Being bitten by a zombie while your friends aren’t looking puts you in a difficult position. Do you tell them about it right away? If you do, aren’t you ensuring your destruction? If you don’t, aren’t you putting your friends in danger?
We’re almost numb to the trope now – zombie battle winds down, someone asks if anyone’s been bit, no one raises their hand but one character is covertly checking a freshly bloodied, easily hidden extremity. It’s a shame it’s used so lightly and often, because there’s a lot of potential dramatic power in that moment.
Imagine the rush of questions and existential crises that must be flooding the mind of the bitten. Like being told you’ve been poisoned, you are suddenly too aware of your own death – this thing has always felt so far away. More than that, the zombie aspect means that you’ve been turned into a walking dirty bomb, waiting to turn aggressive. Everyone who gets infected, but has the power to keep that secret, keeps it secret. It’s a selfish, understandable act of self-preservation, hanging desperately onto a final few experiences before succumbing to the death you’ve already been dealt.
Horror is used to focusing on this type of lie by omission, but it’s typically as an abstraction in a heightened situation. Like a little Ethics 101 crash course asking the audience to choose between two horrible options. It’s rare to see lying as an allegory for shame, but two recent indie horror breakouts both deal with people in relationships who hide the parts of themselves they fear are the darkest. The things they think will make even a loved one run away.
“You dumped me and turned into a monster.”
First, let’s look at Spring, the monster romance film from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson where a young man looking for himself in Europe falls for a young woman who hides her needle use and clams up when it comes to personal details.
Louise (Nadia Hilker) is a stunner in every sense of the word. She’s sharp, smart and gorgeous, and she’s flighty in a way that makes Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) want to give chase past the one-night fireworks she offers. Part of her flirtatious dismissal of commitment is caused by a fear of intimacy, but the main part is caused by her fear of turning into a multi-headed wolftopus mermaid monster in front of a guy she’s crushing on. In order to stay safe (and keep a large amount of others safe), she eschews the possibility of partnership, and when that no longer works, she hides this fundamental thing about herself, allowing herself to feel happy with another for the first time in centuries.
In spending more time with her Lovecraftian Romeo, the big question of the film becomes whether he’ll love her, pulsating poisonous warts and all.
Louisa is dealing with a common problem for rom-com characters (and people in the real world for that matter). If someone knows the bad things about me, why would they want to stick around? For her, it’s more extreme than snoring or cheating on taxes, so the power of Evan’s acceptance is even more profound. It’s a message about second chances, how we view the shadier parts of our own personalities, and why love is strong enough to overcome them. In this case, it’s a matter of viewing something heinous as an illness to be cured instead of as core-deep evil behavior.
It’s also a smart twist on a bland rom-com trope (“Tell me I was a bet!”) where the secret thing is typically fairly benign, or at least explainable if characters are willing to take two minutes to talk about it. Here, that common plot point is intensified and given deadly weight. Luisa is a destructive (and self-destructive) force whose bedpost notches double as a body count.
What’s striking about Spring is that, unlike the standard romantic comedy, the profession of support in spite of the nightmare scenario isn’t enough to satiate the person with the secret. That’s usually how a rom-com ends – with one party shaking their head and saying, “You were worried about that this whole time?” – but Evan’s unswaying care initially irritates Louisa even further. He’s seen the worst, wants to stick around, but she’s still afraid.
Also unlike the standard romantic comedy, there’s a lizard bird scorpion squid monster.
Yet even in looking at horror romances, Spring is unusual because monsters are typically out in the open by page one (Dracula, Warm Bodies), eventually reveal themselves as the villain (Once Bitten) or become the monster openly during the course of the story (The Fly). Thus, Spring – and movies like Let the Right One In – may have more in common with films like Leaving Las Vegas than they do the films of their own genre.
Then, yes, there’s addiction. The clearest symbol of Spring is the needle Louisa uses to stave off the change, but beyond the spectre of drug and alcohol abuse, the dark secret she keeps from the man she’s growing to love could be anything that would make a normal person afraid to be honest. It doesn’t even have to be negative – her needle is symbolic of any baggage that is either good information to have by a third date or an absolute deal-breaker. It’s the asterisk on all of our ledgers that has to be explained before a relationship can honestly evolve to the next level.
You never know what’s going to scare someone away.
“Whatever helps it get close to you.”
It Follows deals with this concept to a lesser, but still important, extent. The film – like Charles Burns’ “Blackhole” – features young people haunted by a sexually transmitted curse.
After she’s infected and followed by a slow-moving, mindless killer, Jay (Maika Monroe) chooses to tell her friends what happened and fortify some semblance of a defense. That openness keeps her alive (in spite of cold inevitability), but the bookends of the movie portray the horror of keeping parts of yourself hidden from a sexual partner.
At the beginning, it’s Hugh (Jake Weary) who chloroforms Jay in order to have sex with her and pass the demon along. A clear stand-in for date rape, it’s also a messy portrayal of someone with an STD failing to disclose that fact before sharing sheets (or the backseat of a rusty car). The monster of It Follows is a self-propelling version of an STD, but it also puts its victims in the uncomfortable position of lying by omission in order to save themselves. Everyone comes to the same conclusion: if you told someone that you were guaranteed to pass on an affliction that could possibly kill them, informed, voluntary sex simply wouldn’t happen.
Unless you’re Jay, and a friend is willing to sacrifice himself just to get into your pants. Paul (Keir Gilchrist) fits that bill, offering a shadow of a happy romantic ending, but since the It of If Follows is now closing in on him, the movie ends with him (and Jay) driving tellingly past a group of prostitutes. Fat chance that Paul will give a detailed explanation about the murderous curse before passing it and the buck to an unwitting hooker. He and Jay hold hands having built a relationship in spite of their baggage, but this is what that baggage has turned them into. Monsters looking for acceptance they’re afraid can’t exist.
Overall, both It Follows and Spring deal with a chilling terror not often explored in horror: the fear that, deep down, we don’t deserve to be loved.