Are you the person who loves horror films, no matter what? All genres? All budgets? Serious or tongue-in-cheek? Down to earth or metaphysical? Do you avoid them at all cost, even choosing loss of friendship over months of nightmares? Do you watch them just to laugh at them, or the audience, in a fine moment of condescension? None of the above? All of the above? Do you ask, what are horror movies, as you convey to me that they are outside your consciousness? Are you like me in thinking some horror films are great but that the majority are idiotic and not worth your time? When horror films get it right there’s nothing to beat them.
Public reaction is so extreme you have to wonder if there’s something wrong with yourself and the rest of the audience for enjoying them. Why would we sit through that crap? Why would we allow ourselves to be frightened or disgusted? And why seek out that experience again and again, like a fix for your addiction? Horror cinema is not noted as one of the more redeeming or healthy products of our culture. Even with some scholarly backing they remain lowbrow, juvenile, and morally suspect. To me, that in itself can be a recommendation. At the very least it should make you question those who condemn them for any reason other than personal distaste.
Historically horror films (or terror films, as many of the practitioners would prefer) have been low budget, which means the genre has been an entry point into the industry. It’s where the fast food mentality of just giving them something to fill their mouth meets the art school mind of probing consciousness. Of course it’s been a great way for an aspiring filmmaker to show that they can actually make a good film, because of their great talent, with no money in a genre of low repute. I’d say that it’s easy for a good writer and storyteller to look better than they are because the competition is so weak—I find that many of these directors are mediocre once they step beyond horror. Too often it’s how people with very little talent can make movies (Ed Wood being the most famous example). I respect their determination even if I distrust their lack of self-evaluation (I’m sure they think they’re great). Still, the human experience is so rich that often even the idiots manage to say something interesting and the genuinely talented have made great films in the horror genre. I still say that Sturgeon’s Law is optimistic: of the horror movies I’ve seen far fewer than 10% are even good, much less great.
Before I go any deeper into what will become a rather longwinded essay I need a disclaimer or two.
- First of all, I’m not a scholar. Nor am I a super fan. I’m just an ordinary product of mass media culture. There will be no scholarly validation of the points made nor a flaunting of obscure movie titles and trivia.
- Nor am I so sophisticated that I cynically laugh at horror films. I like the ones that are comically bad but, really, I prefer to accept the reality of the films and take them at face value.
- Primarily I focus on the old horror films, such as the Universal classics. I am at home with them to such an extent that those films and the plastic model kits of the characters (think 1960s Aurora kits) are like a security blanket to me. On one side of my bed I have books of poetry and on the other side I have Dracula and Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. (I also have the stamps and Postal lapel pins of those characters—my idea of fine art.)
- I tend to be drawn to the more otherworldly stories, such as the Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises though I’m tired of all the stories tied to Christian myth and folklore, such as vampires and demons. If the story revolves around the clichés of good and evil I decree it as a failure of imagination.
- I do not like slasher films or gore. And very specifically I do not like stories that revolve around torture. Seeing people be hurt or mutilated does not give me pleasure or satisfy some background psychological itch. That’s not to say I’m all that moralistic or squeamish. I can sit through such films. They just don’t trigger much of anything in my imagination except discomfort if they’re done well enough or boredom if they’re hokey.
- What is it with zombie films? It’s quite possible I will say nothing to explain the motivation or appeal of zombie films. I could name quite a few that I like, that I own, that I’d like to see again. But I don’t understand what the draw is.
- Also, nature amuck…except for The Birds those movies have been pretty lame.
- The terms movie and film do not pass judgment in my vocabulary. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a film. Citizen Kane is a movie. And vice versa.
Enough with the disclaimer crap. Here are some images that have given me years of comfort, companionship, and many a good night’s sleep. Idolatry in middle America.
Too often the books, essays, magazine articles, documentaries, et cetera, try to narrow down the themes and appeal of horror to a single cause or source. I find the field too rich for that. To me, it’s a modern replacement for mythology. I do not come from learned or educated people, nor are they part of a folk tradition, so my reading of mythology came late in life rather than something learned on Grandpa’s knee. When I finally encountered mythology I saw horror films. Though some of the writers and directors are very consciously adding psychological and mythical elements, no doubt creating rivers of id and archetypal representations, I suspect much of the content is more intuitive than intentional. At some remove the act of creation will recognize its intellectual repercussions but in the immediacy of creation I think it’s the undercurrents of thought that come out on paper as the stories and scripts are written. I think horror stories tap into some very deep places, both human and pre-human.
Sex sells. Probably the most popular and discussed theme in horror is repressed sexuality. This is certainly true of Dracula and his more trivial descendants. On the whole, in regard to horror, I consider this argument to be lazy and glib. The annotated versions of the book, Dracula, show in great detail how it is a projection of Victorian fears of being consumed by lust and disease. Since then every generation, as sex has become socially acceptable in the media, has focused more and more on the sex appeal until vampires are nothing but a rather tawdry and unimaginative prurient fantasy (I’m not just talking about Twilight, which is as low as it’s gotten to date, things really started to go downhill with Ann Rice but even Hammer, throughout the ’70s, upped the gonadal ante). Demons also seem to like groping human flesh, as do many of the serial killers. I suppose as long as we have children being raised in repressive homes sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—and vampires—will seem the epitome of rebellion and the good life. If you watch Murnau’s Nosferatu you’ll see the vampire as more of a metaphor for the plague than as some gentleman’s peccadillo.
My proposal for a primary theme in horror—and it might be something I thought up rather than stole, borrowed, or recycled (which is what all the rest of this is)—is power: lack of power, having power, losing control of power. Someone goes from being physically or socially helpless to dominating and intimidating everyone around them to the whole scenario crashing down on them (usually fatally). You will find the theme is certainly true of many of the films aimed at teens, the traditional market, who are often in the midst of that exact struggle in the real world. I think Carrie is one of the finest examples. Power is a rich theme that spans the classics right up to this week’s release. How often do we see a misfit accept some trait they’ve denied having, or they’ve acquired some mysterious ability, only to have it go all wrong? Part of the fear factor in most horror is a total lack of power: someone or something is out to get the teenagers, or the nice family, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sometimes it’s a direct power, like the strength and intelligence, and possible immortality, of Frankenstein’s monster (who, except for being ugly, is otherwise superior to us) that no one can control. Or it’s indirect power, such as the ability to create the monster, that gets out of hand. Power out of control is what underlies Jurassic Park . Primarily, as I’ve said, it is what rules many or most of the teen stories and pretty much all the mad scientists (I’ll get back to the lab coats in a few minutes).
Until very recently we were obviously a part of nature. That means to eat and avoid being eaten. For most of us we no longer have any sense of being preyed upon. Or, for that matter, hunting. We obliviously step out into the world as though nothing can hurt us—any other species behaving like us would be lunch. We have become disconnected from our evolutionary past. If anything is a universal theme in horror I would say this is it. We try to avoid becoming meat, whether the predator is a human psychopath (or just your friendly neighborhood cannibal), a supernatural being destined to feed on mere mortals, or an alien invader who will take protein in whatever shape it comes in. Of course what is consumed is not always material. Sometimes they want to poke a bendy straw in the top of our heads to suck out brains, the soul, the life force, or your answers to this week’s math quiz (it’ll help them rebuild their space ship). Consumption is an essential of life.…I suppose most of the audience identify with the one survivor (that’d be Ripley the eternal) rather than all those tasty morsels who only show up again when the credits run. It’s not considered natural to lay down and die or to throw yourself into the monster’s maw. The only moral outrage stronger than being taken for food is to give up on life to become that meal (the audience yelling, at least inside, “Do something!” “Don’t just stand there! Do something!”) Aren’t you both sickened and relieved when Veronica Cartwright’s sniveling character is put out of her misery in Alien?
We have fear of the body, living and dead. A fear of our bodily functions. A fear of being meat. A fear of dismemberment or any other irreparable damage. A fear of being disconnected from the body, not only loss of life but of being alienated from what is essential to our experience of living. An almost universal theme, ranging from slasher and gore films to a story of hosting a foreign life (Alien or The Exorcist), we stare on in fear, loathing, and fascination as people on the screen are being torn apart, both identifying with the characters and denying that it could ever happen to us. Depending on how the film is made we might look on in amused disgust. Or we might feel so much sympathy we never want to see the film again. It’s rare that a conventional horror film will trick us with believability into the sort of compassion that will keep us from coming back for more (rare exceptions would be Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, which are truly heartbreaking films, though maybe not repulsive…unlike the average horror film they don’t get to you via explicit carnage but, rather, with good storytelling).
Darkness haunts us, fills our nightmares, our trips to the basement, and our horror movies. A visually dependent creature losing that primary sense, we imagine we are unable to navigate or recognize a threat. Since my youth, in the 1970s, I’ve made it a habit of finding my way in the dark and have generally made myself comfortable with not being able to see, perhaps because I’ve seen enough horror movies. But have you ever run into an unfamiliar animal on a moonless night? Do you have bear or wolves wandering around the neighborhood? Being able to see tips you off much sooner to walk a different way or to even turn back. If you don’t trust your senses of smell and hearing you could get into a lot of trouble. Horror films play with this fear in non-urban settings even though usually our only reason to fear is another human, someone hiding in a dark alley or doorway. (By the way, I grew up in an area where bear were a regular sight. Wolves have since reclaimed some of their territory, too. Typically, though, skunks and porcupines were what you had to watch out for.)
The idea of disrupting the nature of things, going against nature or god, is a rich theme. Things always go wrong. I think more than anything this is the fear we have of technology, letting ignorance and hubris make our decisions for us, forgetting to be humble, letting it rule us. We have Dr. Viktor von Frankenstein to lead us wrong, followed by a century or more of crazed men in white lab coats walking a fine line between horror and science fiction. I think we’re a conservative species no matter how much we love our gadgets or vote Liberal, with a deep fear of destroying the balance that keeps us in oxygen and clean underwear. If the madmen dump their technology on our laps we either dig in or blame. Horror stories are the worst that could happen and give us the greatest gloating satisfaction as we sit back in I-told-you-so smugness. A truly frightening film of this sort is called a documentary and it’s something we tend to avoid.
Unfinished business is at the heart of ghost stories. Do the dead remain with us by their own will or do we call them back? Those left behind cling to the departed and hope that they really did love us. We like to imagine we’ll all have some say in what happens after death so we, likewise, can hang onto life, our possessions, and our passions. But what if death corrupts living passions, isolates them, and gives them the power to drag the living into death with us? As with the story of power, which side do we fear being on the most? What if the passion grows into a malignancy greater than the original personal loss? What if it becomes a force unto itself? What if it lingers for centuries and cannot be placated? Not knowing what comes after life, our imaginations are limitless…though rather predictable.
Ostracism. Revenge of the misfit. Tormenting and killing the misfit. Back and forth, being part of the crowd or not, the hatred is like a metronome. A young audience probably feels this daily in their own life, whichever side of the tragedy they are on. An almost universal theme in the classic (Universal—sorry, I couldn’t resist) horror films: The Wolf Man; The Creature of the Black Lagoon; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and, of course, Frankenstein. To say nothing of the teen horrors of the drive-in era and all the spoofs of later generations. How about the remake of Fright Night? Sometimes it’s a side story and the misfit either dies first or is the sole survivor. Often it’s the main story (again, Carrie is a great example). Often the theme of ostracism ties in with repressed sexuality and the misuse of power.
A related theme: rejection. Shame. Retribution. Why are so many pretty young women abducted, hurt, killed in horror? Shame seems to be a very deep motivator. You would think having your sexual advances rejected is not a big deal, she just said no to a date. Depending on your emotional development, how your family treated you, if you’ve already been broken down by shame, if you’re a pariah, it can seem much bigger than that. At least at some period of our life, most of us run the risk of feeling rejection as a dismissal of our fundamental being: it’s very easy to look at that character who is or becomes a monster with a sympathetic eye. Many of us feel an affinity with Quasimodo as he’s spurned by Esmeralda. How would you feel if that scaleless babe in the skimpy swimsuit screamed in your face (damaging your sensitive but hidden ears), then fainted, as you moved to put your Black Lagoon arm around her? If women were expected to make the first move perhaps we could have more female monsters. As it was, Elsa Lancaster, despite stitches and bad hair, had a conventional female role—she hissed rather than screamed as she thoughtlessly destroyed the monster’s hope.
We all desire and fear secret knowledge and its price. At least, we hope there is secret knowledge. A supernatural world, aliens from other planets, secret societies, the habits of psychotic neighbors—it all tempts us. How many cinematic characters have died prying into hidden matters. Or have been hunted down by vengeful cults or irate demons. For how many decades will this drag out the Hellraiser franchise?
Usually we know we make a contract with the Devil but did we realize we made one with Dracula when we invited him into our home? Lethal deals and their consequences are a common theme in horror stories. Sometimes the characters know what they’re getting into but are in denial or try to renege. Sometimes it’s a complete surprise, as in the aforementioned invitation to a vampire. The Hellraiser stories play with both the intentional and the unwitting as each character opens the puzzle box and calls in the Cenobites.
A related idea is calling an evil force into your life, as in Candyman. In general, bringing ancient and more recent urban legends to life is a recurrent theme, people foolishly bringing on demons, ghosts, curses, or a very specifically described bad luck.
The façade of normality was deeply shaken in the horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Familiar people and places that had always somehow seemed creepy were ripped open to expose the danger within. The ordinary neighbor whose oddness slips out little by little until he’s chasing someone with a knife or you find other neighbors dismembered and stored in the freezer. I think we’ve always known this about small towns and suburbia but it took a long time to break the gothic cliché of old abandoned houses and mansions. Low budgets will do that to you.
Related to our fear of the dark is the anxiety we feel for potential hiding places and lairs. Do not put your hand in there. And really, really do not stick your head in there, dumb shit. Most horror and suspense films, regardless of other motifs, play with this idea. In the real world you should have sense enough not to put your hand in there, or you could be bitten by a snake or a rabid raccoon or find a nest of spiders. Who knows, it might only be disgusting, like grabbing something slimy and malodorous. Or it could be diseased and lethal. You never know.
Loss of humanity, mutation or transformation into something inhuman whether through supernatural means or, to a more modern audience, contraction of a virus or an experimental mishap. A fear of becoming a monster or an other. The Fly is a classic example.
The right to exist. No matter what. No matter how deformed you are. Or, the right to destroy what does not meet society’s standards, even if it or they are sentient. Mary Shelley was so young and inexperienced when she wrote Frankenstein yet after 200 years it still resonates in many ways. Depending on how the story is told we might identify with the monster—at a certain age we probably feel we are monstrous. Or we might feel the need to defend self and family, community and way of life from some force or being or contamination that threatens everything we love.
Fear of the unknown. I almost forgot that. The common backdrop to all horror? The essence of Conservative legislation.
You’ll have noticed by now that I haven’t dug into fear itself and our adrenal thrill, as addressed in Stephen King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies”. Fear is implied in everything I’ve said but is not my primary interest, nor the relief of having survived the chase and the imaginary brush with death. I look for a less visceral connection. If I want to ve afraid I don’t have to read or watch fiction. Humanity scares me. History scares me. The daily headlines make me afraid. Horror doesn’t do that. Once in awhile something is odd enough or creepy enough yet familiar that it gives me a chill of unease (think of the sparrows in The Dark Half) but horror films usually put things too far out of the ordinary to resonate days after viewing a film. Maybe that’s intentional. Maybe the creators don’t want to send too deep a chill down our spines. This is why Sophie’s Choice has frightened me in a way no horror film has.
I think I’ve given you a start in appreciating that horror films are more than a sick thrill, more than just an entertainment for morons and the morally deficient. If you weren’t a fan of horror I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Maybe you’ll take the genre a little bit more seriously than you did when I started.
If you already were a fan, I expect or at least hope you have something to add, whether you comment here or write your own essay. Seriously, my accounting is so superficial I could see hundreds of more thoughtful works springing forth.