Henrique Couto explores the psychology of horror

Local horror premiere presents a pathway to personal redemption

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: The world premiere of “Haunted House on Sorority Row” takes place on Feb. 21 at Englewood Cinema

Embedded within the narrative DNA of most horror films is a strand of psychological coding, an essential mythos intent on surveying and explaining our common fears. But what’s a film critic with an educational background in business – a bachelor’s degree in economics, of all things – doing kicking off a film feature by rambling on about philosophical and psychological theories pertaining to horror films? Right off the bat, this seems like walking on proverbial thin ice.

Yet, such discussions might suitably inform the experience of the audience heading off this weekend to see the premiere of Dayton native Henrique Couto’s new film “Haunted House on Sorority Row.” For those familiar with Couto’s previous horror release “Babysitter Massacre,” his penchant for excess – be it buckets of blood or gratuitous flesh – persists. However, there’s a curiously emerging fascination in his work with the psyches of victims and perpetrators he and screenwriter John Oak Dalton delve into this “Haunted House” that breaks in a far more pronounced way from the stereotypical conventions of the standard slasher/paranormal tales we see time and time again.

In fact, following my initial screening of Couto’s “Haunted House,” I embarked on a hunt for more rational – or at least more informed – evidence for some of that age-old psychobabble I spouted at the beginning of this piece. What is it we respond to while watching horror films? Are the character reflections presented to us on screen assisting us to deal with submerged issues of our own?

Norman Holland, who specializes in the psychology of the arts, penned an intriguing feature as part of his ongoing column with Psychology Today (This is Your Brain on Culture) entitled “Why Are There Horror Films?” (Jan. 4, 2010) that led me a little further down this path. Holland began his considerations into the topic after a film club screening of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” He was able to step back from the engaging debate about the merits of the film and the dissection of the protagonist’s pathology to question how and why the club members could “enjoy” the experience of fear in this way.

He retraced the idea back to Aristotle, who, while focusing on disgust rather than fear, wondered, “Why do we enjoy still lifes with ugly things in them?” His answer, which Holland sees as being based on a cognitive assumption, was “we learn even from ugly or painful things, and we enjoy learning, that is (in Richard McKeon’s translation of Introduction to Aristotle), ‘gathering the meaning of things.’”

However, this learning – our gathering the meaning of fear, in this case – comes without any active involvement on our parts. We can watch and even wallow in the heightened state the fear creates in us without having to participate or take action in resolving the situation. Therefore we can “enjoy” even the seemingly most unpleasant aspects of the presentation of fear.

That may be how it works for audiences, but especially in Couto’s movie, his characters find themselves caught up in dual loops of fear that don’t allow them the opportunity to merely sit back and enjoy what is happening. The “haunted house” of the story bears a history of its own, a collection of old wives’ tales and whispered murmurings throughout the community about being a brothel or a coven of some sort, but what becomes clear is the place is more of a “projection house” where those who enter are forced to relive their own past traumas. There is no stalker lurking to prey on the nubile flesh of transgressive, over-sexed teens and young adults; no, the danger is individualized and character-specific.

Further complicating things is the idea the “haunted house” is being taken over by a sorority of outcast women who long to provide a safe haven for those whwo have been abused. Shunned by their larger college community for assumed dysfunctions like lesbianism, nerdish quirks or social consciousness, Couto’s sorority girls have embraced the credo of service with more gusto than the bouncy sloganeering of their on-campus peers – who are never seen. Because they have been bullied and abused themselves, however, they enter this “projection house” and must confront their fears head-on in order to survive.

Such a challenge rarely appears in our traditional horror films. We toy around with the trick of a villain who invades our dreams (Freddy Krueger from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise), the vengeful unstoppable forces that have been wronged (take your pick of either the Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees of the world) or the contrived psycho killers who hang around prom nights or sorority houses waiting to score a few cheap thrills, but Couto wants his characters – and his audience – to experience some real catharsis. His “Haunted House” is a place where we can be more than stimulated by titillation and fear; he believes we can overcome some of these horrific deeds.

Hallelujah!

 

The world premiere of “Haunted House on Sorority Row” takes place Friday, Feb. 21 at the Englewood Cinema, 320 W. National Rd. in Englewood. Screening starts at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8 at the door.  

 

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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