I wrote the following brief intro to the deeper themes in horror films about a year ago. I was going to be starting a series on the representations of evil in horror films for a now defunct web journal, but some other essays got pushed to the front for me and I published those there instead. This is an incredibly brief overview, and a lot had to be skipped over. If you have an interest in horror films, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy.
There are few things more primal to human experience than fear. Beyond our need to eat and drink, fear is one of the few things that connects us consciously to our wild ancestry. To be afraid is to know something of the experience of our evolutionary forebears, crouching in darkness as the sounds of night took over the landscape outside the cave mouth. It is perhaps no surprise then that the horror genre is the oldest of the defined film genres. Before it there were drama and comedy films, with varying mixes of melodrama and romance and a pinch of fantasy, but horror was the first unique genre to emerge after the birth of cinema, with the earliest short horror films being produced in the 1890s and 1900s. The stark and phantasmic images of German Expressionism, brought to life in films like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), tapped into something deep within the human psyche. As subgenres within horror film emerged and spread to match the similar complexity found in horror fiction, unique patterns and tropes became visible within each. These aren’t generally explicit in either the creation or appreciation of horror films, but I believe they do operate not far below the surface.
In ghost stories for instance, there is a consistent emphasis upon justice and truth. On-screen hauntings are rarely about pure malevolence, and even when they lean that way they are usually motivated by revenge, itself a recognizable if misguided form of justice. Ghosts want their stories told, and wrongs done to them in life righted. This appeals not only to our desire to believe we will continue on after death, but also our desire to have our traits and actions reflected accurately when we’re gone.
Werewolf and human monster films are of two types generally.The first type explores elements of guilt, with the afflicted person either unaware of the actions they’ve committed while transfigured, or aware of them and tortured by shame and regret. A classic example to check out is Jacques Tourneur’s gorgeous 1942 film Cat People. These films touch on the idea put forward by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7 of doing things we do not want to do, committing acts we know will bring about unpleasant consequences but feeling powerless against the urge to commit them. The second type eschews the guilt and regret and looks more directly at the human capacity for evil and brutality, with the werewolf or other monster serving as a visual projection of the beast that lurks within humans when the conscience is silenced.
During the 1950s, a new subgenre developed – the conventional monster movie. Often released as B movies (low budget films that played as the second movie of a double feature), these films showcased absurd creatures like extraterrestrial blobs or giant versions of otherwise harmless animals like ants, rabbits or lizards. In the 1950s the United States had just entered the Cold War, and lived with a constant fear of the amorphous Other of the Soviet Union as well as nuclear war and the deadly and disfiguring radiation and fallout subsequent to it. America dealt with this fear as best it could: by making cheap movies about killer alien Jello and 50 foot tall women. Japan, the only country to ever suffer a nuclear attack, responded to the disaster with the oft-misunderstood Godzilla (1954), in fact a poignant response to its nation’s recovery from nuclear aggression and the terror of a fresh attack.
Zombie films seem to rub against our belief in the inviolable sanctity of the human body, perhaps most especially in death. The first zombie films emerged during World War II, America’s first televised war, and they reached their full form during and after Vietnam, the first televised war America didn’t win. Young male bodies, long our patriarchal society’s image for human strength and virility, were being brutalized, butchered and piled up on the evening news. For the first time gory visual reminders of our mortality were being broadcast to American living rooms whether families wanted to see them or not, and during the 1960s and 1970s, this was happening in color. War, and more specifically the bloody and visceral consequences upon human bodies during battle, was no longer something that happened out of sight, sanitized upon return under draped flags and crisp formal uniforms. I don’t think it’s a coincidence zombie films (and other uniquely gory horror genres) reached their zenith among American young adults during this era, especially since the zombie film is unique among horror genres in that most of the time it involves a dose of absurd humor. From an evolutionary standpoint, laughter is a method of shedding stress in the face of real or imagined danger to ourselves or others. Young bodies were being mangled on the evening news, and they were being mangled in zombie films, but the latter allowed young people who had not yet been mangled to laugh about it, and to feel safer in comparison to the absurdity happening on screen. Additionally, the zombie films of George Romero, the genre’s godfather, used these ambulatory corpses as a commentary on the sedated consumers of our Western society’s runaway capitalism.
Slasher films emerged in the 1970s (Bob Clark’s brilliant 1974 Black Christmas is generally considered the first) and explore the paranoia that creeps into a suburban culture in which individuals become progressively more disconnected from community, and neighbors don’t really know their neighbors. The killer in street clothes is in some ways more horrifying than the recognizable monsters of other genres. Aside from horror subgenres dealing with supernatural antagonists, no subgenre is filled with more dread than the slasher film. This is the only major horror genre that requires no supernatural or scientifically impossible cause for its events to unfold. What are we to do if the seemingly nice man living next door is a murderer? Do we really know the people we see every day, especially now that so much of our lives are lived electronically, no longer connected to our immediate surroundings?
Demonic possession films are unique in that they most often feature children, teens or mothers as the possessed or afflicted victims. In this instance the victim is usually also the perpetrator, with the battle between victim and attacker taking place within the heart, mind and body of the main character of a child or mother. Types of these stories popped up in the 1960s and the subgenre hit its stride with William Friedkin’s terrifying 1971 masterpiece The Exorcist. Emerging when it did during the social upheaval and moral restructuring of the 1960s and 1970s, the demonic possession subgenre would seem to be an exploration of conservative America’s fear of the corruption of its young people. It is then no coincidence the subgenre has awakened into an indie second wave over the last decade as conservative America once again exorcises its persecution complex and clutches its pearly progeny. A second theme of the demonic possession is much more straightforward, dealing directly with our fear of spiritual evil. Having grown up in evangelical Christianity, a belief system in which demons and Satan are a very real menace, I sympathize with the fear of demonic possession and affliction (there’s a difference, if you ask an evangelical). Interestingly, it is the very social and moral revolution mentioned above that made it possible for the graphic possession films of the 1970s to be produced.
Perhaps the richest subgenre of horror films is the vampire film, and due to the depth and longevity of the genre I want to explore it in greater detail in another essay. Next week I will be looking at the history of the vampire film genre and exploring ways in which the vampire as a representation of evil has loosely correlated with the shifting perceptions of sin and evil within American Christianity over the last century. While all horror genres deal in some way with our notion of evil, and the demonic possession film deals directly with our mythical sources of evil (Satan and demons), vampires are unique in historically serving as a physical representation of evil itself, evil embodied. As such, they serve as an interesting means of loosely tracking how Western society’s views on sin and sinners have evolved over the course of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Check back next week as I take a closer look at that progression.