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How Can Horror Help Us Cope with Tragedy?

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Our world in 2022 is scary. There’s so much worldwide tragedy right now that some people wonder why on earth anyone would want to engage with horror content. But the horror genre is as popular as ever. Squid Game (2021) made a HUGE splash, and many Sandra Oh and horror fans alike are pumped about the release of Umma (2022) this past month. There’s a reason why horror helps us cope with tragedy, trauma, and disaster. However, there are important conditions horror must meet to be enjoyable and helpful for everyone.

There is a science to why people love horror, and benefit from consuming it. The thrill and excitement horror can cause produces natural opiates in the brain and spurs dopamine production. It’s hard-wired in our nervous systems for us to want another rush! But horror can only be enjoyable for the viewer if we feel safe. That’s when the combination of the fear reaction in the brain and the relief that the fear isn’t a true threat come together to produce a chemical concoction we keep wanting more of.

These chemicals help us escape the pains of our everyday lives. When we’re in that state of fear, our conscious, worrying brain turns off. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about my student loan debt when I’m running through a haunted house.

When we watch horror with our friends, family, or partners, and we share that chemical experience that comes with the combination of fear and safety, it brings us together. We’re in a great mood because of the controlled fear, and we associate that feeling with the people we’re with.

Science also tells us that the sense of accomplishment we experience after watching a horror film makes us feel strong, and further connects us with those around us. It’s like we all went on a journey together and came out unscathed! What could be a better bonding exercise than that?

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So of course horror is cathartic! It actually does something in our brains to help us cope in a healthy way.

But wait—it’s not that simple. Science isn’t the only factor here. The ideas perpetuated by the horror genre can range from fear-mongering to justice-oriented. This can make all the difference for marginalized people.

There’s a lot at stake here. Horror has a huge impact on our society’s beliefs about fear and danger. It’s the genre that helps us determine what it is we’re scared of, what is threatening to our livelihood, and what we can do to stay safe. Fear is political. Controlling someone’s fear is a great way to change their behavior and shape how they see the world.

So, what do I mean by fear-mongering horror? It’s when the film presents a message aligned with the capitalist, racist ideology of our society. It places human beings in a hierarchy with a singular ideal at the top. Anyone who differs from the ideal, whether in race, sexuality, gender identity, social class, or physical ability, is deemed less than and seen as a threat. In these films, danger equals difference.

It’s no secret that the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color are historically underrepresented in horror, and doubly so when those identities intersect. When they are present, their characters are often reduced to stereotypical tropes like the black man lusting after and violating the white woman—like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Candyman (1992)—and the male serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing—like Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Other times, they’re simply there to be the victim of a gruesome murder that the pretty white girl watches in terror before escaping unscathed at the end of the film—like Scream 2 (1997) and Wrong Turn (2021).

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That fear-mongering message aligns with the real-life horrors faced by queer youth across the country. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter to Texas State Health Agencies claiming gender, citing medical procedures as “child abuse” and calling for doctors, nurses, and teachers to report any parents who help their kids receive this life-saving care to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. In Florida, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill sits on Governor DeSantis’ desk, waiting for his approval. The sentiment is spreading. Currently, there are fifteen proposals in nine states that discriminate against LGBTQIA+ students.

Contrary to public (predominantly white) opinion, racism and police brutality are ever-present threats to people of color in the U.S. Brianna Taylor’s family STILL has yet to receive the justice they deserve. Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose by an astounding 339% in 2021 due to scapegoating Chinese people for causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Queer and trans people of color are even more likely to face violence and are less likely to receive the help they need.

So how can horror help us cope when it’s othering us and propagating dangerous, hate-filled messages? Now more than ever, we need the horror genre to switch thematic gears. Instead of spreading fear-mongering rhetoric that hurts minorities, horror can be a tool for social justice and equity, as long as it portrays stories that humanize historically underrepresented people and critique the evils of our society.

The best type of horror doesn’t see difference as a threat. Instead, justice-oriented horror portrays diversity as an asset. What the viewer is meant to fear in these films are the oppressive, violent systems that harm anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional American ideal: a white, straight, cis, able-bodied man. Danger equals systemic oppression.

Luckily, the shift towards justice-oriented horror is in full swing. Jordan Peele’s films Get Out (2017), and Us (2019), along with his modern-day twist on the 1950s sci-fi show The Twilight Zone (2019), are hugely influential in changing the face of horror. Jordan Peele is a HUGE deal in the horror industry. His films are some of the most popular modern horror films in existence. These aren’t little niche films. They’re box-office legends. Justice-oriented horror proves time and time again to be a hit. Peele’s films humanize black and other marginalized individuals and make it clear that the true evil of the story is white supremacy.

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My favorite horror podcast is Nightmare Magazine’s podcast, edited by Wendy Wagner. Each week, they share a new horror story from their publication, read by award-winning voice actors and audiobook narrators. They only publish the best of the best, focusing on sharing justice-oriented horror stories with the world. They feature stories by a diverse set of horror authors like W.C. Dunlap, Maria Dahvana Headley, Seanan McGuire, and Caspian Gray.

When horror movies highlight evil as society itself, marginalized people feel heard and are able to feel that chemical rush that creates a sense of catharsis. It allows us to take a step back and see the movie as fiction rather than a perpetuation of our very real traumas.

On a sociological level, this thematic shift in horror can shape the beliefs of our nation. As we continue the fight for justice and equity in our society, we need all of the help we can get to make it there. Because horror films are so directly connected to our society’s collective idea of what is scary, it is pertinent that these stories educate us about the very real dangers in our society instead of upholding traditional racist, homophobic, and transphobic ideology that serves only those clinging to hierarchical power.

ADDITIONAL VIEWING: Documentary Film, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) on Shudder.

That’s why it’s so important that horror in the United States is finally turning away from the idea that otherness is evil, and instead embraces diversity and difference. It’s time for the dominant narrative to shift and present racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression as the true evil. That way, the horror genre can help more and more horror fans cope and find some enjoyment in this dark world.

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*Special thanks to Lauren Zou, my intelligent, beautiful, horror-obsessed girlfriend, for helping me conceptualize and write this complex, sensitive article. I couldn’t have done it without you!

Hey! I’m Maya, a snarky, queer freelance writer, horror enthusiast, and history nerd. My hope is that my writing both entertains my readers and provides educational commentary on human behavior & society. In my spare time, I love to eat food, hang out with my girlfriend, and needle felt little monster sculptures.

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Editorials

HELLO DOLLY!: Ranking All the Dolls in the Chucky Franchise

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And hello to all you horror heads as well!

I’m still bounding with energy from that wicked Chucky Season 2 finale (recap here), I need somewhere to put it. We’ll be waiting a hot minute until Don Mancini brings out the next gem in the series. With my brain hollowed out and replaced with killer doll knowledge, why don’t we occupy ourselves with some rankings?

I’ve taken it upon myself to rank every iteration of the dolls in the Chucky series, for better or worse, on a set of highly scientific and measured criteria that make me objectively right.

This is for sure not just opinion and speculation.

…Probably.

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And one more thing. Childs Play (2019) Chucky is not any Chucky we recognize in this house. Lars Klevberg and Orion Pictures shouldn’t have shown that to me, but they did, and I’m not going to show that to you. It’s terrible. The one and only disqualification. Disqualified.

Would-Be Chucky Army (Chucky Seasons 1 & 2)

A moment of silence for the many copy-pasted dolls that lost their life to Andy Barclay’s self-sacrificing truck crash, and the ones lost to The Colonel’s interior decorating aspirations.

Bloated Chucky (Curse of Chucky)

I wish there were more to say, but outside of the introduction of Nica, this movie and this design committed the greatest sin of all: being boring. This version of Chucky is just very puffy, like allergic reaction mid hangover kind of puffy. I know he’s supposed to be…fleshy & intimidating, I guess? But it’s just not doing it for me. That’s basically it.

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Belle Doll Disguise Chucky (Chucky Season 2)

This one shouldn’t even be on the list since he only had about 10 seconds of actual screen time, but I’ll let it slide because it was a pretty hilarious reveal.

Chucky Trio (Cult of Chucky)

Don’t let their placement fool you, I love these and all the other dolls above them. But it’s cutthroat here on the listicle circuit.

It’s such a fun departure for the series to let Brad Douriff go nuts in a recording booth and do a one-man play between three separate Chuckys who are coordinating to possess his estranged daughter like it’s the weirdest soap opera ever put to film. The movie is a head trip, and just when you think it’s winding down into a predictable lull by the third act, the Chucky throuple reminds you that Don Mancini is no hack. The power of three, in combination with their distinct styles, weapons, gruesome kills, and drastic improvements on the Curse doll makes them stand out above the rest.

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TIE: Buff Chucky & The Colonel (Chucky Season 2)

Chucky is at his best comedically when he’s taking himself seriously, but the script isn’t. And with the floodgates opened by the war of the dolls in Season 2 of Chucky, we got two new Chucky variants that are ridiculous, and infinitely more entertaining than they should be.

If you had told me back in Season 1 that we would get a Chucky who is doing anabolics and squatting 300 on the rack every day, I would have laughed in your face; I would have laughed harder if you told me that he would freak me out. And what can be said of The Colonel? It’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, and just like Kurtz, he grows creepier the longer you look at exactly where he’s standing and how he got there.

GG (Seed of Chucky, Chucky Season 2)

Oh, GG. What a sweet genderfluid monarch you are, too good for your own good. While Lachlan Watson’s performance as both halves of the spiritually entwined twins Glen and Glenda was one of the best parts of Season 2, this is a battle of the dolls.

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Formerly stylized by fans as Glen/da, now going by the more neutral GG, this doll has a unique design reflecting the evolution of the nonbinary character and their identity struggle. I like that some elements of both parents got carried over to their child, and who can forget Billy Boyd’s iconic voice performance? Still, their screen time is relatively low compared to most other dolls, and we don’t see them in much action. They’re more about the talking than the killing and stalking, you know?

Grandaddy Chucky (Child’s Play)

Before you start flaming me on Twitter in front of everyone, take a moment to calm down and remember how good this movie is. This ranking can’t take that away! It’s a low spot, I know, but I still think he looks fantastic!

Honestly, he would go to the number one spot if his facial animatronics were as good as they were in any of the other films, but right now, he gets to stay where he is for 1. his icon status, and 2. his sheer durability. My god, does this doll get jacked up. Burned, shot, stabbed, exploded, decapitated, I seriously don’t think he reaches this level of superhuman (superdoll?) durability in any of the other movies. Who would have thought this was the true power of Voodoo for Dummies?

 Tiffany (Bride of Chucky, Seed of Chucky, Chucky Seasons 1 & 2)

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Okay, my Jennifer Tilly bias is showing here. Look, what can I say? I’m a man of simple tastes, I see a Tilly, I love a Tilly, and the design team making Tiff embody all the energy and character of her actress aesthetically makes me love this tiny plastic Tilly!

She might be David Kirschner and Kevin Yagher’s magnum opus in character design just for how strong her contrast is against the newer, grungier Scarface Chucky introduced in the same film. The Belle doll-turned-Blondie fan communicates all of Tiffany’s melodrama and loudness perfectly. It’s a bold but perfect partner in crime design, and with her perennial iconic style, we must stan.

“This Is the Best of The Movies” Chucky (Child’s Play 2)

Honestly, I find it so hard to pick between this design and 3’s. On the one hand, Child’s Play 2 Chucky is menacing and was the first truly upgraded Chucky, giving his motion and facial expressions a lot more credence in a film that is frankly better in all measures. Every doll owes its evolution to this one’s leap in advancement.

The doll and its kills outshine the original and do exactly what you want from a sequel. Getting a cue from Puppet Master’s Blade with that knife prosthetic in the factory finale and just becoming increasingly menacing over the runtime, he also shades his particular brand of evil with the barest hint of that humor and some very funny dry one-liners (“How’s it hanging Phil?”). He is a cut above most Chuckys.

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 Extra Chunky Salsa Death Chucky (Child’s Play 3)

But this Chucky? This Chucky was the blueprint for the silliness that would eventually become a hallmark of this series, and all the variants we would eventually see.

This was when Chucky entered his quip era and cemented himself as a goofy ass villain. His scheming and cartoony expressions in this movie make him such a lovable goober. He’s not that scary, but he is on the same level as 2 when it comes to physicality. For me, he has the goofiest and most satisfying death of any doll in the series with that face slice into industrial fan combo. This version of Chucky being so great makes up for 3 being one of the weakest entries in the series and carries the entire film on its back.

Scarface Chucky (Bride of Chucky, Seed of Chucky)

Rude f**king doll indeed. Bride of Chucky is far from a perfect film, but it has a perfect Chucky in my eyes. Does it have that late 90s edge that dates it like the rest of that movie? Yes! Does it look like Tiffany gave up on the sutures halfway through? Also, yes! Is it also the most enduring and recognizable Chucky design, not just to horror fans but pretty much everyone on earth, even when he’s been reduced to 3/4ths of a head? A million times yes!

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It’s so textured and battle-damaged, which is appropriate since it keeps things fresh for the fourth entry in the series. Also, I would have paid triple the price of admission to see another movie about Andy carrying around Chucky’s decapitated, messed-up talking head.

Hackensack Chucky, AKA, Good Chucky, AKA, Prime Chucky (Chucky Season 1 & 2)

He’s the worst…but also the best.

Spanning several functionally identical plain jane bodies, this most joyously evil era of Chucky doesn’t have any aesthetic modifications like the counterparts at the #2, #7, and #9 rankings (beyond improvements in animatronics and seamless integration). But over 16 episodes, these dolls still showed you exactly how evil a plain old Chucky can be.

Though awful in Season 1, this era’s most notable lowest low is during his stint as “Good Chucky” in Season 2. The Hackensack Gang and a good chunk of the audience were duped into thinking that the kid’s attempts at brainwashing Charles Lee Ray had worked; for our naivete, we were awarded one of the most harrowing character deaths in the entire franchise.

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Pouncing back on Jakes insecurities tenfold, attacking Lexy’s addictive nature, and exploiting Nadine’s goodhearted nature, killing off two fan favorites within a matter of a few episodes, I truly think this was the first time I wouldn’t say I liked a version of Chucky after everything. This is why Prime Chucky’s fate felt so much more satisfying, being rewarded for his duplicity by taking his own holly jolly chainsaw to the face, courtesy of Lexy. What a Christmas present!

AFTER DOLL IS SAID AND DONE…

Disagree with any of the rankings? We’d love to hear from you on Twitter, so hit us up there and stay tuned for more articles, more Chucky mayhem to come and more Horror Press.

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Slappy Was the Blueprint: How the Dummy from Goosebumps Became A Horror Icon

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The Scholastic Book Fair was a religious holiday for me growing up. It was the moment middle schoolers felt like they had real agency to make their own decisions with money, and the only time it was actually cool to want to read (the coolest of the cool kids only bought erasers and stickers to trade among each other). Entering the loud gym where the sale was housed always felt like a rush—and when it was finally your turn, you felt like royalty. 

Colorful chapter books lined the metal bookshelves like a candy store, and I had five dollars in my tiny pockets to burn. There was so much to choose from in the early 2000s—A Series of Unfortunate Events was a smash hit, Bunnicula was the underground niche pick, and you could never go wrong with the creepy Animorphs series. But for me, the second I saw the oozing font and dead-eyed dummy staring back at me on the cover, I knew I had to have Night of the Living Dummy topping the massive Goosebumps display. I handed the nice cashier five dollars (who also asked, “Are you sure?” when she noticed my selection), took a sparkly bookmark on my way out, and proudly ventured home. I was on top of the world, only to be quickly dragged down once I began reading about the doll’s evil antics later that night. Slappy would haunt my nightmares for weeks—to the point where I hid the book in my basement and locked the door behind me.

One of the quintessential faces of the Goosebumps series, Slappy the Dummy first debuted in 1993 and immediately skyrocketed to fame. R. L. Stine would write nine different Goosebumps books centering the character and created an entirely separate Slappy series called Goosebumps SlappyWorld. Slappy was the main antagonist of the 2015 live-action movie starring Jack Black as well as its 2018 sequel, got made into actual ventriloquist dolls (perfect to add to your Chucky, Tiffany, and Annabelle collections), and became a Young Adult horror icon.

Like the killer dolls listed above, Slappy would come alive in a very similar way. If one mutters the phrase Karru Marri Odonna Loma Molonu Karrano, which translates to you and I are one now, it’s all over. Slappy will then do everything in his power to make you his servant, framing you for his crimes and pushing you away from the people you love and care about. Sound familiar? 

But Stine’s influences for the undead dummy are somewhat surprising. You’d think the main one was Chucky, arguably the most famous killer doll first appearing in 1988, but Stine hasn’t cited the little menace. 

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The main inspirations for Slappy were the 1883 classic book The Adventures of Pinocchio and the 1978 psychological horror film Magic starring Anthony Hopkins. (In the Goosebumps TV series, Slappy would even don a voice that sounds the same as Fats, the dummy from Magic originally voiced by Hopkins. And as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer mega-fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sid, the cursed puppet who looks eerily similar to Slappy, from season one.) There’s a callback to Chucky’s famous “Wanny play?” catchphrase in the Goosebumps TV show, which feels more like an easter egg than an influence. Regardless of where the idea for Slappy came from, Stine successfully created a horror figure for kids that would allow them to explore further into the horror genre—I would know, I was one of them. If it weren’t for Slappy or the Goosebumps franchise, would I have been comfortable seeking out more mature, intense horror flicks to discover Ghostface, Michael, or Freddy? Probably not—we all had to start somewhere.

We don’t all decide to turn on the TV and begin with Puppet Master, Child’s Play, or Dead Silence. Some of us start small and end up locking our books in the cold, dusty basement out of extreme fear (and throw their American Girl doll down there for good measure. Their eyes literally open and close). We build resilience like we do anything else—muscle, relationships, knowledge. And sometimes it takes a well-dressed dapper dummy to illustrate that.

The next book fair came around, and I ignored the Goosebumps table during my initial walkthrough. My eyes kept darting to the green and purple setup, too curious to look away. Was Slappy’s second book there? Did I actually want to know what was going to happen to him next?

I reluctantly walked over and picked up Night of the Living Dummy II. The cover was somehow scarier than the first, deceivingly pink with Slappy’s same dead eyes. I smiled, handed the same nice cashier my five-dollar bill feeling overly victorious, and rushed home to do my math homework so I could hide under the covers and finish Slappy’s latest adventure all in one night.

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