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The purpose of this study is to identify how the horror genre/sub-genre exploits and feeds off sociocultural fears and anxieties of its time. Within this paper, I intend to focus on various critically acclaimed movies -including Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist– ranging from the 1960s and 1970s in order to pinpoint how these films were influenced by the common fears of that time and the preceding films. The Horror genre focuses on societal fears that are universal and addressed specific cultural and historical anxieties of a specific time. Horror movies are usually centered around things or activities that would usually cause a viewer to want to run away from the scenario. Common societal fears including death, the unknown, racial tension, and even superstitious beliefs are often incorporated into horror films and writings. With a genre such as this that is meant to create prey on the fears of views, it is still a question of why people still go to watch the movies. Why are we willing to sit through a whole film dedicated to our fears rather than opt for other films that are meant to do the opposite-comedy; relieving the stress of everyday life. By the end of this research study, it should be clear how Horror films are widely constructed around a societal terror.
Looking back on historical timelines from the 1960s, starting with the emergence of the second wave feminism (Thompson), it is clear why films that focused on female empowerment and female sexuality did really well on the big screen. Similarly, 1950’s featured films focusing on World War II aftermaths and effects where very successful, evidently horror films reflect the collective fear of the society during the specific era they were released. To begin I will explore my introductory question of why we as a society enjoy watching horror films. Stephen King, a renowned horror author, published an essay on this question titled “Why We Crave Horror Movies”. In this essay, he focuses on three important points: the first being wanting to prove to themselves and others that they could watch an entire horror film regardless of its scariness. The second was as a form of reassurance that they are societies version of ordinary and thirdly horror film provide an outlet for their own fear of aggression and violence (King). Conclusively, King is stating that every person has their own form of a monster within them and watching horror films lets us directly confront our demons.
Using a person fear as a point in films and literature is quite common. It started off with the tales of witches and the supernatural in addition to monsters under the bed era. During the 1960s-70s, sexual liberation amongst women was heavily fought for by women, their goal was to eventually get rid of societal norms that went again women having casual sex, dressing proactively, essentially behaviors considered to be damaging the traditional nuclear family. I observed that films during this era often showed the female lead suffering due to her non-feminine choices. In the movie The Birds (1963), Melanie, the lead character, is presented as a promiscuous lady -parading naked in Rome fountains, and impersonating a pet shop assistant in a bid to get noticed by the man she fancied- is tortured by a black, winged beast (Wilson). Walter in his journal article noticed that horror films are evidently set up in parallel to societies changes in culture and monumental movements. He noted that films Them! (1954) and Godzilla (1954) are a reflection of a major concern with the mass manufacturing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s, while the Aids Epidemic during the 1980s saw a revival of vampires as depicted in the movie The Lost Boys (1987) and finally Night of the Living Dead (1968) that was a symbolic movie depicting the dead soldiers of the Vietnam war.
A film ability to showcase shifts in society falls under cultural relevance, very common in the horror film genre as outlined previously. Horror movies that lean towards realism often have a greater sense of fear attached to it, this is because the directors of the film are forcing the viewers to place themselves in such a situation because of how realistic it may be. Furthermore, cultural relevance is a great thing to think about when creating a film because it is captivating for viewers who find solace in relatable movies that they can easily connect to their everyday lives.
The Vietnam War was in full force during the 1960s and finally ended in 1975. The war saw a casualty of more than 3.1 million lives lost (Mueller). This massive bloodshed led to a lot of opposition among certain classes in the United States, people at that time were also in complete shock of the horror that had just occurred. Soldiers who survived where returned home but suffered a great deal mentally because of the war. The surviving soldier would have reoccurring flashbacks of the way and was constantly fighting the demons of the war in their head, this condition would later be clinically labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Night of the Living Dead (1968) was directed by George Romero, it can be said he took notice of looming fear of the war amongst the public when he was creating this movie. Elliott Stein analyzed the movie in his critical writing and also noticed that “It traded the expressionist sets of the traditional fright flick for a neo-realistic style. Romero’s use of natural locations and grainy black and white gave the look and feel of a documentary. And this was not Transylvania, but Pennsylvania- this was Middle America at war, and the zombie carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam”. It is clear from Stein’s statement that it was meant to be a portrayal of the real situation and pain felt by the Vietnam war. A lot of scholars continued to pick up on the similarities including Rafael Alves Azevedo. He saw a parallel between the media coverage of Vietnam during that time and Night of the Living Dead. Night of the Living Dead was shot in black-and-white and is well known for its violent footages and authentic feel, the shooting of the film was eerily similar to the war footage shown during the news (Azevedo). In combination with the unstable shots, grainy filming and use of natural use of lightning and location, it gave the film the resemblance of a documentary style production (Stein).
Romero’s’ use of cinematography was clearly very deliberate to creating an authentic portrayal of the Vietnam war however, aside from his cinematographic elements, he relied heavily on language to aid the films authenticity. In Night of the Living Dead when a group of men are sent out to kill zombies, a television broadcast would label their mission as “search and destroy” which was also a common tactic used by soldiers during the Vietnam War. Another example of Romero’s’ use of language in the film was during the film one of the characters when talking about zombie death says, “We killed nineteen of them in this area”, this is similar to the actual news lines from the war (Azevedo). These similarities should not be dismissed as chance happenings, Romero is evidently trying to show the impact and actuality of the Vietnam War using a new film technique instead of simply comparing war soldiers to zombies.
In 1961, oral contraceptive pills were introduced worldwide, but despite babies where still rapidly being produced. During this period as well the drug Thalidomide was causing major health issues for expecting mothers who would take the drug in hopes of avoiding morning sickness (Waqas, Arfons, and Laz). Before the drug could be pulled off the shelf, it had already affected over 10,000 children with birth defects and another 40% of babies who suffered the effects of Thalidomide would die before their first birthday (Waqas, Arfons, and Laz). This was such a major crisis during that era that a horror film showcasing its effect on the society of that time was inevitable. This led to the birth of the horror film Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the movie follows Rosemary who is a mother of an unborn child believed to be Satan’s son. This film parallels the shame at women seeking abortion in that era, it was very taboo for abortion to be performed regardless if the baby was deformed or if childbirth posed a potential risk to mothers. The film, it frowned on Rosemary seeking an abortion despite the fetus is a result of a brutal rape. Rosemary was clearly peer pressured by the beliefs of that time to carry the baby to term, in the final clip of the movie, we see Rosemary holding the demonic baby in her hand while singing a lullaby, further cementing that although she did not want to birth Satan’s child, it is still her motherly responsibility to take care of the child as society values demands. If the Thalidomide Drug Crisis didn’t cause such havoc during the 1960s or the Vietnam war didn’t strike fear upon the 1960s community, it is safe to say that the concept of these various movies would have never existed.
Moving into the 1970s, people started having sex more openly outside of a traditional family unit, during this era divorce rates were astonishingly high and unprecedented. Societies fear shifted from deformed babies to child “abandonment”. The increase in divorce saw a lot of single-parent households, mainly women lead, in addition to the feminist movement steadily growing and almost at its peak. The standard of a nuclear family was being stripped and discarded this caused a lot of steers and focus on how this shift would affect the children of divorce and out of wedlock. The shattering of the traditional family unit became the new source of fear amongst people (Wilson). Horror film began taking the route of portraying horror from the setting of a home and the monster as a member of the people. The 1960s as explained above, portrayed these fears through movies such as Rosemary’s Baby with a mother’s child being the so-called “monster”, however, in the 1970s the monsters were portrayed as everyday children far different from Satan’s son that was known to be evil. In this new horror film era, the children would seemingly look normal making them hard to class as evil. The Exorcist (1973) despite its obvious focus on religion and faith, it can also be grouped into this category of movies that touched on the societal shifts in family units, and women financial independence. In the movie Chris MacNeil -Mother of Regan MacNeil- is an unmarried single successful actress, whose wealth can be seen from her luxurious home and employment of several caretakers, they oversee the upkeep of the home and look after her only daughter who she has custody over. Considering the family dynamic during the 1960s this “taboo” set up would have never been included in a film, but, due to the shift in society on traditional family units in the 1970s, this setting was appropriate. Her daughter, Regan MacNeil, is meant to be an example of a child from a broken home. The part of society that didn’t agree with divorce would always question how it would affect the children, in this movie we, however, see that Regan seems to be very well taken care off and enjoys upper-class activities such as playing with horses. Regan, however, becomes friends with an invisible entity she met at the basement, this happening when analyzed from the viewpoint of the 1970s era can be taken as the cause of Regan not growing up in a two-parent household. It makes us wonder if William Friedkin (Director of The Exorcist ) meant these events to show that maybe if Chris wasn’t so independent and successful she would have had more time to spend with her daughter, inevitably avoiding Regan to seek a friend in the basement. Also by Regan turning into a demon, it can also be symbolizing that woman should not be opting for a divorce and raising children on their own because the result is unfavorable.
Another movie to follow this pattern of a single-family unit with a possessed child is Carrie (1976). Carrie comes from a low-middle class single parent unit, who is abused and berated by her mother, Margaret, unlike Regan who comes from a loving family and a higher tax bracket. Carrie is not only abused at home but at school, she doesn’t fit into any real friend group, a real outsider. In both these films, the girls are portrayed as victims of divorce who eventually get possessed and whose parents try to purify them from the evil spirit, all of which can be a way for the directors to portray the notion that single-parent household is not good for children. Feminism, as noted, was also a very big part of the 1970 era and Carrie doesn’t fail to touch on the subject. Stephen King, whose book was adapted into Carrie, put forward that movie is in fact inspired by the societal push towards feminism at the time. He gives Carrie these supernatural abilities as a way for her to increase her feminine powers in a society that is pushing towards female empowerment but still constantly disrespecting women.
To conclude, horror film directors are often inspired by new societal fears and mindset when creating gory films. They focus on what viewers want to see and create a film from there, after the success of the documentary style success from Night of the Living Dead, films began to cater to issues happening around them. It was evident that despite the various fears from an era, people still wanted to see those fears on a big screen. The uncertainty of the war scared the 1960’s society but also drove them to watch Night of the Living Dead (1968), it allowed them to face their fears head-on in a “safe” environment -cinema-, during this era we also see the introduction of oral contraceptives and abortion stigma, which resulted in a domino effect of pregnant women self-medicating with Thalidomide leading to the film Rosemary’s Baby, depicting a baby born with a demonic defect. Finally, 1970s shift towards the fears of non-traditional households led to The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1976) both showcasing the children as suffering potentially as a result of the single-family household they grew up in. Societal fears of different eras most definitely have an effect on what type of films would excel at the box office.
- Azevedo, Rafael Alves. Fighting Two Wars: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as a Critique of 1960s American Society. 15 April 2015. June 2019.
- King, Stephen. “Why We Crave Horror Movies.” Across Cultures (1981): 497-499.
- Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001.
- Stein, Elliott. The Dead Zones. 7 January 2003. June 2019.
- Thompson, Becky. “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism.” Feminist Studies 28.2 (2002): 338.
- Walters, Glenn D. “Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model”.” Journal of Media Psychology 9.2 (2004).
- Waqas, Rehman, Lisa Arfons and Hillard Laz. “The Rise, Fall and Subsequent Triumph of Thalidomide: Lessons Learned in Drug Development.” Ther Adv Hematol 2.5 (2011): 291-308.
- Wilson, Karina. Horror Film History: A Decade by Decade Guide to the Horror Movie Genre. n.d. 12 June 2019.
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