Curiosity killed the cat. Curiosity also killed the horror movie naif. Cats have nine lives, though, and naifs don’t. Advantage: Cats.
In 1996’s Scream, horror scholar Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) lays out the rules for making it through a horror movie alive: Don’t have sex, don’t toke up or get blotto, and if you leave the room, never, ever tell your friends that you’ll be back. These are the genre’s cardinal sins in the book of Meeks. But there’s a sin more common than the rest that characters frequently commit in horror films: Curiosity. When something goes “bump” in the night, saying “I’ll be right back” doesn’t doom you; your nosiness does. Don’t look in the basement. Don’t go to the creepy old house on the hill at midnight. Don’t hang out in cemeteries. Don’t read the ancient tome bound in human skin and written in blood. Frankly, we should listen to Edgar Wright more than Randy Meeks. Just don’t.
Curiosity isn’t a new sin in horror. It’s an original sin that dates back to the experiments of Henry Frankenstein and Jack Griffin, carried through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in films like The Thing from Another World and The Fly, Black Sunday and Onibaba, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Wicker Man. Then along came Tony Randell’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II in 1988, with the most thorough, and thoroughly excruciating, explanation of the role curiosity plays in horror cinema (and in literature, for that matter, where horror cinema finds much of its basis).
“And you wanted to know,” says Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins), a smirk at her lips sharp enough to puncture the spirit, as she betrays her lover, Dr. Phillip Channard (Kenneth Cranham) to a fate worse than death; she’s left him to the tender mercies of Leviathan, the god of Hell in Barker’s gothic horror series, drained of fluids, mutilated, and remade into a Cenobite — demons for whom pain and pleasure are one and the same. “Now you know. And I wanted everything. Now everybody’s happy.”
Channard, gurgling and screaming in agony, would beg to differ, but such is the price of his inquisitiveness. His obsession with Hell, and specifically the Lament Configuration (an ornate puzzle box apparently forged with raw temptation), has led him to a gruesome end. Used correctly, the Configuration calls forth the movies’ most famous Cenobites: Pinhead (Doug Bradley), Chatterer (Nicholas Vince), Butterball (Simon Bamford), and Barbie Wilde’s “Female Cenobite,” as if being a woman is distinguishing enough. All Channard wanted was to “know.” About Hell, about Leviathan, and about the Cenobites themselves. Knowing isn’t a sin in the real world. In the world of horror, it’s a party foul punishable by execution. Channard isn’t the only person in the Hellraiser movies to find out the consequences of mucking about with the Configuration, but he’s the first to have it driven home clearly, and with wicked glee, that this is what one gets for snooping.
There is horror cinema before Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and there is horror cinema after Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Cotton’s deliciously heartless monologue makes it impossible to watch horror movies without singling out the characters who look where they shouldn’t and inflict misery on themselves, their friends, their families, and any helpless schmuck who winds up in the way. “Investigate the mystery sound” is one of the genre’s staple tropes, right alongside “let’s split up and look around,” two fatal mistakes routinely made in spite of obvious lurking danger. These are gimmicks. They’re also necessary for moving horror plots forward. To paraphrase John Ford, if characters made smart, thoughtful choices instead of bad ones, that would be the end of the film. We need characters to scratch their curiosity itches for horror to function.
Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods provides one of contemporary horror’s best examples of this dynamic in action, a meta analysis of not only why characters do stupid things in these movies, but how important it is that they do. Here, a shadowy organization, known quite creatively as The Organization, employs engineers Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) to conduct an operation-cum-primeval sacrificial ritual, with a group of college kids serving as their victims; each represents a horror movie character archetype, a’la the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin, and each has to die to appease old gods roiling under the Earth’s surface. Failure to satisfy these basic requirements means the literal end of the world.
The ritual begins in earnest when curiosity gets the better of the cast; stumbling on a veritable treasure trove of very obviously evil objects in their rustic getaway cabin’s old cellar, the gang pokes and prods these various curios, until Dana (Kristen Connolly) reads aloud from a diary, summoning a zombie redneck torture family who stalks and murders them. That’s just the first floor of The Cabin in the Woods’ curiosity; eventually the two remaining characters, Dana and Marty (Fran Kranz), descend into a subterranean lair where The Organization is running the show, and discover the awful truth about the zombies, the gods, and the ritual. They take that knowledge and decide to get everybody killed by pissing off the gods. So it goes.
Knowledge and curiosity go hand in hand in horror. Many 2010s-era horror films make a connection between curiosity and curiosity’s rewards; characters seek the truth and regret finding it. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook uses a classic horror setup, the haunted book, which invites the title’s tophat and trenchcoat bedecked spook into the home of a single mother (Essie Davis) and her son (Noah Wiseman). The fiend torments them, her most of all, day and night, for reading his story. Ari Aster’s Midsommar calls on the folk horror tradition for a grueling tale of madness in daylight, where cultural anthropology students travel to Hälsingland to study an enigmatic Swedish commune and become the centerpieces of a 90-year sacrificial ritual.
Most overtly of all, David Gordon Green’s 2018 sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween, simply called Halloween, kicks off with true crime podcasters goading Michael Myers, a man not at all known for being talkative, into saying something — anything, anything, as long as it’s something. In time, Myers stalks and kills them, and in time his own doctor, Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), attempts the same feat. Myers squishes his head like wine grapes in exchange. The nature of the kills isn’t critical, though Halloween being a slasher, we’re there for the kills at least in part. The reason those kills happen, however, is critical. If the podcasters hadn’t bothered Myers, they would have lived. If Sartain’s mad desire to study Myers “in the wild” hadn’t overtaken him, then everyone else who dies in the film would have lived, too. Yes, Myers is the one doing all of the killing, but curiosity means there are other hands holding the knife.
Movies need conflict. Conflict comes from action. Characters take action and make choices that keep the engine of storytelling going. Horror movies aren’t unique, in other words, but the mechanism fueling them remains chief in the genre. Without curiosity, a swath of horror movies — Halloween, The Babadook, Midsommar, The Cabin in the Woods, Us, Sea Fever, The Wailing, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Creep, V/H/S/2, Spring, Sinister — simply don’t happen, and that’s only a present day sample. Curiosity is horror as much as the slashers and monsters that comprise the genre’s most iconic villain are horror. Forget the cat; if you aren’t careful, it’ll kill you, too.