The Horror of Modern Youth

In response to an essay in which David Goldman suggests a connection between current events and recent trends in the popularity of horror films, Fr. Benjamin Sember, of Wisconsin, produces the following wisdom:

Rather than trying to attach the recent rise of the horror genre to September 11, 2001, your article ought to have looked at April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine High School shooting. Our teens are terrorized, and the real possibility that they might be shot to death by a classmate while sitting in second-hour algebra is only the tip of the iceberg. High school has become a nonstop calendar of classes, heavy loads of homework, sports, drama club, choir, band, and endless practices. Teens are being eaten alive by the demands and tugged apart by the many activities. Rarely are these activities carried out in pursuit of what is true and beautiful. Instead, they become a constant competition to avoid falling short against a hundred measuring sticks as teens compete with each other for breathing space and attention.

An adjustment should be made for the apparent possibility that Fr. Sember’s experience with today’s youth is somewhat selective in a way that tilts his observations toward over-achieving kids. Also among the pre-adult demographic — and no less attracted to the horror genre, I’d assume — are those whose anxiety derives from a conclusion that they cannot compete. They’ll not likely admit that concern — might not know it’s there — and it often manifests as a rebellion against the premise that there’s something worth competing for.
What occurred to me, while reading Sember’s letter, is that young adults face all of these stressors while inhabiting a society that offers them no ballast. They’re supposed to be liberated theologically, socially, and sexually. They’re supposed to blaze their own path in the realm of behavioral standards, even as they strive to live up to high expectations of achievement. One needn’t be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to agree that well-learned behavioral standards are a prerequisite for success that derives from merit rather than luck.
A plausible argument could be made that the characteristic plot of the horror genre appeals to the modern youth not so much in their expression of pure violence, nor in the voyeurism of watching others suffer, nor the comfort of presenting (for a time) horrors as the stuff of fantasy, but because it leaves viewers feeling that they can strive and overcome challenges even when all the rules of reality are thrown out. On the broad tasks of defining our lives, our society tends toward challenges without rules — expectations without instructions — and it is indeed the stuff of fantasy to believe that a society that rejects principles of self control could defeat the most terrifying creatures of the imagination.

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