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Trust Your Gut: The Role of Conscience in Horror


If there’s one trope that dominates the popular perspective of horror films, it’s poor decision making. Don’t split up. Don’t run into the dark basement. Don’t ever, ever assume the killer is dead. And when we watch characters choose wrong time and time again (often for the sake of the plot), we roll our eyes from intellectual pedestals because we can’t fathom making the same mistakes. When horror extends from the screen and into the day-to-day back of our brains, it’s often because we can reasonably fear that we could end up in the same situations. 

There are varying degrees of contradiction between our conscience and survival instincts. We’re not likely to be running from a slasher in the woods or facing off with a satanic demon. The chances of encountering sinister everyday people, however, is much higher, and in these more innocuous situations, it’s not unlikely to second guess, to question your judgment, and to betray your gut. What happens when you do can certainly be a matter of life and death, and the possession of street smarts is not the relinquishing of danger.

Patrick Brice’s 2014 film “Creep,” is a perfect example. Aaron (Patrick Brice) gets hired off Craigslist to do a videography job for a strange man named Josef (Mark Duplass). Aaron drives out to a remote cabin to meet him, and Josef explains that he’s expecting a baby he’ll never get to meet because he’s dying of a brain tumor. As his dying wish, he wants a video to leave behind a message for his unborn child.

Throughout the course of the film, Josef displays increasingly odd behavior. From a fake-threatening prank he pulls on Aaron upon his arrival, to leaving him behind in the woods, and asking strange prying questions, eccentric is the least one could do to describe him. Aaron chuckles through confusion and apprehension, but he doesn’t leave. After all, Josef is supposedly a dying man, desperate to connect any way he can with his expectant child, and while his strangeness is uneasy, it isn’t criminal. 

Yet as the film progresses, Josef devolves. He dons the film’s iconic wolf mask, blocks exits and looms over Aaron, his presence increasingly threatening. He begins to revel in Aaron’s discomfort and eventually discloses that he sexually assaulted his wife. It is only after this pitfall of events and explicitly expressed criminality that Aaron finally pushes to leave. The boundary of politeness and perseverance has been surpassed, but now his keys have gone missing. 

Josef is a red flag on steroids, and though we understand that he’s a danger, we only do so with the omniscient knowledge that we’re watching a horror film. We see these red flags as already bloody hands. For Aaron, his desperation for money and Josef’s pitifulness, paired with the hesitance to be judgmental, doesn't allow him the awareness of the gravity of his situation until it’s too late. Josef’s proposed desperation mirrors Aaron’s own, and it’s a deadly cocktail of facades. 

This isn’t unlikely, and Aaron can’t simply be deemed as foolish. And while we as viewers may roll our eyes or plead at our TVs, begging him to leave, objectively, we can’t call him wrong. It’s part of the human condition. Catching yourself in a moment of judgment or apprehension and talking yourself out of it is a universal experience. Empathy and social conscience can be easily manipulated by others as well as ourselves inadvertently. Whether it’s external puppet strings or the simple desire to be a “good person” (in Aaron’s case, he falls victim to both), the suppression of your gut instinct is a horrifyingly realistic way to find yourself in the face of violence. 

This reality isn’t solely identity-based, but there are certainly ways in which this experience differs on account of those relations, whether they be race, gender, or sexuality. Josef and Aaron are both white men. Even though one exercises power via violence, socially, they possess the same capital. Therefore, their interaction has no underlying institutional hierarchy, and this very well could explain why Aaron felt safe for so long. 

John Hyams' chilling 2020 thriller “Alone” depicts this principle through a male-female-based narrative while also operating on the inverse of “Creep”—reliance on the gut reaction. Jessica (Jules Wilcox) is traveling alone. Recently widowed, she’s on the road to a new home, and on her trip, she encounters the same man (Marc Menchaca, cast simply as Man). She first sees him on the road, riding behind him as he slowly drives down a no-pass highway. Then he pulls into the same gas station as her at night. They don’t interact, but he circles the station as she waits for her pump to finish, a looming presence despite the lack of a single word between them. Coincidences, maybe, but Jessica is on guard nonetheless. 

It isn’t until the next day, when he approaches her in the parking lot outside her motel, that the full weight of uneasiness sets in. She is immediately cautious of interacting with the man, as any solo woman would be. And, of course, with the frequency of their encounters, her suspicion only grows. Talking to him through short responses from behind the cracked window of her car, she creates a barrier physically and conversationally. She does absolutely everything “right,” checking every box of safety precautions drilled into the collective conscience of womanhood. However, she is a woman alone and the object of a man’s terrorizing desires—a man who doesn’t care if she puts up every defense. This is the visceral horror of “Alone.”

The male-female power dynamic between Jessica and the man is an inherent disadvantage. Her conscience has been conditioned to being proactive (rather than Aaron’s reactivity), and yet, no difference is made. The man has made his choice, and no survival instinct or street smarts are influential enough to stop him. And as a man, there is the knowledge of this dynamic and the baseline fear that women have towards men, especially when alone. The man’s complete disregard of this is the neon red sign—the abandonment of (or perhaps psychopathic nonexistence of) the collective social conscience of men. 

Neither Aaron nor Jessica is to blame for their victimhood. They turn in different directions at the intersection of fear and compulsory social responsibility and still wind up at the same brutal destination. The spine-shivering reality delivered by both “Creep” and “Alone” is that violence is contingent on nothing but chance. 

As armchair horror experts, it’s simple to pinpoint where characters went wrong, but that can only be done from a seat of cinematic detachment and voyeurism. It’s human dogma to “trust your gut,” but how often do we really? When lines are blurred, and feelings of uncertainty, guilt, or pity are at play, instinct may be further down the list. And even if you trust your gut and play every action by the book, there’s no guarantee of coming out on the other side. Self-preservation is motivating, but it’s not infallible. Films that laugh at survival cheat codes hold a mirror to social expectations, shattering any sense of security.

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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