When I was an undergraduate, there was a joke that my friends liked to revisit from time to time simply because we found it amusing and weird. As a bunch of English majors, we spent a good bit of time with Rennaissance era literature (for England, that was during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I roughly), and we thought that jokes about cuckolding were hilarious, because what they always seemed to boil down to was, “That guy has horns! He doesn’t know his wife’s sleeping with someone else! That’s funny!” That’s obviously a lot to explain, and if you say that every time you talk about cuckolding, it can get tiresome. So naturally, we embraced the absurdity and just shouted “Horns!” whenever there was a cuckold joke in a text we were reading.
Despite the fact that cuckolding jokes are kind of mean and inherently sexist (“let’s make fun of this guy who can’t control his woman”), the “Horns!” shorthand went a long way in helping illustrate how powerful simple symbols can be in quickly communicating more complex ideas (and that the Elizabethan sense of humor was pretty weird). I don’t think I ever investigated where the symbolism of the horns originated, but I still remember what it’s supposed to mean in a given context.
Of course, none of that context is present in Horns, which is based on a novel by Joe Hill, who’s become a bit of a star in speculative fiction. The basic premise of the story is that Ig Perrish (that’s a hell of a name) has become a pariah in his hometown after his longtime girlfriend Merrin was found murdered in the woods. Ig has been charged with the murder and is in the process of trying to prepare his legal defense when he inexplicably begins growing a pair of horns from his forehead that have the ability to compel anyone in Ig’s presence to confess their darkest impulses to him and engage in those impulses if Ig gives them permission. Once Ig realizes what the horns allow him to do, he begins looking for information that will explain who really murdered Merrin.
In addition to the horns, Ig gradually takes on more and more trappings of the traditional devil figure with the acquisition of a rusty pitchfork, an affinity for snakes, and a burnt red complexion as the story progresses. The movie’s really committed to this visual language of Ig as the devil, and it does a wonderful job of undermining all that symbolism. Everyone can see Ig’s transformation, but part of the horns’ effect is that they don’t see anything abnormal about it. What makes Ig monstrous in the eyes of the townspeople is that he’s an accused murderer; the horns are just an added bonus.
Further undermining the symbolic meaning of Ig as the devil is the fact that the impulses that people confess to him range from truly horrible to benign but socially repressed desires. Two of Ig’s childhood friends have the most sympathetic cases; Glenna, a woman who’s had a crush on Ig since they were kids, asks him if she can eat half a dozen donuts by herself because she feels worthless and undesirable, and Eric, who’s shown to have a serious case of childhood onset homophobia, is actually in the closet and wants Ig’s permission to express his sexuality. In both cases Ig uses his power to help his friends; he encourages Glenna to leave their town and find someplace that will treat her better, and he tells Eric to embrace his sexuality because there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.
Even in the film’s climax, when Ig confronts Merrin’s killer and fully embraces his role as the devil, the imagery works against expectation where Ig, who’s become truly monstrous in appearance, is framed as the hero pit against someone who appears mundane but has done really awful things in the course of the story.
This isn’t a perfect movie, though. The tone is really uneven in places (many of the confession scenes come off as absurdly hilarious rather than really horrific, even when the confession deals with something truly awful or violent), and I feel ambivalent about how Merrin is portrayed. Though her murder is established at the beginning, the film makes heavy use of flashback to fill the audience in on Ig and Merrin’s history, so she remains a prominent character, but something about how she’s treated as representative of pure goodness (her cross necklace acts as an emblem that undoes Ig’s transformation as long as he’s wearing it) doesn’t sit well with me; I think it’s the fact that everyone else is portrayed as being conflicted and fallible while Merrin’s flaws are barely visible in the film. Also, the real murderer is pretty easy to pick out long before the reveal (that’s not a huge minus, since the story’s clearly more interested in exploring questions of morality than being a murder mystery, but it is something to consider if a good mystery is what you’re looking for).
Ultimately, I enjoyed Horns, and I’m actually thinking about adding the book to my (already long) reading list. It’s visually playful and does a lot to explore how we let socially established symbols influence our perception of events. Go check it out.