M3gan, the title character from the half-horror, half-satire film of the same name. OSV News photo/Geoffrey Short, courtesy Universal

The good, the true and the beautiful… of horror

  • January 26, 2023

The utilitarian horror of a life defined by technology gets a clever, funny and surprisingly subtle (yet unsubtle) treatment in this year’s horror movie hit M3gan.

Half-horror and half-satire, M3gan skewers our culture’s unquestioning faith in technology. M3gan is a four-foot-tall doll powered by an artificial intelligence system that gives it the power of conversation combined with the collective wisdom of the Internet. M3gan’s inventor, Gemma (played by Alison Williams), puts M3gan to work as a babysitter, companion and substitute parent for her deeply traumatized niece Cady (Violet McGraw), who loses both her parents to a car crash before the opening credits roll.

Gemma quickly loses control of M3gan, who begins interpreting her programmed priority to protect Cady in murderous ways.

Killer robots have been part of popular cinema since long before HAL turned off the life support systems on the astronauts in 2001, A Space Odyssey half a century ago. But HAL was never cute. The clever satire wrapped up as horror in M3gan is delivered through a doll which presents us with a conventional image of the blandly pretty — an empty, unthreatening ideal of beauty. When the mechanized beauty goes bonkers, the horror begins.

Catholic novelist and University of Toronto English professor Randy Boyagoda wants to explore just why we like horror movies and what they tell us about ourselves and our culture. He was to deliver a lecture titled “Faith, Reason and Beauty” Jan. 26 at the Newman Centre in Toronto, but a week before the talk Boyagoda confessed his real interest.

“I want to sort of think about beauty in ways that we don’t normally think about it,” Boyagoda said. “I’m actually going to be giving a talk on the false, the evil and the ugly.”

"Lots of people read Aquinas and ignore horror movies. Lots of people watch horror movies and ignore Aquinas. The opportunity we have is to bring these things together."

- Randy Boyagoda

To get at his subject matter, Boyagoda planned to get his audience thinking and talking about horror movies. To help him puzzle through what the genre might tell us about faith, reason and beauty, the professor will bring up the writing of Catholic philosopher Étienne Gilson, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, African bishop St. Augustine and Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.

“The question for me isn’t so much why are we talking about Aquinas,” he said. “But instead, how to draw Aquinas into conversation with a contemporary horror film. That seems to me more interesting. Lots of people read Aquinas and ignore horror movies. Lots of people watch horror movies and ignore Aquinas. The opportunity we have is to bring these things together and then see what comes of that — that encounter.”

Horror as a kind of story we all crave predates the movies by at least a couple of millennia, points out Jesuit movie buff and literary critic Fr. Monty Williams, co-author of the Finding God in the Dark series of books about the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and popular movies. Greek tragedies from Medea to Oedipus Rex gave us child murder, patricide, mass murder and gouged-out eyes 2,500 years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

“What horror movies do is allow us, through catharsis, to deal with the evil around us, and in ways acceptable to the common folk,” Williams said in an email.

Fellow Jesuit movie fan Fr. Trevor Scott points out that horror films give us a safe way to acknowledge chaos in our lives.

“Horror films in general break all the rules and tidiness that we like to organize our lives around, including conventional and clichéd conceptions of beauty,” Scott said in an email.

Scott worries about religious sensibilities that try to deny the ugly and uncontrollable parts of human existence.

“It seems so often that our Church exists only for this reason, to convince us to live tidy, conventional, morally and relationally black-and-white lives. But we are messy human beings, not programmed software,” he said. “Horror stories and imagery really remind us of that, and we deeply desire to be reminded. They could even be seen as needed forms of rebellion.”

Horror films such as Jordan Peele’s 2017 smash Get Out encapsulate in a simple story the very real and complex horror of being Black inside a racist American culture, Scott said.

“Perhaps the heart of our fascination with horror stories is our attraction to ugliness, that is really just unconventional forms of beauty,” Scott said. “Rather than limiting our attraction to simple and tidy pleasures, we need to see the beauty of and beneath more unconventional life forms, especially as a Church community.”

For Boyagoda, horror movies tell us about the good, the true and the beautiful by showing us their absence. He calls them “obverse reflections of the true, good and the beautiful.”

“We’re called to engage the culture around us and the accompanying sense of why that, given the popular representations of human experience — I am thinking of something like a popular movie — why a movie can gain so much acclaim and attention by emphasizing absence, the absence of the good, the true and the beautiful,” Boyagoda said.

The absence of the beautiful in M3gan comes to us in the form of a pretty, efficient, mechanized doll who embodies shallow, know-it-all narcissism.

“I have a new primary user now,” M3gan declares. “Me.”

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