When you hear the word "horror," do you think of werewolves and vampires, or do you think of reckless criminals within your society? Do you picture a large, empty, cobwebbed mansion, or do you imagine religious sacrifices in open fields?
We usually refer to genre as a universal concept to categorize a vast amount of films, but we rarely stop to consider what genre means for different countries and cultures. Do your basic fears come down to your geographical location?
Psychologist Dr. Glenn D. Walters states in the Journal of Media Psychology that, in order for a horror film to scare us, the major factor is relevance. This can either be a universal human fear (such as death) or a more specific cultural fear within a certain country or group of people;
[H]orror films reflect current societal issues and concerns by denoting how the fear of totalitarianism in the 1930s gave birth to movies like Frankenstein (1931), the fear of radiation gave flight to the creature features of the 1950s, the war in Vietnam gave rise to a new breed of zombie movie as represented by 1968's Night of the Living Dead.
Filmmakers have continuously proven that British and U.S. audiences respond to different stimuli. As a Brit who loves U.S. horror films in addition to British ones, I'm curious: what differs between our two countries to make our scary movies seem completely different?
British Horror: The Collapse Of Order
The influential work of UK production house Hammer Films — most famously Dracula and Frankenstein — began in the mid 1930s, and also began the tradition of great horror films deriving from everyday fears. Hammer operated with limited budgets, yet managed to influence the direction of horror cinema for years to come; many of its films cleverly exploited cultural anxieties by using external monsters, such as giant mutants with disgusting deformities to represent the rise of atomic warfare.
Over the decades British horror evolved. In the '70s, Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man saw a totally different set of contextual fears presented (and I'm not talking about the horror of seeing Nicolas Cage in the 2006 remake). The film tackles the issues of sexual liberty, social taboos and oppressive restrictions apparent in Britain. However, there's no monster in this movie; the horror lays with the residents' frivolous sexual displays and strange pagan rituals.
The fears and issues changed yet again in the 2000s with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. There are several fears explored within this apocalypse film:
- The decline of Christianity: The first infected human that protagonist Cillian Murphy encounters is a priest.
- The increase of violence in the media: The virus that creates the apocalyptic world is called "Rage," the result of an experiment in which apes were forced to watch violent video clips.
- The fickle value of money: Throughout the film, Boyle places British coins and notes all over the ground of London, proving money's ultimate insignificance when society is turned upside down.
All of these British movies are different, yet have something in common: the fear that civilization is fragile and can unravel at any moment.
American Horror: The Loss Of Power
At the height of the Cold War, Hollywood horror movies reflected the anxiety of a superpower facing an existential threat, often in the form of extraterrestrial conquerors or unstoppable monsters: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Them!, War of the Worlds, and so forth.
Filmmakers tapped into fears of an invasion from another country by exploring invasions from other worlds; here the hybrid of sci-fi horror was born. Staying relevant to the paranoid times kept audiences hooked.
Even in the modern era of U.S horror, a common theme is powerlessness in the face of an overwhelming force. In the years after 9/11, when Americans suddenly no longer felt as invincible as they had in the '80s and '90s, "torture porn" became a hit with films like the Saw franchise and Eli Roth's Hostel. And in the wake of 2008's Great Recession, The Walking Dead and World War Z seemed to perfectly resonate with a new sense of impotence within the world's most powerful nation.
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British Zombies, Meet American Zombies
I've already tapped into the themes of 28 Days Later, but it's perfect to compare World War Z as an American counterpoint. Leading up to 28 Days Later's release in 2002, there were several prominent riots in London, such as anti-capitalist May Day riots in 2000 and 2001, which no doubt influenced Boyle.
World War Z is a completely different ballpark. The virus starts when a young boy is bitten in China and becomes the pandemic's Patient Zero. Whereas 28 Days Later plays with the idea that society is easily unraveled, World War Z perhaps hints at a subconscious fear that U.S. borders are unable to stop threats from abroad.
The Urbanoia Genre
Contextual factors have an influential effect on how filmmakers create horror for an audience, and it certainly differs between cultures. For example, Eden Lake (2008) is a British film that explores fears of economic social classes, specifically less privileged ones.
The "villains" of the piece are a group of working class children who live near the isolated woods. The group of children are represented as violent, unforgiving criminals as they torture vacationing protagonist Jenny and her boyfriends.
Contrasting this with urbanoia American horror Wrong Turn, we can see the differences within fears in British and U.S culture. Wrong Turn is similar to Eden Lake in regards to its isolated location, but the villains are completely different. They aren't disillusioned working class children from rough families, forcing audiences to ponder societal inequalities; they're cannibalistic monsters who barely seem human at all, much like in Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes.
Britain has traditionally had a much more rigid class system, whereas the U.S. has traditionally prided itself on its social mobility. Perhaps this lingering guilt is why British directors are more likely to utilize such themes in their horror films, while American urbanoia is more about atmospheric dread and jump scares.
Are We Really So Different?
Cultural variations make the genre that is horror very diverse. I think both countries create amazing horror movies, but being British means that British horrors hold a biased place in my heart; I can just better relate to where the directors are coming from.
Nevertheless, fans everywhere look to horror movies for some kind of catharsis. The philosopher Aristotle — who invented the idea of catharsis — believed that the human mind taps into its primitive side when watching violence and gore. And we all share the same primitive side, no matter our nationality.