A Cultural History of Horror


Horror stories are meant to be dark reflections of ourselves or rather more importantly a dark reflection of what we fear most as a society at the time. This isn’t true on an individual level, because what one person finds scary, bores another and what may be a broken taboo for some, is just par for the course for others. But in the aggregate, trends pop up and these are what succeeds in scaring a great majority of the populace. Thus reflect the thinking of a society as a whole.

In college I took an introductory film course and one of the subjects we brushed upon was the changes in horror media over the decades and how the changing subject matter reflected the culture’s changing attitudes of the time. I should state here that this is going to very much be America focused, because that is where I live and that is what I know. Also, given the nature of what I’m talking about, it is going to paint in very large brushstrokes as I’m dealing in larger belief structures of groups and not individuals mindsets.

In the 1930s and 40s the most well known horror movies coming out of Hollywood were those of the Universal monsters. Now rather quaint, at the time these scared audiences across the country. On the surface they were scary for the same reason that monsters are always scary. They went after very basic, primal fear: something powerful, dangerous and unknown is out to harm us. But I also hypothesize that Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc. also preyed upon the fears of the foreigner as other. They represented groups of non-Americans. The world was in turmoil after the First World War, America turned if not isolationist, then very inward and the country always had a very racist streak in it regarding immigrants. Now we have monsters vaguely representing the “dangerous” parts of the world that caused us to go to war and would soon again. Dracula from Eastern Europe seducing god fearing Anglo-Saxon women and destroying us from within, Frankenstein a monstrous brute from Germany created from mad science and progress without thought or concern for morality and the Mummy a truly alien being from the ancient sands of Egypt which in the American mindset could stand for the whole Ottoman Empire and/or Arabia.

Then in the 50s following victory in World War II, they became kitsch. They no longer frightened audiences, but were now novelties and collector items. Instead new terrors arose in the dawning of the atomic age. The most famous of which is Godzilla from Japan, a country that felt first hand the devastating effects of nuclear weapons. But Hollywood had its own fair share of giant monster movies as the result of nuclear radiation, mostly from testing: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Beginning of the End and Them! which was Warner Brother’s highest grossing film in 1954. And let’s not forget Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still both with messages on the danger of nuclear weapons and escalation. However, the real fear with the encroaching threat of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. wasn’t nuclear annihilation. It was the insidious threat of infiltrating communism and the Red Scare. Invasion of the Body Snatchers had people you once knew being subtly replaced with an imposter that wanted nothing more than to undermine America in preparation for a take over by a foreign power. Other movies with similar bents are It Came From Outer Space and The War of the Worlds.

Soon these fears broke around the same time McCarthy’s reputation was in tatters. In the 60s and into the 70s fear turned towards the occult and forces that felt truly out of our control. Monsters can be fought, and beasts conquered. What would start as a obsession with the paranormal and ethereal evils like those from 13 Ghosts and The Haunting would take even darker turn, the Prince of Darkness to be precise with occult movies like Rosemary’s Baby to the cultural even that was The Exorcist. The fears were of masses or forces that worked on rules but could not be reasoned with like Children of the Damned or The Night of the Living Dead. These were times of great social change and change can be very scary to those comfortable with the status quo. These movies from the ghosts to the devil to zombies were all out of an individual’s control to combat. Gone were the heroes who triumphed by their strength, cunning or perseverance. These were threats not to be defeated only be weathered.

Then the mid-to late 70s brought back the monster movie, only this time the monsters didn’t originate from foreign soils or science gone wrong, but were home grown. These monsters were created in America in the very stereotypical life our culture cherished at the time, the suburban close knit community by showing the result of its darker underbelly. Carrie, the outsider abused by her mother and classmates until she breaks. Halloween, the dark secret of a community coming back and unleashing itself upon the town once again. Jaws terrorizes a seaside resort and brings out the true danger of what was once a too picturesque town. The alien from Alien integrates and warps the very human body to become the ultimate killing machine. It was a time of economic downturn and cultural depression from the Vietnam war and Nixon administration. America wasn’t patting itself on the back anymore and nationally we were being forced to consider we were not pure and face the darker nature of our idyllic lives and our selves that we had previously swept under the rug.

The 80s focused on the up until then almost secondary teen demographic. Recently advertisers were realizing that parents and little kids weren’t the only ones with disposable incomes anymore. Teenagers became a market force and a greater one than the once pandered to adult demographics. It was also a decade of excess. What to do? Why kill all the teenagers for drinking and having sex of course. It’s cathartic to one demographic now feeling forced out of the limelight, but its the teens that went to see these movies. It played upon the fears of an older generations, but offered comfort by punishing the younger. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, Fright Night. All of them featuring the now well unknown and understood tropes of punishing youth and elevating villains to star status.

The 90s aren’t as simple. It’s a bit more complicated affair to explain what we were afraid of. It was the decade of detachment and too cool for anything attitude. The best way I can explain it is with Animorphs. The premise is that anyone could have an alien slug in their brain and be the enemy. You’d never know because they look just like your neighbor, your brother, your father. Anyone could be out to get you. This was our fear, because at the time we had very strict understanding of what bad guys looked like. The news would tell us. They had scars, poor hygiene, blotchy skin and crazed looks. They were Timothy McVeigh. In an early issue of Animorphs, Rachel is accosted by some skeevy looking men looking for a “good time.” She’s 13. We knew what the bad guys looked like, but now the real enemy could be one of us. We see this in Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer where the masked killer ends up being not an ugly villain type, but a normal looking person that they know. This would also be around the time when the news changed and we started getting stories of otherwise upstanding citizen being unsavory criminals always with the refrain, “but he looked so normal.”

Which brings us to the last decade. There is a sense for my generation that history stopped at 2001, everything before was then and this is just now. And this is where I have a problem. Because as I look back over the horror media of the 2000s, I don’t have a fucking clue what we were afraid of. Terrorism would be the go to answer for the decade of 9/11, but all our movies with terrorists were action movies. I look at the movies that the decade spawned, Saw, Hostel, The Ring, The Descent, Final Destination, Paranormal Activity, and I don’t know what they reflect back at us. It was a decade of remakes and remixes of culture and ideas from previous decades into new hip forms. Everything from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dawn of the Dead.

In preparation for this piece I talked to a friend of mine who is a very big fan of the horror genre. I ran down the cliff notes version for the previous decades and what they said about us and our fears. He nodded all down the list. But when I got to the 2000s the only inkling of an idea I had was quickly squashed when I tried to explain it.

Over the course of October, aka horror month, I play horror games, both classics and contemporaries for a series of essays. It’s much easier to write when you have a theme. And from this I thought I gleaned a thread of what we fear: the loss of agency. We are living in an increasingly complex world and from the news of the Bush warranty wiretaps (which never stopped) to the Snowden leaks and all the revelations about NSA hacking efforts it seems like an even bigger threat. I thought I saw this reflected in the Saw and Hostel movies where the protagonists literally have their very movement curtailed as they lose the ability to choose, function or fight back.

We see this in the horror games of the 2000. Games series like Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and the harder to get Haunting Ground and Rule of Rose of the PlayStation 2 era were all about removing and hampering abilities. Then there was a split where games like Resident Evil, Dead Space and Left4Dead opted to give us more agency almost as they ironically feared confronting our fears. They didn’t want to explore what we were afraid of, instead they wanted to cover it up as much as possible and gave us as much power to fight back as we could want. Meanwhile, the indie games decided to embrace our fear of not being able to do anything and look right at it like in Amnesia, Slender and Outlast.

But ultimately that doesn’t hold up. The lack of being able to defend oneself in a horror game is the equivalent of a sting in the musical score in a horror movie. It’s something that has to be there to facilitate the terror, but ultimately isn’t what its about. It’s the method the game uses to convey what the horror represents. And the lack of agency doesn’t work when you consider that most of the cultural cache of horror movies in the 2000s were straight up remakes with little thought as to what they represented rather focused on how to update them for a modern aesthetic.

Maybe we do feel that we are at the end of history. It’s a very Western European mode of thought. Everything has a beginning and an end. History has a beginning so logically there must be an end. The world was created and so it must be destroyed. Maybe it was that we moved into a new millennium or that we’ve exhausted new ideas and modes of thinking to the point we can only recycle what has come before from philosophy to art to politics. As a culture, Americans act like we are already at the end of history and have no reason to take care for a future we do not believe exists. By the same token if you believe it is all going to end, what is left to fear.

The other possibility is that this whole exercise has reached its limit. Thanks in large part to the internet, culture has become more fractured than ever before. There is no critical mass of widespread cultural touchstones that effect large numbers of people like in decades past. Movies don’t reflect modern fears because we have all isolated ourselves into our own little niches groups that our interests and commonalities have broken down likewise into niches. We were always individuals, but we had enough in common to think and fear along similar lines. Instead, we are part of many smaller groups with which we have cultural touchstones. The only appeal the mass market has anymore is in reinterpretations of things we already know, in commenting not on our fears, but on previous cultures. The horror movie now reflects other horror movies. It’s to the point that our best “horror movies” are those taking the piss out of the genre in order to comment on it a la Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and Cabin in the Woods.

The focus in both the movies and the discourse surrounding them are almost solely based on the craft of the scares. They are judged in how well the fit within one of a number of established formulas. Cabin in the Woods going so far as to critique them all. Our conversation about horror video games is likewise in the form of the game and less about any content there might be. We don’t talk about Amnesia’s morality play, instead the discussion is about the lack of combat mechanics in which to fight back. We don’t explore the psychology of the Silent Hill characters, we critique the bombast and monster designs. And forget Resident Evil ever being about corporate corruption anymore when all discussion revolves around its exit of the horror sphere.

We’re either at the end of culture or simple the end of unified culture. But the result is the same. We no longer use our media to confront and explore our fears. Instead we use it to dress them down and apply order and structure to kill the fear and consequently kill the exploration of ourselves. What we’re left with is a non-committal apathy and a nodding understanding. ‘Yes that is terrible. Yes that is horrifying. What’s next?’

I wrote in my Fatal Frame II piece this month that horror is a lot like comedy in that it relies on the undermining of expectations. The only real difference is the emotional reaction one wishes to get. In fact, change the tone and/or audience and what was once comedy can very quickly become terrifying. But what happens when horror is no longer trying to undermine expectations, but simply to meet a different set of expectations. In previous decades the Universal monster and the 50s sci-fi movies became kitsch and lost their teeth as the audience got used to them. They moved on. The thing about confronting one’s fears is that afterwards the fear dissipates. What was once scary become goldmines of inspiration for future directors working in completely different genres.

On the other hand, modern horror movies are now only teaching how to create horror movies because that is all they are about. They are about the horror movie itself. The genre has become incestuously recursive. I worry this attitude will infect video games if it hasn’t already as horror games go on only influence its own genre, forever sitting upon its laurels of formalistic and formulistic endeavors who existence serves only to perpetuate itself.

If that becomes the case, than it truly is the end of history. A culture without something to fear is one that barely breathes.

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