ByCourtney Dial, writer at
Scientist by day. Horror film aficionado by night.
Courtney Dial

There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at. — Laura Mulvey

Horror films make use of various motifs: darkness, possession, madness and even death. All of these themes are incorporated in horror films to make audiences feel real emotions. From sadness to pure terror, the goal of good is to get under our skin. However, there are other ways that films can make us, the audience, feel unsettled. The creators of recent horrors such as and have found ways to make the act of "looking" and "watching" something sinister in itself, something that audiences should feel ashamed of and even second guess. Should I really be watching this?

The use of cameras and making audiences aware of their own gaze of the brutality they are watching is one way to make spectators feel uncomfortable, transcending the film-watching experience. The use of motifs such as scopophilia and voyeurism, are two such ways that this affect is achieved.


1. Deriving pleasure from looking. Often sexual.


1. The practice of gaining sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity.

2. Enjoyment from seeing the pain or distress of others.

From the origins of these motifs being used by the likes of Hitchcock to modern-day interpretations, the following films make commentary about the average horror viewers themselves.

Rear Window (1954), Peeping Tom (1960) And The Origins Of Scopophilia

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Not that Rear Window was the first film to suggest the ideas of scopophilia and voyeurism, but it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and is a horror film masterpiece. It also spawned a "remake," as many of Hitchcock's works have, and illuminated the ideas of scopophilia and voyeurism in such a direct way that it is often times considered the beginning of this horror motif. Rear Window follows L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart), a professional photographer, who is wheelchair-bound and stuck inside his house watching his neighbors through his rear window.

Already, L.B. is embodying the ideas of scopophilia and voyeurism, especially considering that one of the neighbors he is peering in on is his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly). He begins to watch others as well, and invites Lisa to join. Soon, they both witness what they believe is a murder in progress. This brings the idea of voyeurism full circle. They both (especially L.B.) become engrossed in watching this neighbor, and they soon turn into scopophiliacs (which, arguably, L.B already was, considering his profession).

'Rear Window' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]
'Rear Window' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

This brings up the next film: Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell. Peeping Tom presents the motifs of the camera, scopophilia and voyeurism front and center in a big way. Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) is a focus puller in a British film studio, and in his off time he shoots photos for a local porn shop. Mark is already the essence of these motifs. He enjoys photographing women naked and works by watching women (through his camera) every day.

The opening sequence of the film shot through a camera; a woman is in the crosshairs throughout the entire sequence, indicating her impending doom. This woman is also a prostitute and her entire death sequence is filmed by Mark. This idea that Mark not only likes to watch women in their female form, but also likes to film them as they die really highlights both of the motifs mentioned earlier.

'Peeping Tom' [Credit: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors]
'Peeping Tom' [Credit: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors]

Both of these classic films begin this chase by modern films to use the motifs of the camera, scopophilia and voyeurism to enter into the realm of horror. These films also began the implementation of viewers and their ultimate role in watching horror.

Modern Interpretation

Sinister, V/H/S, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are just a couple of films from the modern era that use the idea of the camera, or watching horrendous acts on tapes, unable to look away. This idea is really exemplified in Sinister. Fronted by the incredible acting of Ethan Hawke, who plays Ellison Oswald — a washed-up writer trying to get his big break by working on a new case. Sinister utilizes themes we have seen before but places them in a voyeuristic atmosphere. Ellison watches movies on 8mm film that turn out to be more cruel than he had originally anticipated. However, knowing this, he continues to watch these tapes for his book.

At what point does his curiosity go past the point of research? It is not a far jump to say that Ellison begins to enjoy watching these horrendous "home videos" and his obsession with Mr. Boogie (Bughuul) is unnatural.

'Sinister' [Credit: Summit Entertainment]
'Sinister' [Credit: Summit Entertainment]

All of the films mentioned above utilize the idea of voyeurism in a unique way, and it sets out to make the viewer look at themselves.

The Viewer's Role

We are viewing these horror films, and we are watching (in some cases) with more enjoyment than any of the main characters in these films. Horror films aim to make us watch, they intend to make us scopophiliacs participating in the act of voyeurism. We as an audience are enjoying these acts of violence against humans.

Moreover, horror films also aim for certain demographics. This is illustrated by the fact that countless '80s slasher films have at least one topless woman, implicating the viewer in the act of voyeurism and scopophilia before the movie even starts. The films mentioned go above and beyond these surface accusations of voyeurism and scopophilia by having us watch the main characters commit the acts themselves. We are supposed to be somewhat horrified by these acts, and think: Why would anyone watch those tapes? Yet, that is exactly what we do when we go to the cinema and watch a horror film.

Last Thoughts

These films strive for something beyond simply including the over-sexualized women and gory scenes of bodily violence to include the viewer. These works of cinema unconsciously make the viewer think about the acts they are committing themselves. At this point you may be thinking: Should I not be watching horror films? Am I a bad person for enjoying them as much as I do? To answer both of these questions, let's turn to a remark made by the master of horror himself: Stephen King:

I like to see the most aggressive [horror films] as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in the subterranean river beneath. Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here.

Feed those alligators, horror fans.

Do you think the audience is as guilty as the characters in a film for their voyeurism?


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