For many, horror is considered the genre of sleeze. It’s low class, immature, formulaic and so on and so forth. However, horror is one of the oldest genres in the world. Its literary placement is primarily noted for starting in the 18th century, the same as drama, but horror has also existed long before written text. People told stories around the campfire, not only of valiant feats, but monsters slain and the dangers of the outside world. Truly, it speaks not to the consciousness of the people, but of the consciousness of the people.
Horror, as a whole, is not merely about death and destruction, but our cultural hesitances, worries and evaluations. Where drama builds more on adult cares, horror addresses uncertainty and imagination rather than personal fantasy. With horror, the ride isn’t always “fun,” but the viewer keeps with it because it’s an experience, and usually a memorable one. That’s where the joy of the genre exists, but it’s also why some horror titles don’t stand the test of time in terms of being entertaining. Still, there’s an inherent cultural value to almost all horror titles.
Since this article is for Movie Pilot, let’s focus on film examples, starting with ones based on universal fears: insanity, death, pain, the unknown and loss of any kind.
Many olden titles, as in the 1900’s to the 1930’s, had a focus on mental illness and the more sinister side of man. Jekyll and Hyde and The Wolfman are both easy metaphors for undiagnosed and untreatable bipolar disorders. In this era, Frankenstein’s monster stood out especially well, being both horrific and sympathetic, but including a fear of science going too far, which made it truly ahead of its time.
Moving past the 40’s society saw more of the classic notion of slipping into insanity or losing mental control reach film with adaptations of Poe’s works The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. Echoing this theme was White Zombie, showing a loss of mental control by a more sinister character. However, it was in the 1950’s we began to see horror evolve in Frankenstein’s monster’s heavy footsteps to show contemporary fears of the unknown, which tend to be based on scientific progression. Nuclear radiation brought us Them! and Godzilla while alien infection brought us The Quatermass Xperiment. It was a definite step is making horror more generation-oriented.
Then we hit the sixties, an era in which film, including horror, really took off. Classic themes, of course, were revisited, but more and more political and social concerns snuck in. Horror was no longer just primal, but cerebral as well. Reproduction, safety and children were huge staple concepts with reproductive and women’s rights being in the public consciousness, which was also in the midst of many young men getting shipped off to the Vietnam War. The family unit was in an upheaval, hence horror gave us films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Cape Fear and Village of the Damned. Man had also landed on the moon, just before the turn of the decade giving Sci-Fi (and it’s horror counterparts) more ground. We got 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and so on and so forth.
As time progressed, soldiers came back from Vietnam and building stable families/a flourishing America became a true focus, but news media inserted sinister elements. The Manson Family Murders filled the airwaves in 1969, Ted Bundy started his killing spree in 1974, Patty Hearst was kidnapped at roughly the same time, Elvis died and there were two assassination attempts against Gerald Ford. The obvious themes of the times? The powerful were being killed by the peasants and small-town America had plenty of crazy folks hiding in its underbelly. This is the generation that brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes and The Stepford Wives. If that isn’t public paranoia forever recorded on film, I don’t know what is.
Now for the eighties, the era of the Reagans, AIDS, Cabbage Patch Kids, Euro-goth culture, exploding shuttle launches, Chernobyl and toppling walls. This was a time when horror became more in-vogue with A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in London, The Shining, The Howling, Hellraiser, Aliens, The Lost Boys and The Thing. This era tends to stand out as when horror found its bearings, but what made it special? The concept is simple: counterculture and glam. Horror fiends were like rock stars. The genre became about youth even more than in the seventies. It wasn’t quite the Buffy era, but a solid precursor. The youth contained the power, and it somehow melded with tales of caution. It was a concept that could’ve fallen on its face, but thrived because it developed a new formula, taking the format of comedy and placing it in a dark context. Every film became a guessing game, a joke with a horrific punchline. It worked well and was able to transcend multiple themes, making horror fun.
The nineties, when I grew up, was filled with fond memories of Pokemon, Power Rangers and the emergence of the internet. On the negative side, the world trade center was bombed, O.J. Simpson allegedly got away with murder, people tripped balls over Y2K and mad cow disease, Princess Diana died and George W. Bush was elected president. Oh, and there was the whole sheep cloning business as well as some human genome mapping. What most tend to forget is the economic aspect, that the decade started with heavy marketing toward children, hence horror became polarized between pushing the extremes and making horror family friendly. We got everything from Hocus Pocus and Ernest Scared Stupid to Scream and Stir of Echoes. Horror became especially conscious of itself and, while some films focused on cultural phobias, like Species with genetic experimentation, horror became about pushing extremes. Monsters were bigger, digital special effects were developed, and slasher flicks piled on the gore. It was all about bigger and better, which fit perfectly with the culture of the time.
Now, since we’re coming upon 2015, what societal aspects do you believe modern horror films represent?