The Columnist

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s 1981 critique on horror fiction, the author examined popular culture in film, books and television, reflecting on what makes for a good fright, and why terror is such an important commodity. “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones,” he wrote. “A good horror story is one that functions on a symbolic level, using fictional (and sometimes supernatural) events to help us understand our own deepest real fears.”

Years later, science would prove King right. A new study conducted by a group of researchers – Coltan Scrivner, John A. Johnson, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and Mathias Clasen – from the United States and Denmark sought to discover whether or not horror fans are better adept at handling the stresses of everyday life, especially when faced when extenuating circumstances, such as a deadly pandemic on a global scale. Their work was recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and funded by the Research Program for Media, Communication, and Society at the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University. 

For their report, the group recruited 322 participants and asked them what kind of shows they like, what kind of movies they prefer, whether or not they consider themselves to be a horror fan, if they’ve been watching more or fewer scary movies during the pandemic. Participants were asked to what extent they agreed with each of 10 statements that said, “I would consider myself a fan of _____ movies and TV shows.” The 10 types of movies and TV shows were horror, zombie, psychological thriller, supernatural, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, science fiction, alien-invasion, crime, comedy and romance. Since simulations should work best when they present information relevant to real-world situations, they combined the genres where the imagined world is illustrative of the chaos that might occur in a real-world pandemic (zombie, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, and alien-invasion) into a “prepper genres” variable. 

Then they were asked a series of questions regarding their mental state since the pandemic began based on a numeric scale, e.g. ‘I was mentally prepared for a pandemic like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, ‘I was able to predict how bad things would get due to the Coronavirus pandemic before things really took off’, and so on. What they discovered is just how beneficial it can be to binge slashers when the world shows its teeth.

It’s a fine line between superhero and vigilante, and The Columnist’s Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) expertly struts down that narrow path in blood-spattered heels. At least, that’s what she thinks. The truth is, ever since she wrote a piece on why the Netherlands should say goodbye to Zwarte Piet (AKA ‘Black Pete’), she’s been slipping. She’s letting the internet trolls get to her. She’s reading the comments. 

For those who are unaware, the character of Black Pete is a part of the Festival of St. Nicholas that takes place in Europe every year. Although the Saint was largely forgotten in Protestant Europe after the Reformation and transformed into Santa Claus and Father Christmas in most cultures, it is still a recognizable annual event wherein a white member of society portrays Zwarte Piet by wearing blackface, usually donned with frizzy wigs and prominent red lipstick. 

It’s a racist tradition that regular columnist Femke rightfully calls out in Ivo van Aart’s off-kilter horror comedy, prompting a string of online abuse that most writers will find sadly relatable. Intimate insults. Sexist banter. Racial slurs. Body shaming. Scandalous slander. Sexual harassment. Victim Blaming. Homophobic attacks. Ludicrous libel. Death threats. It’s the price you pay when you have a pedestal, but the insistent onset of it all would get to anyone after a while. Given enough time and persistence, even water can corrode steel.

Suddenly, Femke finds herself seeking out and stalking the men who leave mean comments on her column. She winds up in the apartments of tiny trolls masquerading as men, reading their vile words back to them, taking her power back one gruesome kill at a time. Another name crossed off the list. Another good night’s rest. When the writer’s block she’s been nursing stops her dead in her tracks, paralyzing her, she decapitates another hater, and the cloud clears. When the book she’s been slacking on calls for a bit of a stir, she slices off another middle finger, a sinner in secret. “Why can’t we have different opinions and be nice about it?” Femke asks onscreen at a live television show. But this writer doesn’t practice what she preaches.

Femke isn’t the first to try vengeance on for size. Fed up with society’s cold-hearted callousness and not willing to take it anymore, Melanie Lynsky’s Ruth joins up with Elijah Wood’s Tony to take on the assholes who stole her laptop in Macon Blair’s thrillingly mischievous 2017 crime drama I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. A frustrated middle-aged man and a quirky 16-year-old girl make unlikely accomplices on the bloody path to salvation in Bobcat Goldthwait’s darkly comedic 2011 knockout God Bless America. An insomniac office worker uses an underground fight club as a coping mechanism for the curse of consumerism in David Fincher’s gritty 1997 thriller Fight Club. An everyday suit unable to abide the constant crudeness he confronts on a daily basis snaps and lashes out in violent and psychotic ways in Joel Schumacher’s sharply directed 1993 drama Falling Down. A New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his wife is murdered by street punks in Michael Winner’s sleazy stunner Death Wish (1974). 

What makes van Aart’s 2020 wicked exercise in Machiavellianism The Columnist stand apart from the pack is its unique depiction of a sympathetic supporting character, Femke’s boyfriend Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen). A hot horror novelist covered in tattoos and black nail polish, Steven works out his demons through his storytelling, an act which provides him catharsis for all of the criticism he inevitably receives as an artist. Steven tells Femke to stay off Twitter, not to read the comments, to ignore the condemnation that keeps her up at night, but he still finds her scrolling through the negativity, looking through her while she’s looking through her phone, seeing her spiral but unaware of the slippery slope that lie in wait. “I just need to clear my head,” Femke protests when her lover tries to address her tendency toward self-destruction. He doesn’t need to hurt the people who give him grief in real life because he’s using fiction as a vicarious expunging tool. Femke will have to purge that animosity somehow, and when she doesn’t find the answer in her pen, she reaches for the sword. 

“Although most people go into a scary movie with the intention of being entertained rather than learning something, scary stories present ample learning opportunities,” writes Scrivner, one of the researchers mentioned at the top of this article. The research team found that people who like horror movies tend to cope better with crises, feel less stressed by possible outcomes and are more resilient when preparing for tough times. “Fiction allows the audience to explore an imagined version of the world at very little cost. Through fiction, people can learn how to escape dangerous predators, navigate novel social situations and practice their mind-reading and emotion regulation skills.” The team learned that horror fandom was significantly associated with lower psychological distress.

The results of their study prove exactly why Steven is better able to deal with the stress of being a public figure than his murderous but otherwise insanely talented girlfriend Femke. Exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations. Steven may look like the wolf, but he is the sheep without the clothing. Femke may look like the innocent flower, but she is the serpent beneath it.

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