There is a power to blood. It has an emotional impact unlike any other substance on Earth. - H.G. Lewis(1)The basic nature of life – that it is finite – is initial indication enough as to why people are consumed with a need to talk about, look at, and deal with death. A corollary of that statement addresses a secondary human occupation with the ‘horrific’; since life is so fragile anything that threatens or damages it effectively becomes a point of interest/concern for people. Often these horrors lead up to death. In fact, in terms of horror cinema Stanley Solomon asserts that the horrors must lead to death:
…but essentially, for the horror to be as unbearable as we hope it is when we purchase our tickets, it has to represent death – the death of the [characters], and indeed the death of our surrogate self.(2)Considering this continual movement towards death – both real and fictional - there are no doubts why audiences want to watch horror films. However, I am inclined to believe there is something more to this fascination with death; this ‘something more’ can be called simply ‘curiosity’ but, more appropriately, I will call it ‘morbid curiosity.’ This morbid curiosity attests to the obsession or culture currently displays for mass and serial murder.
The purpose of this paper is to explain why audiences are drawn to the horror genre, why the horror genre is a necessary part of our culture, and what societal significance the horror genre carries within it.
People are not simply fascinated with death because of its inevitability; they are also drawn to both its mysterious and repulsive nature. The mystery of death, and what happens after death, is a topic of concern in everything from religions, to TV programs, to fictional narratives and therefore the attraction to death’s mysteries is commonly accepted as ‘normal.’ However, n the surface it may seem surprising that people feel an attraction towards the repulsiveness of horror but with a little probing this attraction is revealed to be as inevitable as death itself.
Horror is not simply a fictional concept; awful, bloody things happen every day and these horrors are just as mysterious to people as death is. People are constantly seeking answers to why these things happen; in watching fictionalized versions of real horrors audiences can hope to gain some kind of insight into why real life horrors occur.
There is a reciprocal relationship that I will identify between fiction and reality; to further understand the connection between audiences and films we need to understand this relationship between fiction and reality. To begin to reach that understanding we need to understand three theories: narrative, carnival, and post modernity. In explaining these concepts I will show how audiences use films to understand themselves, their society, and their world.
We must first ask ourselves: ‘why do audiences want to be scared? Why do they want to continually come face to face with death and the horrific? Why to audiences want to be troubled?’ The concept of narrative functionality is necessary to answer these questions. Narratives – be they verbal, written, pictorial, etc. – are a means of communicating, understanding, and coping with immense and troubling aspects of daily human existence. The horrific – particularly death – clearly falls under the category of ‘the troubling’.
Narrative functions as a form of communication, in fact it is one of the earliest forms of communication known to humanity: from cave paintings of ancient daily activities to myths, legends, and folktales, to the films of today; people have always communicated in stories. Individual narratives act as a conduit for emotions thus a collection of similar narratives (a genre) act as both a conduit for emotions and a statement or signifier of commonly felt emotions. If an individual horror film speaks to the fear of death then the genre of horror films tells us that the fear of death is not a passing phase but a commonly held and reoccurring fear. These individual films allow the audience to open a line of dialogue with their inner fears.
Genres also indicate which fears are prevalent in a particular society. This indication of societal fears is itself a kind of reassurance to audiences; it creates a kind of bond between the audience and their society by assuring them ‘we are all on the same page. We are all worried about the same things.’
Narrative operates in a self-created world seemingly real, but somehow surreal. This narrative world is a safe place for audiences to communicate with their inner fears; audiences can safely be scared in this narrative world because they know there is no actual physical threat at hand. But more than that, audiences are drawn into narrative because they know those fears will be allayed by the end of the film. Solomon explains the audience’s ability to derive reassurance from film as thus:
The conjuring up of monsters of the mind and the objectifying of them in the cinema is a symbolic form of exorcism…(3)This relationship between the audience’s subconscious and horrific film elements is essential to understanding particular movements within the horror genre. The horrors most commonly depicted during various periods of the horror genre’s history directly parallel societal concerns when the films were made. As I examine the growth of the genre I will expose what societal fears were lurking behind the films.
Carnival is a two-fold term; it is both a physical event and a state of mental being. I will be dealing with both the physical and mental aspects so to avoid confusion I will refer to the physical as Carnival and the mental as ‘carnival.’
Carnival is the physical embodiment of narrative. Although the reality of physical injury and death is present in carnival participants agree to forget those dangers. People use carnival as a safe, surreal space to explore – or confront – emotions and events that they cannot in daily life. Carnival acts as a kind of ‘free space’ where ‘play’ becomes acceptable for adults, as well as children. Conflating reality and ‘fiction’ is an important element of carnival. Also, similarly, conflating binaries, acting bad if one is good – or creating and ‘evil’ twin for someone who is customarily considered ‘good’ is a carnivalesque activity.(4) Carnival allows audiences to become whoever they want to be, much as narrative allows audiences to become any character they see on the screen.
Carnival has existed for many years, but it has been limited (in the past) to specific dates and times; essentially Carnival is has been a ritualized activity coinciding with holidays. This can be understood simply by looking at any desk calender; Christmas occurs every year on the same day as does Halloween and New Years. No one disputes that Christmas begins on the night of December 24th and ends on the night of December 25th; or at least they didn’t dispute this until recently.
Rick Altman asserts that, “When the cinema emerged it created a permanent canivalized space,”(5) which effectively makes ‘carnival’ acceptable at any time – not simply during a set date. An excellent example of this is Christmas: stop into any local store just after Halloween and you’ll see Christmas items on sale. Move ahead to the day after Thanksgiving, which has become known as ‘the largest Christmas shopping day of the year.’(6) Christmas, by these standards, now begins sometime in November and ends – well, whenever people take down their Christmas decorations.
This permanent instillation of Carnival is also indicative of our ‘youth culture.’ From the fitness craze to marketing practices,(7) everything in our society is directed at teenagers and adults behaving as such. There is a movement in our society to be young, forever, and in the midst of that Carnival is embraced whole-heartedly. While the media fills audiences with images of the young and beautiful films allow audiences to ‘be’ (through character identification) young and beautiful even if they aren’t. Films allow audiences to become any character they see on the screen thus allowing them to symbolically act out whatever scenario the character is in. In the case of horror cinema this means that audiences can be powerful, eternally young, and beautiful (Dracula), they can be savage and angry (Silence of the Lambs), they can confront and overcome death (Final Destination), etc. The horror genre offers a variety of outlets for audiences ranging from victim to killer; overcoming their fears to indulging their deviance.
But carnival offers more than just freedom to manipulate and change your identity – to be something you aren’t – it also offers a level of confusion about what is actually real and what is really fiction.
Postmodernism is a theoretical movement that turns daily life into a state of Carnival by removing the boundaries between fiction and reality, past and present. Without these distinctions it is impossible to tell what is real and what is fake, but also what is happening now and what has occurred in the past. However, at the same time, the questions of real or fake and past or present no longer matter in postmodern media because everything is real and everything is happening now.
Ed Gein to clarify: Gein killed two women in 1957. Shortly after his crimes were discovered he became the first ‘serial killer superstar.’(8) Gein’s crimes were talked about and reenacted for TV viewers. Then fictional narratives were written ‘based on’ his crimes followed by various movie adaptations of those novels. By the time we analyze the films based on the novels – which are based on the actual crimes – the crimes themselves are no longer as important or relevant as the representations of them. This can be a confusing mode of thinking; whereas films once allowed audiences a metaphorical resolution to their unsolvable problems, now audiences can actually be convinced that their problems are solvable because those problems can be solved in films. It also unseats historical facts; audiences can no longer be sure if something actually happened in the past or if they simply saw it in a movie.
Almost every narrative in today’s society is a postmodern narrative. Because of the confusion between real and fake created by postmodernism many people see the horror genre as dangerous: ‘impressionable people – especially children – can be manipulated and convinced to mimic horrific acts they see in films.’(9) I’d like to turn this argument around: with so much reality in films audiences are sated and don’t need to actually do horrible things to one another; in fact they are possibly overwhelmed by the intensity and realism of horrific elements in films – so overwhelmed that they cease watching. Audiences find horror films cathartic; audiences can feel they have conquered death but they can also purge any horrific inclinations they may have. Films allow audiences a safe place to actually feel something. Because in postmodernism the representation of an event is more real and more important than the actual event, the feelings that one ‘should’ have about the real event are not necessary when seeing the representation. This is very freeing; audiences can feel anything they want, safely, without worrying about how they ‘should’ respond.
As I move forward with this paper to actually looking at the development of the horror genre I will show that horror has always been based on exploring emotions.
Detailing the history of any film genre is a discouraging and difficult task. Rick Altman looks at the process and calls attention to the common hang-up it creates for theorists; when looking for the origin of a film genre, theorists are drawn back to other mediums.(10) To map out the history of the horror genre I will be looking to three other media forms: literature, Carnival, and theater.
Because the horrific is part of human life there have always been horrors to tell stories about; and therefore there have always been fears of those horrors to perpetuate a need for the stories. Every era has its own nightmares, which shed light on the era’s most pressing tensions.(11) From natural ecological disasters like earthquakes and floods, to natural biological disasters like famine and disease, to human provoked disasters like war, the atrocious and horrific has always been an unavoidable part of life. Dating from the Bible through Greek mythology to the present, horrific elements have always been central to narrative. On a base level, all stories are stories about life and therefore are stories about death as well. Solomon sees this presence of the horrific in narrative as imperative to audiences.
…horror represents our subconscious desire to confront our inevitable dread: to meet death before we die. Or looked at another way such horrors are cathartic, symbolic suicides, speaking directly to our hidden wish to attempt everything and to survive unaltered, to get murdered without being murdered.(12)This is where Carnival actually begins to become important to understanding; what Solomon calls our ‘hidden wish’ to attempt all things and survive is a key element to Carnival, the ‘thrill seeking’ element. Although I am no expert on thrill seeking, I will argue that thrill seeking has become popularized in industrial times; in pre-industrial times there were more actual hardships to live through but as life became easier people sought challenges. The more easy life became, the more extreme the challenges people attempted.
Vicki Goldberg asserts that in times when atrocities were more common the depictions of horror in narratives were significantly reduced from times less troubled by the horrific. Stated another way, the farther removed from reality – or life - death seems to society, the more it appears in fiction. Goldberg explains the phenomenon - in her article “Death Takes a Holiday, Sort of” - with emphasis on the ‘nearness’ of death to life:
The diminution of the visible presence of death was not the primary cause of the expansion of depictions, but history and psychology indicate that representation rapidly supplemented actual experience as a new and newly anxious audience sought novel ways to cope with its fears.(13)
Showmen have known for ages that people would pay to see the shocking, things that both frightened yet fascinated. Things that appeared contrary to nature’s plans. People gladly went to the carnival to see ‘freaks’: bearded women, Siamese twins, paraplegics, dwarfs, etc. This idea is not dissimilar to thrill seeking. People want to experience everything possible and show that they are strong enough to survive it. But, again, people are also morbidly curious; they want to see taboo things. They want to stare and to understand. People are visual even voyeuristic, creatures.
If carnival is one influence on horror films then a second major influence on horror films is a form of French theater born in the 1800’s. This theatrical style was known as Grand Guignol. Although its performances dealt heavily with horrific subject matter, the true intent was to shock its eager audiences with amazing feats of excessive violence and extreme forms of death. These performances were not concerned with asserting any moral lesson, political agenda, or even with telling any kind of cohesive narrative. Grand Guignol played wholly on the audience’s curiosity and fascination with the obscene and the excessive. Eye-gougings, throat-slittings, and dismemberment were common onstage antics. These acts were carried out within plain sight of the audience – actors did not turn their backs to the audience in order to achieve atrocious effects. Everything happened in a realistic fashion. Towards the end of the 19th Century - 1899 - Max Maurey fathered his own theater, Theatre du Grand Guignol. Maurey pushed the grotesque elements of Grand Guignol to their most extreme limits. Maurey’s theatre managed to attract audiences for nearly sixty years, quite possibly because his theatre accentuated the most important element of Grand Guignol, absurdity.(15)
‘Absurdity’ is where we begin to be able to connect Grand Guignol with carnival, but also with narrative theory. The heightened absurd nature of Maurey’s theater brought an even bigger distance from reality to the performances and that distance allowed patrons to enjoy the grotesque acts without feeling as though they were participating in them. The distance allowed patrons to experience death without dying, going back to Solomon’s catharsis theory. The distance from reality also allowed for an element of humor. Because the acts were so absurd, audiences could laugh at them. But absurdity is also the trademark of postmodernism; audiences can laugh at graphic violence in films because the violence is only representational, the actual horror of the events is removed. Again we’re brought to a kind of cathartic benefit of absurdly horrific displays.
Jack the Ripper; it was significantly more ‘tame’ than the French version due to stricter laws governing censorship. Because of these stricter censorship laws the British Grand Guignol fell back on Gothic traditions, mainly adapting the works of American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The British Grand Guignol was not as absurd as the French and therefore lost some of that humor and subsequently some of the power.
The appearance of Grand Guignol in British theatres created a kind of hybridization in storytelling; Gothic plots met with Grand Guignol visuals at almost the perfect moment – the late 1800’s – when film technology began being developed. We can consider this as the meeting of the ‘theatre of attractions’ (French Grand Guignol) with ‘narrative’ (British Gothic tales).(16) The films that were born of Grand Guignol and the Gothic were emotionally confusing for audiences as Martin Rubin explains: “It is difficult to disengage the film’s grotesque hilarity from its horrific violence,”(17) and that is precisely why they worked. Just like Carnival, Gothic, and Grand Guignol individually, the mixing of binary elements make the extreme nature of the events acceptable to audiences.
In 1764 Horace Walpole wrote what is considered to be the first ‘Gothic’ novel, The Castle of Otranto, thus beginning a trend of Gothic literature that dominated the 19th Century. Gothic literature emerged during the time of Enlightenment – ‘The Age of Reason’ – and can be interpreted, according to Noel Carroll, as a ‘return of enlightenment’s repressed.’(18) The Enlightenment denounced the supernatural, superstitious, religious, and anything unscientific or ‘unnatural.’ Gothic novels, however, brought forth all those elements denounced by Enlightenment; Gothic literature was centered on the supernatural, religious, and unnatural elements of life. These Gothic stories were tales of terror and the macabre that focused on the madness and moral decay of their core characters.
These anti-heros are are ambiguous characters that endure a great deal of suffering throughout the narrative yet survive in the end and the villain is often simply a tortured soul driven to madness. The Gothic dynamic of Good and Evil in one still exists, it simply inhabits more bodies.
American horror cinema also grows out of the Expressionist movement – which is essentially the platform for German horror cinema. The basic foundation of Expressionism was its transformation of mundane, every-day items – windows, furniture, walls, buildings, etc. – into unmistakable symbols; symbols that revealed a psychological essence of the human element that created those mundane things. The Expressionist actor was therefore, similarly, a symbol of mental states and psyche.(20) The Expressionist style lent itself well to the Gothic plots and characters; essentially Expressionism is an accentuated visual display of Gothic’s narrative themes. Expressionism tackled the torrential emotions of Gothic literature with torrential visual effects. These effects were not overtly graphic in a Grand Guignol style, but in a strikingly dark and subversive way. Both the actors and the sets around them were expressive to the extreme; by today’s standards Expressionist actors ‘over-acted’ in order to portray the tumultuous and intense sentiments of the Gothic stories they told.
Horror is a fact of life and it is equally a fact of narratives; for every horrific event that actually occurs we engage in the cultural, cathartic practice of recreating it, again and again, in films. With each representation we move actual horrors farther and farther from reality, but at the same time, when death seems to be ‘on holiday’ in real life we bring it home again in film.
Audiences want to defeat death, metaphorically, because they know they cannot escape death in reality; this is a very Carnivalesque process of pushing away and simultaneously pulling closer things that terrify us. As I said earlier, horror cinema is about exploring emotions and often those emotions are contradictory.
From here I will begin to map out the history of horror in film looking closely at how actual horrors, or lack thereof, create specific stories and monsters in various periods.
Horror History Timeline:
1900–1930: Gothic and The Mystery of Reality
The beginning of horror cinema can also be attributed to Frenchman Georges Melies. Melies was once a magician so it seems entirely fitting that his interests would turn to the ‘magic’ of motion pictures; after a trip to Paris where he saw the Lumiere brother’s cinematographe, Meilies decided to begin making films. In 1897 Meilies built his own movie studio, and by the turn of the century had made 244 short films – including the first vampire film and the first ghost film (The Haunted Castle).
By 1903 Meilies’ work was being seen in America, giving inspiration to budding filmmakers there – however, horror did not take off immediately. In fact, the genre’s development in American film was relatively slow. In 1910 Thomas Edison created a one-reel (about 15 minutes long) film version of Frankenstein, giving him the official title of ‘first American horror director.’ Then, in 1912, D.W. Griffith made Man’s Genesis. As with many horror films, it dealt with one of life’s great mysteries – science. The film was a time travel, dinosaur vs. man story. Also in 1912 German born Carl Laemmle founded Universal Studios in Hollywood California. Laemmle intended to create a work environment for struggling German filmmakers (directors, actors, writers, etc.); a place they could come to escape German censorship and oppression and continue with their professions.
Universal turned out to be the perfect working environment for some of Germany’s most talented filmmakers – like Tod Browning and Karl Freund. Eventually Universal became home to other foreign stars, like Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre. In 1913 German director Paul Wegener made the first ‘feature length’ horror film, Der Student von Prag - the film was 75 minutes long. Until then the horror films being produced in America were only a few reels long. The popularity of Wegener’s film paved the way for other feature length horror films, and in 1925 American Marion Fairfax adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World to film.
Many of these early horror films dealt with science because it was still quite mysterious and there was much to be discovered. Early horror also borrowed from Gothic literature because the issues of the 19th Century were still fresh in people’s minds.
Warner Bros. Pictures incorporated in 1923. In 1924, MGM, Columbia Pictures, and MCA were all created or founded. Later, RKO Pictures went into business in 1928.
At this time America was just coming out of WWI and was rolling into prohibition. Americans were trying to re-establish their morality but they could not ignore nor deny the horrors of the war. Their best outlets for wartime fears were the movies and radio programs, the only businesses seemingly benefiting from the war.
During the 1920’s the silent horror films – although formerly quite popular with audiences – began to suffer at the hands of radio. Quickly radio programs were stealing audiences away from the movies and filmmakers needed some new ‘gimmick’ to revitalize the industry. German Expressionist films – like Das Kabinett von Dr. Caligari (1919) – helped breathe that new life into American films. Although there was a cultural discomfort with anything German, the style of German horror was readily accepted in America. The flamboyance of Expressionist film was enough to drag audiences back out of their houses and into the theaters. These new films – under Expressionist guidance – spoke quite loudly without any sound at all, loudly enough to drown out the radio. Once again, audiences were captivated by the magic of motion pictures, and by horror.
The 1930’s began what are known as the Golden Era of film,(22) while by others it is known as ‘the great depression.’ American society seemed to be collapsing from its economic structure inward, yet somehow movie studios were in full swing. Universal Studios put themselves on the map with their production of Dracula. Not only the first of their series of influential horror films, Dracula was also the first time director Tod Browning, cinematographer Karl Freund, and actor Bela Lugosi were teamed up. Tod Browning and Karl Freund would work together many more times throughout the Golden Era – either with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., or Peter Lorre as their star. Universal followed Dracula up with versions of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, haunted house stories, ghost stories, and The Wolf Man.
Universal Monsters’ were all ‘outsiders’ trying to destroy our so-called civilized society. Although the hero’s of these films were often forced to take drastic action the audience was always encouraged to support and identify with them. America was just 12 years removed from WWI and thus these films were symbolic of wartime emotions; America worried that Germany and its political agenda would infiltrate our country and destroy our happy, democratic lives. These films were also a pat on our cultural backs reassuring audiences that participating in the war – although drastic – was completely necessary to our own survival.
In The early 1930’s Hollywood was considered by many to be morally bankrupt and godless,(23) unfortunately for Tod Browning who went on to direct Freaks in 1932. Browning had been a circus performer in his youth and wanted to bring ‘real life’ horrors to the screen. The 30’s were not an era when Hollywood wanted to see any more real life horrors up close and personal. America was still in a state of shock after WWI and WWII was rapidly approaching. America was feeling a pull back towards bourgeois morality and the ethics of ‘not staring’(24) evidenced by the strict Hollywood ‘film code’ which dictated the acceptable content of feature films.
The film code was adopted by Hollywood in 1934 and dealt with every area of life potentially rife with exploitable aspects: violence, sex, dancing, religion, etc. The code severely - and specifically - forbade murder depicted in such a way as to inspire imitation. Brutal killings were not to be shown in any detail. Revenge was never to be justified. Repellent subjects such as hangings or electrocution, brutality or gruesomeness, or surgical procedures were to be treated within the limits of ‘good taste.’(25)
Clearly this is an awkward position to be taken by a society that once conducted public executions, utilized slave labor, hunted witches, and had the bloodiest civil war in world’s history. But America was in no mood to be rational about such things, America was ready to calm, collect, and control its people; Americans were busy reviewing what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ so they could be ‘Good’ and not ‘Evil’ all the while forgetting that what is at one time repressed with later erupt into polite culture’s lap.
1940-1970: War Gives Birth To Serial Killers In Film
By the 1940’s the horror genre seemed to be taking a holiday as death reared it ugly head in real life. The world was busy fighting a real monster in Germany, which would eventually be defeated leaving the U.S. with a triumphant glow. Audiences were not overwhelmingly excited about the ghastly and the grisly. This is exactly what Goldberg was explaining and Michael Jones furthers her explanation by insisting:
Horror thrives only when the distinction between good and evil has been lost – indeed, the presence of horror is the sign that the distinction has been repressed or forgotten. All of the details that might contribute to a sense of horror – blood and gore, mutilation and dismemberment – all take place during wartime, but since WWII was a war that Hollywood almost unanimously saw as a struggle between good and evil, none of these horrific elements fueled the horror genre.(26)As Goldberg predicts: when death is prevalent in reality the depictions of it in narrative drop off. Jones shifts the weight of Goldberg’s argument by calling morality and ambivalence into the picture. If we combined their ideas we come to a more complete theory; when death is prevalent in real life and people don’t feel ambivalent about it, death in narrative completely vanishes.
Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. The initial reason for Universal Studios’ pairing of the Abbott and Costello comic team with their ‘Universal monsters’ was the decline in popularity of those monsters. By the mid-late 1940’s these ‘Universal Monsters’ were falling out of popular demand – so Abbott and Costello met (respectively) Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy. Thus horror and comedy were wed.
But Jones would tell us its not that cut and dry; Abbott and Costello met the Universal monsters in what can be called a ‘gener(ic)’ laugh at cold-blooded death. If what Jones says is true and ambivalence fuels the horror genre than the killings in horror films can be considered cold-blooded, or ‘with undefined motive.’ Within the context of the 40’s, when American’s felt that they were fighting the good fight in the war, what appears in the horror genre is a humorous and somewhat positive attitude towards death and the horrific. It is as if the genre itself is being used to laugh at death.
However, horror also suffered at the hands of the Supreme Court in the 40’s. In 1949 the Supreme Court ruled that the Theater System in Hollywood was monopolistic and required that production companies give up their theaters. When this happened production companies dropped production on B pictures, many of which had been horror films.
The 1950’s brought with them a renewed enthusiasm for the horrific but it also brought another mutation to the horror genre; science fiction was to be the second wife of horror. Both science fiction and horror deal with horrific elements of society though, generally, what distinguished the two genres is that science fiction stories are based on science fact whereas horror is based on archetypal human fears. Both the science fiction and the horror film genres have been much maligned by critics as ‘lowbrow entertainment’; the bastardization of intellectually stimulating and insightful artistic literary works. Despite such condemnation both genres have been popular among audiences, a fact that goes back to my assertion the audiences need to indulge in the horrific. The science fiction genre can be thought of as the cousin of the horror genre and often the two overlap; but never so obviously as in the films of the 1950’s.
These science fiction/horror hybrid films drew their imagined atrocities from real world events; the scientific horrors of WWII and its aftermath of political paranoia spurred a decade of films featuring either mutated animals/insects pitted against benevolent, world-saving armies or evil alien life forms mounting invasions of our Earth with intentions to destroy or enslave us.
Them! (1954) featured giant ants attacking Washington, until the army is called in to save the day. In It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) our army must battle a giant octopus. The Beginning of the End (1957) saw our army fighting off giant grasshoppers. The underlying belief convedy here is that our army is working for us – to protect us.
Faith in our armed forced also fueled invasion films such as The Thing (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). In these films our army did whatever it took to defeat the alien invaders and halt their invasions. Although the fear conveyed in these movies is one of German invasion of the U.S. what we should have been scared of was our army; in the mutant insect movies the creatures were all created by army testing, yet in both those and the invasion movies our army comes to the rescue by dropping the very bombs that created the menace in the first place.
The terms of the horrific had changed and the fundamental fight between God/Good and The Devil/Evil metamorphosed into us vs. them – with ‘us’ always being – coincidentally? – The U.S. and ‘them’ always a very open-ended designation. On the surface binary characters replaced morally ambiguous – i.e. Gothic – characters. Whereas once Good and Evil could reside in one form now Good resided in The God fearing U.S. and Evil resided the heathen ‘other.’ But this superficial difference covered a subtext no different than the overt themes of the early Gothic tales.
There is another dimension to the dominant ‘us VS them’ theme that I feel is worthy of mention, the Gothic subtext. As I stated before, many horror plots involved mutated/gigantic insects or animals in the role of ‘them.’ By the plot’s explanation ‘they’ were not as far removed from ‘us’ as we’d like to think; most of these mutant creature were created by atomic testing conducted by our army or were the result of actual nuclear war – in some way this contradicted the binary character model. The filmic ‘we’ aligned themselves with God when they created life – albeit a monstrous form of life – all the while becoming aligned with Evil in their transmutation of God’s creatures. These plots confessed some guilty feeling by the U.S. They also confessed some degree of uncertainty – the clear line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was challengeable; if we created them, exactly what is our relationship to them? This plot grows directly out of Gothic traditions – namely the ever-present story of Frankenstein.
These films also reflected a nagging fear of recent technological developments. Atomic weapons were – seemingly – essential to our national safety, yet we realized that these weapons could easily backfire; our own weapons could be used against us. Essentially, if that happened, we would be destroying ourselves. However there is a hopefulness underneath that fear; in each film the army comes to our rescue insinuating that Americans hope that they can maintain faith in the army’s judgment. When our army uses that radioactive technology, it will be used ‘correctly’; our army will protect us above all else.
This decade of horror was clearly politically influenced. It was the polar opposite of the Grand Guignol style of horror; plots were essential. Grand Guignol was interested in visually stimulating the audience while the horror of the 50’s was interested in morally/intellectually stimulating the audience. Political agendas clearly moved the plots forward – Grand Guignol was moved by events. This is particularly interesting because of the reality that surrounded late 40’s-early 50’s horror. The reality was that we were at war and unfathomable atrocities were happening daily, atrocities that were comparable to Grand Guignol atrocities. But similarly to Goldberg’s thoughts on death in reality vs. death in narrative, the atrocities of war were so real and so horrific that they didn’t need to appear in film.
Visually the films of the 50’s worked well within the film code; nothing graphic was ever portrayed. These films spoke to audience’s socio-political concerns rather than their morbid curiosity. But in 1957 Hammer Studios released The Curse of Frankenstein, which was essentially a combination of French and British styles of Grand Guignol; Gothic story with graphic violence. This was Hammer’s first horror film – previously they produced various other genre films – but it led to a continued Grand Guignol style of horror films that made Hammer a horror fan’s household name. Because The Curse of Frankenstein was produced in Britain, it was significantly tamer than the unrestricted, underground Grand Guignol films soon after to be made in America.
The emergence of the Grand Guignol style horror films can – partially – be attributed to the relaxation of film censorship in the areas of sex and nudity; because depictions of sex/sexuality has been strictly regulated only underground, low-budget films could openly address the topic. When censorship laws loosened and depictions of ‘realistic’ sex/sexuality began creeping into Hollywood films, independent filmmakers needed a gimmick to keep audience’s interest – thus the only remaining screen taboo to be broken was whole-heartedly trampled: realistic depictions of violence and death. The films of the 60’s pushed, and broke, every rule established by the film code.
In 1963 Herschell Gordon Lewis made Blood Feast, the first ‘splatter movie,’ a type of horror film born directly of French Grand Guignol. These splatter films were not concerned with logical plots, merely extreme acts of violence. Whereas the Hammer films maintained some semblance of cohesive narrative, their American counterparts treated cohesion like the plague.
While the splatter films of the 1960’s clearly displayed a visual influence of Grand Guignol they also borrowed a more important aspect – absurdity. Both Grand Guignol and the 60’s splatter films challenged reality with their extreme portrayal of violence; effectively Grand Guignol and splatter films pushed the ‘reality envelope’ so far as to become, not only, unrealistic but also absurd. This absurd element brought to horror a dimension of humor. For splatter films the absurdity came from skimpy plots – many of which featured events too coincidental or simply too fantastic to actually happen in real life a fact that did not escape the audience – and that was the point. The greater point is one of postmodernism; these films were not about death so much as artistically representing the idea of death.
Todd Tietchen says of Seven’s killer, “In other words, John Doe has murdered his victims into works of art, then used his creations as the impetus for further artistic/representational pursuits.”(27) Within postmodernism an act is not important, how many times and ways that act is reproduced is. For splatter films the killing is not the meaning of the film, it is simply the vehicle. The images of those killings and the way people respond to them, by watching – staring! – is the importance.
Even though 1968 brought the collapse of the film code, bringing freedom to filmmakers, something else still loomed largely over those filmmakers; the Vietnam war.
Thanks to the television and the nightly news Vietnam was pumped into homes – across the nation – in full, life-like color every night. Where war was once reserved for personal experience – only soldiers actually faced wartime atrocities – now civilians were confronting horrors they only previously met second-hand, or in films. The fears of the 50’s seemed to be coming true; war was taking its toll on the U.S. physically and emotionally. Horror films seemed to predict this with the movement towards Grand Guignol style films. Graphic violence was no longer a ‘taboo’ but an every day image. The lines between reality and fiction were being torn even father apart. The images that once appeared only in films, for willing audiences, were now flooding homes, and captive audiences, but these were very real – or were they?
The 60’s and 70’s brought with them a movement away from the traditional Gothic monsters towards a new kind of ‘creature,’ the serial killer. These monsters were humans that behaved in monstrous ways. Whereas these early film monsters were born of fears of technology, WWII and Vietnam taught American’s that people killed people – weapons and technology were not to blame. The 50’s us vs. them model now morphed into a fear of us becoming them. These killers kill for the fun of it – there’s no easy way to rationalize their behavior, and most frighteningly, they look just like the rest of us. Unlike the gigantic monsters of the 50’s, serial killers easily vanish into society – they could be living next door to you and you’d never know it. The comic character Pogo summed it up when he said, “we have seen the enemy and he is us.”(28)
The televising of the Vietnam war made horror so commonplace that, as Annalee Newitz claims, “people are increasingly unable – and unwilling – to maintain a distinction between reality and what is fictional, or simulated, in mass-produced images and things.”(29) Faced with this postmodern acceptance of real and fake as the same filmmakers of the 70’s sought to repel audiences with something new.
The horror of the 1970’s saw a move towards the erotic and psychological elements of horror; the fear that ‘we’ were becoming ‘them’ - thus making ‘them’ indistinguishable - lead to films attempting to explore what encouraged this transformation. People wanted to know why?
Why would someone do something so horrible? But what audiences didn’t ask, filmmakers did; why are audiences not surprised by violence? Filmmakers sought to imply audience in the horror of their films; they explored every feasible, deviant pleasure in horror hoping to hit audiences with a ‘are you feeling this too? If you are, you’re just as guilty of committing this horrible act,’ message. 70’s filmmakers tried to reconnect audiences with media.
In 1973 ‘splatter’ made its way into the mainstream with The Exorcist and the underground film market basically collapsed. Little was taboo on the screen anymore. Since this was the decade that saw Grand Guignol elements make the transition from underground films to mainstream films, the hybridization of comedy and horror fell by the wayside and was replaced by ‘black humor.’ No longer was slapstick important to horror instead joking about the horrific – in almost an equally horrific manner – was becoming the dominant mode of ‘dealing’ with atrocious events. As Barry Grant notices, “…today we are more likely to laugh at blood on the upholstery than to be shocked.” Directors like David Lynch and Ken Russell understood this and created a new morbid sense of humor about the horrific; one that reminded the audience that if they were laughing, their hands were as bloodstained as the killer’s.
The 70’s also saw a revolution in special effects techniques turning realistic horror films into ‘ultra real’ films. Special effects began making films realer than reality. As special effects became more important to the horror genre, audiences became more aware of special effects artists as just that – artists, much in the same way as the killers in these films were becoming ‘artists’ thanks to postmodernism. Tietchen explains the process:
On account of their appropriate representational practices, virtually all of the cinematic killings discussed here - those of Doe and those of Foley - are centered in a death/creation paradox. The images of death are re-cited by a killer who samples others' methods of murder, arranges his creations according to pre-established (paternal) outlines, then manipulates his subject through yet another layer of representation. But in transmuting a body into a narrative canvas, an act of destruction is (almost simultaneously) recontextualized into multiplying acts of creation.(30)Both the killers in the film, and the creators of the film are seen as artists, putting guilt on both their shoulders; in a postmodern world where everything is ‘real’ the creation of realistic fake horrors is a real as actually committing those horrors. The overwhelming message of 70’s horror is that everyone involved in media representations, from the fictional characters to the filmmakers to the audience, is equally accountable for the actions depicted in that media.
1980-2001: Society Simultaneously Embraces and Rejects Media
The 1980’s the cultural obsession with special effects began taking over the films made; filmmakers and audiences alike were seemingly more interested in spectacle than in narrative. This can be seen in two ways: as a return to the ethic of splatter cinema – where plots were irrelevant and visuals meant everything, but it can also be seen as a manifestation of postmodernism – where a text’s meaning is derived from its visual representations of events.
There is a move away from 70’s intellectual ‘serial killers’ to 80’s ‘slashers,’ which seems to echo the cultural move away from social concern in the 70’s to the pure consumerism of the 80’s. These slashers are not inhuman – in fact they are, externally, the embodiment of ideal humanity in the 80’s: young, affluent, attractive, and educated. Barry Grant says of American Psycho’s killer, “the [story] emphasizes his craziness as an extension of capitalist values.”(31) 80’s horror turned the two extremes of – then modern – society into monsters: the poor and the wealthy.
The 80’s were part of the Regan era and with so much social emphasis on authority and the power of authority despite the undeniable underlying reality that our authorities were more corrupt then our supposed enemies. In 80’s horror, particularly teen horror, which peaked in this decade, the focus is on self-reliance. Authority is depicted as useless and ineffectual. The 80’s are the decade that gave to us strong, teenage, female characters. These ‘final girls’ saved themselves from faceless slashers by becoming them by the end of the film. 80’s horror perpetuated the dominant ‘us’ as ‘them’ themes from the 70’s, the difference is that 80’s films had someone to blame for this transformation: capitalism.
In 1990 something strange has begun to happen; a combination of two elements, increasing levels of domestic, teenage violence and a proliferation of televised media, have created some kind of retro-grade postmodernism. Media is still postmodern, everything is real but the message of the 70’s that ‘everyone is culpable’ seems to have given way to this mystical kind of thinking where no real individual is culpable; media has taken on a life of its own, as well as the responsibility of creating and controlling real life. The media representations of violence are no longer replacing real violence they seem to be coinciding with one another and the media is being blamed.
My overall conclusion here is that our society is constantly becoming more and more confused; the media is tearing down distinctions and boundaries, making emotional connections to reality difficult. Audiences feel so much while watching films they are drained and emotionless in reality. People don’t know what is real and how to feel about it, but they know that media is behind this and thus focus all their mixed emotions on media. Where horror is going now is hard to say, though after the events of Sept. 11th one might guess that the paranoid 50’s films will be the next logical step.
Horror has seen many changes from the early days of expressionism through hybridization up to postmodernism. But horror has always existed, in reality and in fiction. Unless we discover a way to cheat death and live forever we will always have horrific films. Horror is an undeniable and intricate part of life, one which should not be written off as meaningless and ‘low brow.’ Horror makes us feel better while terrifying us. Horror speaks directly to our fears and our nightmares and cannot be forgotten as easily as walking out of the theater when the lights come up.
1 Christopher Wayne Curry, A Taste for Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (London: Creation Publishing Group, 2000), 13.
2 Stanley J Solomon, Beyond Formula: American Film Genres (NewYork: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 114.
3 Solomon, 112.
4 Reid Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999), 1.
5 Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), 189.
6 “We Gather Together,” Time, 158, no. 22 (2001): 28.
7 Wheeler Winston Dixon, ed., Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000), 127.
8 Christopher Sharrett, ed., Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 12-41.
9 Dave Grossman, Stop teaching our kids to kill: a call to action against TV, movie & video game violence” (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 2.
10 Altman, 30.
11 Sharrett, 42.
12 Ibid, page 114.
13 Jeffrey H.Goldstein, ed., Why We Watch: The Attraction to Violent Entertainment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 28.
15 John McCarthy, Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 7-10.
16 Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 12.
17 Sharrett, 53.
18 Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (London: Routledge, 1990), 56.
19 Goldstein, 32.
20 Miroslaw Lipinski, The Masterworks of German Horror Cinema (Portland: Elite Entertainment, 1999), 2-10.
21 “Biography for George Albert Smith,” in IMDB Biography for George Albert Smith; available from http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Smith,+George+Albert.
22 Peter Guttmacher, Legendary Horror Films: Essential Genre History, Offscreen Anecdotes, Special Effects Secrets, Ghoulish Facts and Photographs (New York: MetroBooks, 1995), 93.
24 Ken Gelder, ed., The Horror Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), 91.
26 E. Michael Jones, Monsters From the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film (Texas: Spence Pub, 2000), 184-5.
27 Todd F Tietchen. “Samples and Copycats: the cultural implications of the postmodern slasher in contemporary American film,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 26, no. 3 (1998): 98.
28 Guttmacher, 69.
29 Sharrett, 33.
31 Sharrett, 25.
“Biography for George Albert Smith,” in IMDB Biography for George Albert Smith; available from http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Smith,+George+Albert.
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror. London: Routledge, 1990.
Curry, Christopher Wayne. A Taste for Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. London: Creation Publishing Group, 2000.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston ed. Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Gelder, Ken, ed. The Horror Reader. London: Routledge, 2000.
Goldstein, Jeffrey H., ed. Why We Watch: The Attraction to Violent Entertainment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Grossman, Dave. Stop teaching our kids to kill: a call to action against TV, movie & video game violence. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.
Guttmacher, Peter. Legendary Horror Films: Essential Genre History, Offscreen Anecdotes, Special Effects Secrets, Ghoulish Facts and Photographs. New York: MetroBooks, 1995.
Jones, E. Michael. Monsters From the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film. Texas: Spence Pub, 2000.
Lipinski, Miroslaw. The Masterworks of German Horror Cinema. Portland: Elite Entertainment, 1999.
McCarthy, John. Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
Mitchell, Reid. All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Sharrett, Christopher, ed. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1999.
Solomon, Stanley J. Beyond Formula: American Film Genres. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Staiger, Janet. Perverse Spectators. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Tietchen, Todd F. “Samples and Copycats: the cultural implications of the postmodern slasher in contemporary American film.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 26, no. 3 (1998): 98.
“We Gather Together,” Time, 158, no. 22 (2001): 28.
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