Horror and Loss of Memory

There is a horror we encounter in the everyday, of the slowly dissolving record of our own history that we call to forget.

Content warning: Memory loss and death!

Spoiler Warning: I talk about some movies where there’s a mystery that’s been forgotten, which shouldn’t spoil anything in the movies, but if you absolutely do not want to know, then…

uh, maybe don’t look at the image? Oh come on it’s the name of the movie.

Forgetting single moments, important events, particularly important appointments, these are all things that give us a little dose of everyday horror — the fact that the reality you remember isn’t quite correct, and that slow erosion of what you like to imagine is stable underneath you. It’s a lot like falling asleep, or blacking out – there are these moments of everyday discontinuity with our own way of maintaining our connection to reality. You’re a very shaky little chemical process for recognising an ongoing continuity of existence that keeps stopping and starting and forgetting things is a way that that process has to acknowledge it’s not actually doing that good a job of it.

Then there’s a deeper abyss beyond that, the gulf of the degradation of memory. The way a mind depletes, the way ideas become a struggle, the way it all just falls apart… we see it in apocalyptic logs, in storytelling, in videogames and narratives, of watching the way that someone recording their own thoughts gets more lost and more limited and

eventually

not themselves.

These are known horrors of losing memory.

In horror media, the forgotten thing is incredibly important, and incredibly dangerous. There’s a bunch of classic examples, like where Freddy Krueger is this character the whole town knew about, but didn’t pass that knowledge on, in the hopes that he’d be forgotten. Same too of other classic slashers, where there’s often some single terrible event or witnessing that has been forgotten and is secretly the cause of darkness. Only the people who don’t know it are going to be put in a position to be hurt by it, but also, telling people about it, making the thing known, making sure it’s remembered represents another problem. Your only options are to forget, and to hope that forgetting it is enough. Even The Thing is about a thing that nobody knows anything about — what it is and what it does is forgotten knowledge. There was a point in history where someone might have had a chance to know about it, but they aren’t around, they don’t know any more, and the people who are beholden to the Thing, the people who become the Thing do slowly forget the boundary of what they are and aren’t.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is an idea that is kinda at the base of Hereditary, where what if there was a kind of evil thing that a grandmother in the family set up… and then died without following up on it. There are a few other horror movies that do something like this, where someone’s inherited plan or ancient artifact resulted in the horror impacting a family, but what I think most rings about it is the idea of …

What if someone evil, doing and preparing something terrible, is degenerating and losing their faculties, and as a direct result, the thing they’re making isn’t even going to work properly? Sure, a demonic ritual or dreadful poison or cybernetic implant may just not work if the person making it loses control of their memory, but what’s worse if what they do make messes up, in a way that works?

And the only source of information you have to work it out is itself decaying and degenerated and maybe even gone forever?

As far as horror premises go, this one sticks in my mind as a barb. Because there’s something about intentionality and forgiveness and accountability, and how there’s an inherent sympathy we have for people who are suffering the death of self while alive. There’s something of us that’s not willing to consider if they deserve it, or if someone can deserve it, or if the person who’s left is even the person who can be seen as responsible for that?

It’s something that we normally ignore. Typically, villains are seen as, well, ‘crazy’ – unconnected from reality, or somehow mentally born wrong or bad. Inexplicable, even.

The idea of a helpless, doddering old person who was leaving behind an enormous, terrible landmine in their life. There’s a tragedy to picking through the lives of those whose minds have withered away when they’re gone; the notes to remember to turn off the lights, the medical records they didn’t quite get right, the multiple packets of cereal because they forgot they already had a full box, the collection of severed rat heads, and…

I don’t know, it’s strange, because it shouldn’t be a story beat about how people degenerating are monstrous. But rather, when we want to hold to the memory of the person they really were…

Are we willing to remember them as the monsters they chose to be?

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