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The protagonist of horror is the ghost of modern consumer society

Who doesn't love to turn on a horror film on a rainy evening? Fortunately, it is only fiction - or is it? According to university lecturer Evert Jan van Leeuwen, modern horror says more about our society than we think. He has been nominated for the Klokhuis Science Prize for his research into addiction to consumerism in horror.

Van Leeuwen researches horror novels and horror films from the mid-twentieth century until now. ‘I started doing so as a result of research into haunted houses. In classical nineteenth-century literature, haunted house stories focused mainly on the supernatural, but I noticed that after the Second World War, and certainly at the end of the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted,' he says. In the postwar period, the concept of material prosperity was much criticised. The government and also citizens were presumably too occupied with the gross national product as an indicator of happiness and wellbeing.

Obsessed with belongings

‘The stories that I analyse are about modern consumer society and how people become obsessed with possessing things. The book that I am writing about this topic is therefore called 'Demonic Possessions'. It's thus not about people being possessed by supernatural beings, but by the things they own,' says Van Leeuwen. ‘Through mass production and consumer society, mankind is polluting its own nest, which will ultimately have a destructive effect on the wellbeing of mankind and the environment. People want to build bigger and bigger houses, have nicer cars and enjoy the status that comes with it. That is essentially the overarching theme.'

An example of such modern horror is the Dutch film Borgman (2013). 'The film takes place in a typical Dutch villa district with a typical wealthy Dutch family. Suddenly, a homeless man appears at the door, but throughout the story it is suggested that the man is part of a mysterious conspiracy to expose the obsession with property, power and status of a materialistic lifestyle,' Van Leeuwen explains. ‘The family is confronted with the fact that their obsessions have completely eroded mutual human relationships. What they live for is actually a delusion of what is good for society because they have forgotten what the foundation of wellbeing really is: mental wellbeing and open, genuine and equal relationships between people.'

What about content for children?

A scary subject, however Van Leeuwen has still been nominated for the Klokhuis Science Prize. ‘In my book, I also pay attention to content for children. There is an awful lot of horror for children these days. From Dolfje Weerwolfje to vampires on children's television.’

Moreover, the obsession with materialism can also be found in children's literature and films. In the children's film Monster House (2006), an old man lives in a house and takes things from children who enter his yard. ‘A typical angry neighbour, you might think. But the children eventually discover that the man is being completely controlled by his own house because a curse has been placed upon it,' he says. ‘The film is clearly made for children, but we can see that the film is about the question: who controls what? The parents in the film decide what their children are and aren’t allowed to do. The neighbour wanted to own his wife at all costs and built the house to imprison her. Now, the house has captured him out of revenge. The characters start seeing human relationships as possessions and that's where it all goes wrong. I found it very astonishing that that theme is present in children's films as well.'

Horror as a life lesson

‘I think that this is why my research is also important for young people. Horror stories are actually disguised life lessons. And life lessons in modern horror say that you shouldn't attach so much value to possessions and wealth. In the short term, it gives you a lot of status and power, but in the long term it corrupts your spiritual or mental wellbeing,' explains Van Leeuwen. ‘I'm not saying that everyone should go and live like monks in de middle of nowhere and get rid of all their possessions. That's the other extreme. You have to find the right balance between materialistic prosperity and mental wellbeing.’

The Klokhuis Science Prize will be awarded on Sunday 10 November 2021. Out of 64 entries, ten studies have been nominated. The prize is intended to familiarize children aged 9 to 12 with scientific research in the Netherlands. The prize was awarded for the first time in 2016.

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