March 2, 2018

Fear of the Dark

Fear of the DarkFear of the Dark may be the title of a 1992 Iron Maiden album of which I am fond, but it is also the title of a perfectly awful low-budget Canadian horror film from 2003. While watching it again recently and wondering why I was doing so, I found myself thinking about how primitive humans likely created their ancient gods in order to cope with their fear of the dark. I suppose it is only natural to conjure up gods to protect one from what one cannot comprehend. The unnatural part seems to be continuing to cling to them today.

In the film, we meet 12-year-old Ryan Billings, a boy who appears to suffer from a severe fear of the dark. We do not get a ton of backstory, but we see that he has amassed quite a collection of lights and rarely sleeps. If this sounds like something you've seen before, that's because it almost certainly is. And not only that, but you have probably seen it many times under many different names.

It does not take Ryan long to let us know that it isn't the dark he fears as much as it is the monsters that hide in the dark. Although some of the ones we get to see later in the film probably would be scary to younger children, there is little about this one that most adults would find satisfyingly scary. The film does have a few moments that come close, but the mood is quickly shattered by the bad acting.

Sadly, the acting was cringeworthy. That is to say, there were moments where I cringed in response to it. Even by made-for-TV standards along the lines of what one expects from SyFy, it is pretty bad. One of the many unintentionally funny moments came when one of the brothers exclaims "darn" in a life-threatening situation. I realize this was a PG-13 flick, but this was almost enough to make me wonder if this was a Christian film! The special effects are nothing to write home about, but there were at least a couple of mildly cool ones involving faces appearing on a wall and that sort of thing.

Criticism aside, there is something about the simple story that works: almost all of us can probably remember being at least mildly afraid of the dark and/or the "monsters" we once thought it concealed. It might be as close to a universal childhood fear as there is. Compared with what some other horror films ask us to fear, this theme seems a bit more familiar.

Ryan's older brother is initially skeptical, but like most of the skeptics featured in horror films, he soon becomes a believer. The plot involves the two brothers enduring a power outage at home while their parents are away. Once the lights go out, the monsters come out to play. It is a very basic story, so that's really about it. Things quickly devolve into the standard stuff about how it is our belief in evil things that gives them their power. Grow up and stop believing, and they lose their power. Hmmm...so maybe it wasn't a Christian film after all.

I am not about to accuse the makers of this particular film of using symbolism in any intentional manner, but I tend to think of fear of the dark as being symbolic not just for fear of the unknown but also fear of death. And like any other fear, there is something to be said for the idea that we have to confront it and deal with it in order to progress beyond it. Otherwise, we tend to remain afraid. I wonder if this might have some relevance to atheism? Could atheism be the outcome of religious believers growing up, confronting their fears, and realizing that nightlights are no longer necessary?

In the end, I have to admit that I did not hate this film. As bad as it was (and it was bad), it was not one of those experiences where I found myself wishing I had the time back I spent watching it. While the bad acting jolted me out of the mood too many times for me to imagine sitting through it again, I could see it being the sort of thing parents of young children might be able to enjoy with their kids around Halloween. Perhaps it might even be the sort of thing that could be used as a means to talk about childhood fears.