Film - Proper Respect for the Horror Genre

This Halloween weekend treat yourself to a break from the bats, put your feet up with a witches' brew and get some Proper Respect for the Horror Genre with David Ames...

The humanities are a field of study encapsulating numerous disciplines and focusing on ideas which focus on the human condition. Film is an aspect which consistently pursues this focus and with the use of story, acting, and music, generates moving pieces of art which transcend time to discuss the nature of humanity and inherent loves, worries, fears, and social concerns. Although genres such as drama and documentary are well respected, horror is one area where critical response has been almost exclusively negative.

The general perception of horror movies is that they are schlocky, gore-filled, teenage pictures which have no intrinsic or extrinsic value other than to shock and offend. “Since its inception, the Academy Awards has paid scant attention to performance in horror, with best performance awards attributed to the horror genre experiencing an almost 60-year hiatus between Fredric March’s win for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Kathy Bates’ award for Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990)” (Kerr 157). In reality horror movies delve into the deepest recesses of the human mind and while what they produce can indeed cause the aforementioned shock and awe, they are also great indicators of what lies beneath the surface in humanity. The horror genre has been lauded in other mediums of expression, namely literature, where famous authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Stephen King, and others have been critically applauded for showing something about hidden fears in humanity as well as addressing social concerns. This raises the question of the exclusion of horror films in this aspect. Horror films deserve the same critical approach and respect awarded to more widely accepted genres in addressing and portraying the social and psychological fears in humanity.

The inception of the horror genre can be traced back to gothic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The success of these novels was not just in the fear they inspired or, in the case of Dracula and Carmilla, the eroticism which emanated from the page. The success was also attributed to the social commentary present in these works. Frankenstein focused on the fears rising in the community with the onset of Darwinism and science in the face of religious dominance. The ability to play God was portrayed in Shelley’s protagonist and the story showed the dangers and eventual downfall of unbridled passion and obsession. Dracula focused on the fear of the “new woman” who was both sexually and socially becoming free from the patriarchal construct which had for so long held them in (Rayner 301).

This is also shown in Carmilla, where the audience is also shown the first female to female attraction in respected literature, embracing the fear of the inadequacy of men in society. The vampire is a metaphor for pure sex; penetration, lust, passion, exchange of bodily fluids. These novels and many like them were the beginnings of the horror genre, and were not without serious social context. They have been viewed as such and despite conservative opposition are still studied in schools today.

“Much cinematic vampire mythology comes from films based on the novels Dracula and Carmilla” (Berg 8). Vampires on screen have long been used to express sexual awakenings or freedom and there was not a greater time for this than the 1960s and 1970s, a time also quoted as the “sexual revolution. In the horror genre, there was a huge influx in the number of lesbian vampire films created. Critics attest that this can be attributed to lack of restrictions on film as well as the descent of the country into debauchery. Film scholars on the other hand look to the use of this bisexual apex predator as a symbol of the women of the 1960s breaking free from patriarchal control and establishing their own parameters for life. Films like Roy Ward Barker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) which is a loose adaptation of the aforementioned Carmilla showcases the strength of women and their sexuality. “This took place against what is often termed the ‘sexual revolution’, connected to the ‘counterculture’ and the rise of youth culture, where widespread changes to sexual attitudes occurred in the West. Connected too were widespread changes in perceptions of orthodox religion and, at the same time, the rise of feminism” (Baker 561).

Vampires not only help to represent sex but also the fear of globalism and the loss of one’s culture and identity. In Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993), the protagonist runs an antique shop in Mexico City (a perfect analogy for the rich history of the Mexican people) and the film begins with the history of the conquering of Mexico. As the film progresses, an antique from outside the area incidentally turns the protagonist into a vampire (Colonialism and its destruction of pure Mexican heritage).

Literal vampirism becomes a symbol for the figural bleeding dry of less dominant cultural and economic forces under globalization. The placelessness [sic] of Mexico City is a result of the culturally specific local customs being subsumed by an overpowering tide of the universal – or, to an extent in this film, American – culture that globalization represents. (Berg 10)

This aspect is also present in Park Chan Wook’s Thirst (2008) in which a Korean priest gives a blood transfusion to a dying patient in Africa and brings the vampire virus home with him. By importing the virus, the protagonist has begun to damage and destroy the culture and lifestyle of his own people (Berg 11). 

Literature as a whole has always been welcoming of the horror genre. Looking to short stories, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most well-respected writers in history and his work is almost primarily horror. Works such as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Raven all portray man at its darkest. The first focuses on the fears of isolation and madness, the second on the inevitability of death, and the third on the despair of lost love. Poe has been universally celebrated for his work surrounding the effects of depression on the human mind and his almost universal genre is horror. Stephen King and John Adjvide Lindquist (known as the Swedish Stephen King) have also been heralded for their work in the horror genre.

The question then arises as to why the genre of horror film is not approached with the same distinction and respect as its literary counterparts. Fear is the most basic instinct in human nature so it goes to reason that films which prey on that instinct will have some intrinsic value.

The oldest and strongest human emotion is fear. It is embedded in people since time began. It was fear that initiated the establishment of faith and religion. It was the fear of unknown and mysterious phenomena, which people could not explain otherwise than via impersonating a high power, which decides their fates. To every unexplainable phenomenon they attributed a character, human or inhuman, which they associated with supernatural skills and invincible power. (Prohászková 132)

The fear of death is especially present in horror. Studies show that viewers experience disgust for the events revolving around the death on screen and this gives them the ability to deal with their own death from a safe place. “…horror films help people cope with their fear of nonexistence…” (Walters 15). The relief experienced by the viewer after each scene experience with death is reinvigorating, “…those who watch horror experience a type of relief after each scene"(Johnson 100), and lets the viewer recover before another brush with that emotion, slowly desensitizing the audience to their innate fear.

There has been extensive work done in the horror genre, as extensive as any other genre in film history and yet horror is almost universally mocked as being stale, unimportant, and juvenile. Whether the focus is on a slasher, psychological trauma, or monsters, the genre is being laughed at and this should not be the case. Horror deals with the most basic of human emotions and at the same time, also contributes to a catharsis needed by people to survive trauma.

Every horror fan has their own reasons for seeking outputs that are full of deterrent elements and motives. Some want to experience what they are not allowed in real life; some want to escape from the uncomfortable reality; some are testing their character; some increase their tolerance to fright and fear to avoid panic in dangerous real life situations. Many times they cannot even explain or describe what drives them to seek outputs of horror production, they only know they enjoy them. However, there is always reason, but it might be hidden in the deepest corners of our soul and mind which are hard to reach. (Prohaszkova 141)

The genre may appear to be unintelligent but underneath the surface it not only recognizes fear but serious issues such as social injustice, sexism, and fear of maturity. ‘‘Beneath the seemingly universal terror of werewolves and vampires, lurks very real and contemporary concerns’’ (Hendershot 1). These issues are put forth through a genre that may use tropes and unintelligent or vernacular dialogue but this does not mean that they cannot be respected in the same light as other respected works of drama or historical fiction.

There are exceptions. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining is widely accepted as a masterpiece as is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The question is why they are accepted when others are not? The Shining is a film which utilizes amazing film techniques and performances by its two stars, Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall, and this might be the cause of the respect. Another theory is that the film transcends the horror genre and instead attacks issues such as alcoholism and parental abuse. “The Shining may be categorized as a horror film—and it is, but it is also one which exists on a much more profound level than the garden-variety pulp flicks that give the genre its widespread disrepute” (Smith 300). This idea would suggest that horror could be respected if it only delved deeper into profound thoughts and meaning. Herein lies the issue for film critics and theorists alike. They refuse to look at horror in this way, almost universally choosing to pass over the genre as juvenile and unimportant without giving it the respect it may deserve. In this same vain, television shows such as South Park, which is now revered as a wonderful source of social commentary, was originally boycotted and smeared by critics. Years later, the series is well-respected for their approach to topical issues. Horror as a whole has still not reached this level.

Psychologically speaking, experiencing fear and terror can be cathartic for the human mind. “…in extending this approach to media presentations of violence and graphic horror, argued that dramatic or violent cinematic exhibitions encouraged the purgation of pent-up emotion and aggression and in so doing reduced the probability that a person would act on these emotions” (Feshbach qtd. in Walters). Fear can be addressed in a number of different ways in horror, representative by the numerous horror genres including natural horror (Jaws (1975)), psychological horror (Psycho (1960)), and slasher films (A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)) to name a few.

The fear and internal/intrinsic result of that fear is the release of endorphins which not only mask the fear but bring humans pleasure. Much like when adrenaline is released to suffer through pain, endorphins are released to help a viewer feel more relaxed. Also, by achieving a sense of closure with a violent or emotionally charged film, the audience feels a happy sense of accomplishment and survival. “From this perspective, the distinctive attraction of horror inheres primarily in the emotional experience it elicits, an experience that the subject welcomes for the benefits and rewards that it provides… I contend, primarily in the hope of the intense, positive emotional experience it affords us.” (Bantinaki 391).

Naysayers to this theory cite examples of violent films causing horrible tragedies like that of the Columbine School Shooting or more recently the Aurora Theater Shooting. Despite what some say. Psychologist Bruce Ballon has performed research and shown that only when a viewer is already experiencing traumatic or disturbing events will the films have any effect on their mind. This condition is referred to as Cinema Neurosis and can easily be controlled with brief psychoanalysis and mild psychotropic drugs, all things needed to stem normal depressive tendencies. Ballon states that “Individuals with borderline personality structure have problems dealing with loss, autonomy, and identity—the subject matter of horror films” (228), a theory that is further supported in Israel Orbach’s article “The Emotional Impact of Frightening Stories on Children,” but says the issue is not the film itself but rather the underlying psychological problems experienced by the viewers. In the end, “many clinicians and theorists adhere strongly to the view that evocation of affective expression can have a healthy, cathartic function” (Feshbach 98).

Fear of nature is an ingrown and primordial aspect of human nature, one that stems from years of biological conditioning to fear animals and other things which could cause serious harm or death. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a film about a giant great white shark which terrorizes a small New England tourist town by killing numerous residents. The story may seem far -fetched but the fear of the ocean has existed as long as men have been using the waters for food and transport. This film also has its basis in reality. The plot is based on the true story of a series of shark attacks on the jersey shore in 1919 (Gambino) and the film recaptures and reinvigorates this fear of the water. Another famous natural horror film would be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) which tells the story of birds turning on Britain and killing people. The film takes something simple and well-known (birds) and using them as a device to instill fear in the audience. Few know that the film and the story it is based on are both a commentary on the German Blitzkrieg of London during World War II. The social commentary is hidden in the horror aspect of the work but analysis of the film draws numerous connections between the two.

Another common theme for horror is the coming-of-age of characters. The fear and unknown aspect of maturity and puberty is showcased in films such as John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000) which follows two sisters, one of whom gets bitten and subsequently turns into a werewolf. The film follows the extreme growth of hair, the drastic mood swings, the severe increase in libido, and the overabundance of blood, all of which happen in young women when they begin to mature and start to menstruate. By creating a link between menstrual and lunar cycles, the director was able to solidify his metaphor for the “time of the month” and to create the same fear in his protagonists as the common fear of menstruation that young girls experience.

As soon as we found that whole lunar cycles, menstrual cycles theme and put them together in a werewolf movie, that is when this whole thing came together. The weirdest thing is that I don’t know if I could defend Ginger Snaps’ connection between menstrual blood and infection or not. I actually thought that women would be very offended by this film. I was worried that what we were saying thematically was that to go through adolescence and become a woman was like becoming a monster. (Barker 71)

This same theme is showcased in Brian de Palma’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Carrie (1976). The fears of social alienation at the onset of menstruation and maturity are shown through the bullying and subsequent social torture of Carrie White, the film’s protagonist, who eventually goes insane and kills everyone at the prom, a rite of passage for young girls in America.

Reviewers such as Bianca Nielson (2004) have noted the connection between Ginger Snaps and previous horror classics such as Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1977), arguing that both use imagery of menstrual change to highlight monstrous connotations of female sexual development within the genre. However, while Carrie limits the ‘unsettling’ imagery associated with female cycles to its opening shower room sequence, Fawcett expands such references to Ginger Snaps as a whole. (Baker 69)

The film is created so that the audience identifies with the suffering of the protagonist. Most children are bullied or picked on at some point in their life and the film’s ending serves as a cathartic experience for those viewers who get to see the vigilante justice of all their past woes and tortures. Carrie White becomes a hero as she takes control of her sexuality and her life by defying her mother and going into the world as an adult. This aspect was played on even more heavily in Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 remake of Carrie.

This coming-of-age panic is thoroughly represented in classic teen films known as Slasher movies. These films usually follow a group of teenagers who interact with each other in various illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) and are punished for it by some supernatural killer who hunts them all down in grotesque and gory fashion. This punishment is the metaphorical equivalent of actions generally looked down on by society but this is the subgenre of film most reviled by critics and film theorists alike. The use of gratuitous sex and violence usually incites more disgust than analysis from critics (Strohl 203).

Few critics look deep enough into films in this genre to see the social commentary portrayed in the teens, especially in the “final girl,” a trope created and used primarily by the horror genre. Usually in a slasher film, the person who survives and/or defeats the “unbeatable” monster/killer is a girl, virginal and pure, who does not partake in any of the vices shown earlier in the film. The “final girl” barely makes it through the film, usually experiencing all of the death in the film and finding all of here impure friends along the way, but in the end is the only one who can defeat the killer. The metaphor in this is obvious; if someone abstains from sex and drugs, the world will be kinder to them and they will survive. This also serves to showcase gender roles and equality in film. Audience identification with the main character can be unstable because men usually do not identify with girls. During the “final girl’s” confrontation, she becomes masculinized by using a weapon against the killer (a phallic symbol). The male spectators identifying with a young female character is hard difficult so even though the “final girl” is masculinized, it is necessary for this surviving character to be female, because she must experience terror, and many viewers would reject a film that showed this on the part of a male. In this aspect, women become strong and powerful, a social statement that usually goes overlooked because of the earlier objectification of those women who were involved in the previous sex scenes (Never Sleep).

Feminism is especially present in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The film’s hero and “final girl” Nancy Thompson fits the paradigm of the trope perfectly. She is virginal but surrounded by hedonistic young teens, she is growing and changing through puberty, and in the end she defeats the slasher (Freddy Krueger in this case). In fact, in the film, it becomes painfully obvious that the men in Nancy’s life are no help to her and through this realization, Nancy becomes stronger as a person. She does not need the masculine presence of protection or shelter (Never Sleep). A Nightmare on Elm Street was immensely popular, not only with teens but with minority groups and with the gay community as it showcased what was viewed as the weaker sex overtaking the stronger, more powerful force which was holding it down. The social commentary expressing the needs of the disenfranchised helps to not only push the credibility of the argument presented. It also adds credence to the idea that the genre deals with more mature things than simple sex and punishment.

Another aspect of female sexuality or the repression of that sexuality can be seen in Roman Polanski’s 1965 masterpiece Repulsion, which focuses on the fear and subconscious terror that a woman feels when confronted sexually. The film deals with the sexual molestation and subsequent delusions and psychotic tendencies that the female protagonist experiences as a result. Carol, the protagonist, feels trapped inside a small, claustrophobic apartment which is getting filthier by the day and she is only ever in contact with overly sexualized males once her sister leaves for vacation. The film is showing the dangers in a strictly patriarchal society where women can barely break out of their surroundings to find themselves.

To Carol, male figures only want to have sex with her, and this anxiety is amplified when her apartment begins to deteriorate. At one point Carol looks at a small crack forming in the wall and states “we must get this crack mended.” The cracks in the walls start to form reflecting her evergrowing [sic] hysteria and become more and more pronounced as the narrative proceeds. (Davies 19)

This same theme is also addressed in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” which deals with a woman whose freedom was taken by the men in her life and she spirals into a psychotic episode resulting in the fainting and possible death of her husband.

Social and political commentary are dominant in films such as George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) which fall into the subgenre of zombie films. The zombie in Romero’s work, a slow-moving, mindless, consuming machine, is representative of the American capitalist and consumerism in American culture. Even in death, these creatures go to where the most felt at home, which is a mall (Nightmares in Red).

In 28 Days Later, Britain is attacked by an outbreak of “rage” which stems from chemical testing on Animals. This film shows the isolation of people surrounded by a sea of uncaring and violent others who take no care for their fellow man. The zombies are fast, violent, and insensible and show how driven and socially blind humanity can be. The main characters feel alone and isolated in their own country by violence and social differences. The zombies in Boyle’s film show how humans can become true monsters, and more accurately, are the most monstrous of all creatures. 28 Days Later also played with the fear of a globally spread virus which attacks and kills without mercy in a short amount of time. This film was produced immediately following the SARS outbreak and global fear of communicable and airborne viruses was at an all-time high. “People felt, after the SARS outbreaks, that there was no way of escaping the threats of disease or air born virus, and filmmakers, like Danny Boyle, certainly took advantage of the rather unique circumstances around the globe” (Birch-Bayley 1142).

The genre of observational horror, (otherwise known as found footage) is an important, recent development in the horror realm. These films are shot almost exclusively with handheld cameras from a first person perspective and the footage is viewed as happening in real time. The viewer experiences this type of horror in the same aspect as they would a documentary, causing the viewer to feel more connected to the surroundings. This type of filming makes incredible use of mise-en-scene (staging and lighting) and uses the audiences own experience to successfully frighten them.

While investigating the screen, the audience is emotionally vulnerable to what may or may not appear because their attention is focused on investigation rather than preparation. The most frightening moments in an observational film are those that promise some sort of knowledge by prompting the viewers’ investigative gaze. (Raimondo 81)

While attending films of this nature, people are reveling in inborn traits they could never allow to reach public scrutiny. Found footage films are an especially good outlet and horror fans will watch these films as a way to experience the darker parts of their own psyche. “Thus type of film is wonderful at pointing out the hidden concerns, fears, or desires innate in humanity. As meta-cinematic horror, it comments as much on the spectator’s desire for the spectacular and gruesome, as on the means through which it is brought to them” (Rowan-Legg 222).

In addressing all of the issues present in horror films, the need for further analysis is at the forefront of this discussion. Given the respect it so greatly deserves, theorists and critics alike can farm an almost untapped genre for social commentary and catharsis while emphasizing one of the most popular genres of film in history. The genre is successful with audiences across the globe, showing that there is universal appeal for the subject matter. Those analysts need to start addressing the genre with its due respect in order to create a stronger, more diverse creator field. If the genre becomes respected, more notable filmmakers will parlay into the genre and help to perpetuate a new era of horror, one which will be respected and analyzed on the same grounds as dramas and documentaries.

Works Cited

Baker, David. "Seduced and Abandoned: Lesbian Vampires on Screen 1968–74." Continuum 26.4 (2012): 553-63. Web. 14 July 2015.

Ballon, Bruce, and Molyn Leszcz. "Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?" American Journal of Psychotherapy 61.2 (2007): 211-30. Web. 13 July 2015.

Bantinaki, Katerina. "The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion." Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 70.4 (2012): 383-92. Web. 13 July 2015.

Barker, Martin, Ernest Mathijs, and Xavier Mendik. "Menstrual Monsters." Film International 4.3 (2006): 68-77. Web. 14 July 2015.

Berg, Lauren. "Globalization and the Modern Vampire." Film Matters 2.3 (2012): 8-12. Web. 13 July 2015.

Birch-Bayley, Nicole. "Terror in Horror Genres: The Global Media and the Millennial Zombie." The Journal of Popular Culture J Pop Cult 45.6 (2012): 1137-151. Web. 15 July 2015.

Davies, Rob. "Female Paranoia: The Psychological Horror of Roman Polanski." Film Matters 5.2 (2014): 18-23. Web. 14 July 2015.

Feshbach, Seymour. "The Catharsis Hypothesis, Aggressive Drive, and the Reduction of Aggression." Aggressive Behavior Aggr. Behav. 10.2 (1984): 91-101. Web. 14 July 2015.

Gambino, Megan. "The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws." Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Institution, 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2015.

Hendershot, Cynthia. I Was a Cold War Monster: Horror Films, Eroticism, and the Cold War Imagination. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular, 2001. Print.

Johnson, Patrick Michael. The Importance of Horror: How Horror Films Reduce Anxiety Toward Societal Fears. Thesis. San Diego State University, 2012. Print.

Kerr, Darren. "Interstitial Scares: Transnational Gothic-horror Performance." Transnational Cinemas 5.2 (2014): 156-66. Web. 15 July 2015.

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. Dir. Andrew Kasch. By Tommy Hutson. 1428 Films, 2010. DVD.

Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. Dir. Andrew Monument. Lux Digital Pictures, 2009. DVD.

Orbach, Israel, Edith Vinkler, and Dov Har-Even. "The Emotional Impact of Frightening Stories on Children." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry J Child Psychol & Psychiat 34.3 (1993): 379-89. Web. 14 July 2015.

Prohaszkova, Viktoria. "The Genre of Horror." American International Journal of Contemporary Research 2.4 (2011): 132-42. Web. 13 July 2015.

Raimondo, Matthew J. "Frenetic Aesthetics: Observational Horror and Spectatorship." Horror Studies 5.1 (2014): 65-84. Web. 13 July 2015.

Rayner, Philip, and Peter Wall. "Case Study 3: The Horror Genre." AS Media Studies: The Essential Introduction for AQA. London: Routledge, 2008. 292-305. Print.

Rowan-Legg, Shelagh M. "Don’t Miss a Bloody Thing: [REC] and the Spanish Adaptation of Found Footage Horror." Studies in Spanish & Latin American Cinemas 10.2 (2013): 213-23. Web. 13 July 2015.

Smith, Greg. ""Real Horror Show": The Juxtaposition of Subtext, Satire and Audience Implication in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining." Annual of Psychoanalysis 31 (2003): 35-45. Web. 15 July 2015.

Strohl, Matthew. "Horror and Hedonic Ambivalence." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70.2 (2012): 203-12. Web. 13 July 2015.

Walters, Glenn D. "Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model." Journal of Media Psychology 9.2 (2004): n. pag. Web. 16 July 2015.

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