sam Raimi’s seminal classic, but it is a well used one. After all, what better condition to disguise demonic possession than heroin addiction? When Mia (Jane Levy) starts acting strangely, screaming, berating her friends, and inflicting self-harm, it’s completely expected because that’s what junkies quitting cold turkey do. She’s done it before, which is why this time they’ve driven her to an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere. By the time anyone begins to suspect something more insidious than withdrawal symptoms are occurring, they’re already balls-deep in a mass deadite body-hijack.
Perhaps the addiction theme runs a little deeper than first glance suggests. Possession, after all, is the perfect metaphor for addiction. It changes behavior, makes people do appalling things they’d never otherwise consider, and generally makes one a prisoner in his/her own body. Possession, though, is a versatile metaphor, one that can be customized to represent a range of fears: going insane, losing one’s will to a dominating personality, or simply the fear of someone close to you changing until they’re barely recognizable. In Evil Dead, though, it’s definitely adoration… uh, absolution… abstention? Anyway, it’s definitely an A-word.
A Horrible Way to Die (2010 – dir. Adam Wingard)
In A Horrible Way to Die, Adam Wingard draws a parallel between alcoholism and serial killing. Sarah is a recovering alcoholic and the emotionally traumatized ex-girlfriend of serial killer Garrick Turrell. While she was the one who discovered her boyfriend’s homicidal secret and turned him in, she feels partially responsible for letting him get away with murder for so long. On most nights she would get blackout drunk, allowing him to sneak out without suspicion to do the devil’s work. When Garrick escapes from prison, he leaves a trail of bloody bodies all the way back to their hometown. He doesn’t seem to get any pleasure from the murders. He does it compulsively and with clear remorse. At one point he reveals that he liked prison because of the order and structure. The unspoken implication is that he liked not being able to kill anyone.
The film is basically a macabre relationship drama, with both partners sharing a basic understanding that each of them is ruled by urges they cannot control. It’s a twisted version of the star-crossed lovers tale. A very real love exists between the two characters, making it all the more tragic that their addictions have come between what would have been an otherwise perfect couple. But who knows? Without their addictions, would they even have been together? Would Garrick have been so kind and understanding toward Sarah if he weren’t exploiting her weakness?
Toad Road (2012 – dir. Jason Banker)
Toad Road deals with addiction more directly than any other film on this list, using a local urban legend about a road with 7 gates that lead to Hell as a metaphor for drug addiction. Sarah is the new girl in town. She’s a straight-A student who falls in with a group of heavy drug users and begins her own personal journey down the rabbit hole of hallucinogens. She intellectualizes her drug use, convinced that she’s only a few trips away from some breakthrough of consciousness that will reveal to her the secrets of existence. She decides that the next step on her consciousness-expanding journey must be to pass through all seven gates of Toad Road to reach that higher state of mind she seeks. Her boyfriend, James, acts as the voice of experience and tries to talk her out of it. “There’s no bigger picture to drugs,” he tells her, which is the overarching message of the film.
The thing that makes Toad Road such a unique experience is that much of it is unscripted and shot cinema-verite style, documenting an actual group of friends tripping balls every chance they get. Jason Banker comes from a documentary background and captures this drug-fueled subculture in all its anti-glamorous ugliness. Doing drugs never looked less fun than it does here. The film itself almost isn’t horror. Aside from one great scare, it’s mostly a drama, interspersed with supernatural elements. Better yet, the film is a tragedy, not simply for the way it ends, but for the pre-credits dedication. The lead actress died of an accidental overdose shortly before the film premiered. Not to make light of her tragedy, but this fact ups the creepiness factor tenfold and amplifies its message to no end.
So tell me, Dreadheads, what movies would you add to the list?