The Enduring Appeal of the Horror Genre
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Published: Wed, 07 Mar 2018
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HORROR’S ENDLESS CYCLE: AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE ENDURING APPEAL OF THE HORROR GENRE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM.
The horror genre has deep roots in the classical studio era. Yet in important ways it also looks ahead to the post-classical period, a period of reduced levels of film production and correspondingly weakened genre identities. As a fantasy genre, horror departs in significant ways from the prevailing canons of representation in the classical Hollywood style, whether one takes that mode to be a form of realism or of melodrama. Horror has an identity as an unrespectable genre for an undiscriminating juvenile audience (or an audience that has its mind on other things), with strong roots in exploitation cinema, that has only fairly recently emerged as an attractive genre for large scale production at major studios.
Finally, it has attracted significant critical attention in recent years, and in each case theories of postmodernism and – which is not always the same thing – currents in postmodern theory have played an important part in reconceiving the genre for audiences and film-makers alike. This critical interest is, I argue, related to the relative weakness in both cases of traditional semantic/syntactic matrices of generic identity, leading to a protean aspect that is well suited to exploiting marketplace currents and trends. That horror takes its core generic material from the body, both engines of contemporary critical enquiry and popular cultural debate has confirmed its relevance.
(Barry Langford, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, 2005)
Why choose to live in fear?
Today we get up, go to work, come home, watch TV and go to sleep. To combat the monotony we chase the death rush by other means, as perilous as base or bungee jumping, or as sanitised as roller coasters and theme parks, while for most the simple thrills of the horror movie are more than enough to satisfy and provide a little taste of fear. That’s just one theory. Another is that we watch horror movies because they offer us a challenge – to look fear and death in the face and survive the ordeal. The ascendance and growing popularity of horror cinema since the new millennium is certainly a fascinating trend in contemporary society, and one which is long overdue an in-depth and objective analysis. Through researching the appeal of the horror genre I shall look into the social and political climate into which these movies fell over the last ten years, and discuss the merits of the movies themselves or, in some cases, lack of them.
(Marshall in Carolyn, 2008).
The horror film, throughout its shady, rebellious history has earned more money than respect. Though these days there are film festivals, websites, books, magazines, Masters theses, and even film distributors devoted entirely to the consumption of the dark side of entertainment, the mainstream media and self-appointed intelligentsia of pontificators cluck their tongues and blame the fall of society on these nasty little gutter-dwellers we call our own. In truth, the horror film may be the best mirror of the world’s zeitgeist we have, reflecting, rather than creating, the ills and crises of the planet’s collective psychology.
It’s been said before and it bears repeating that horror is to cinema what rock and roll is to music: rude, abrasive, pushy and anti-establishment. No wonder, then, that it is so embraced by the young. What better way to break away from parental chains than to blast distorted guitars on the stereo, and revel in disemboweled damsels in distress on the widescreen plasma? The young are immortal, right? And who can blame them for gathering tribally in front of the Cineplex screens to cheer on the latest adventures of the newest teen-gutting horror franchise star? They know it’s not real, that they are thumbing their noses at mortality. Yes, deep-seated fears are faced on the screen, from a safe distance, allowing the audience to safely play tag with what scares them.
A good horror movie has all the elements of a good drama: creative storytelling: compelling characters placed in relatable plots, an artist’s point of view. But a really good horror movie, the best horror movie, can take you far beyond: it can take you to a place you’ve never been, a shadowy chamber of the mind outside of your worldly experience, with story twists and turns that will make you squirm until the lights come on and you emerge victoriously from your two hours in the dark. A great horror movie can be a revelatory experience.
A great way to take society’s pulse is through the arts and entertainment of the time. And the horror film makes a great thermometer. As I intend to examine in this study, a national or global health is particularly well represented by its fright films. At times of political upheaval, war, depression and recession, the horror cycle runs to a particular high. Adam Simon’s remarkable documentary, The American Nightmare, about the horror boom of the 1970s arising out of the international upheaval that surrounded the war in Vietnam. Is a terrific examination of how one relates to the other.
But as we close in on the end of the new millennium’s first decade, we find ourselves in another long-lasting terror boom in a post 9/11 world. Obviously, most of these films are not artistic reflections of social strife, or the primal screams of the mad artist who paints in blood. As they have, with everything else that makes money, the corporate kings have co-opted the popular cycle on their own terms. Where brilliant artists contribute excellent and exciting new ventures, the screens are also littered with the latest iterations of franchises nobody asks for, but are easy to market. In recent years, its been far easier for an industry that isn’t interested in or has any understanding of the horror genre to take familiar titles, and remake and sequelise them until the law of diminishing returns proves itself, and they move on to the next title.
There are great horror films being made today amidst the dross. But it’s not quality that’s being discussed here, though it obviously plays a part. It’s that there is a new and ravening audience for the spilling of blood. Again, there’s nothing new about this: filmgoers filled the cinemas during the Depression to see the Frankenstein monster toss an innocent little girl into the pond, to see Count Dracula sup on the blood of lovely blondes; during World War II, Frankenstein’s monster met everyone from the Wolf Man to Abbott and Costello, and Universal cranked out one monster fest after another, while a quiet, well-real producer named Val Lewton churned out intelligent, atmospheric shockers for RKO; in the 1950s, when the Cold War and Air Raid duck-and-cover drills were the order of the day, nuclear tests gave birth to the giant ants of Them, the humungous grasshoppers of The Beginning of the End, and the radioactivity-breathing Japanese dragon beast of Godzilla; the early sixties turned internal, with human monsters like Norman Bates infesting our souls and killing on behalf of the sexual battle within the newly blossoming psychological terror train; the Vietnamese apocalypses were brutal, fed as they were by nightly news imagery of burning bodies and human torture, in a toe-in-the-water test of loosening censorship that led to a free-for-all; the eighties were all about cheap: no stars, gore effects and creative kills being the entire raison d’être for a horror film’s existence; the complacent, Wall Street frivolous 1990s were mostly in a horror lull, but ended with a bang of excellence with films like Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project.
In the new millennium, a new generation of filmmakers is finding its voice, raised on ubiquitous film courses in high school and beyond, computers that provide in-home editing and sound mixing, mobile, high definition cameras that lead everyone to believe they can be the next John Carpenter. But it is ingenuity that best raises the profile among hordes of wannabes, as well as a point of view.
The world, under the shroud of George W Bush, Tony Blair and their brethren, is dangerous, complicated and nervous. And the boom of horrific storytelling, even when controlled by the mass-media collective out to squeeze every last buck out of it, will reflect a world on edge in its unforgiving mirror… at least until the next cycle.
(Garris in Carolyn, 2008)
In the first section, Configuring the Monster, I will explore the key themes of the genre; the main issues and the debates raised, and engage with approaches and theories that have been applied to horror texts. This theoretical background will be presented via the modernist context within which early horror texts evolved. This brief description of the generic development of the horror film will thus provide a review of its fundamental preoccupations, especially through a discussion of a variety of psychoanalytic and gendered readings. This first part also includes a case study that reviews indicative patterns of readings of horror texts across different age groups that are interesting in terms of the progression of spectator involvement with horror film.
In the second section, Consensus and Constraint 1919-1960, and the final section, Chaos and Collapse 1960-2000, I will further address the chronological evolution of the horror film, looking upon particular historical periods. This analysis will consider the role of both traditional myth and gothic literature in early cinematic representations of horror. Post-war developments are then viewed in terms of the revisiting of these generic formulae. The more contemporary transgression of boundaries of permissible gore and pathological states are then considered through a discussion of the work of postmodern auteurs reworking the genre’s field of operation and its consistent cycling.
Inevitably in a work of this length, many complex arguments will be rendered briefly and simplistically, and many important observations reduced to description and generalistion. This is not a disclaimer; rather it is an encouragement for other researchers to pursue further lines of enquiry and to address the genre anew from a personal, informed perspective.
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