The Horror Genre: Past, Present & Future
Niamh O’Neill examines the horror genre beside Sibelle Saglam’s playful photoshoots that spoof some of our favourite scary movies.
‘If movies are dreams of mass culture, horror movies are the nightmares’, said icon of the genre, Stephen King. Through a variety of monsters, zombies, ghosts and the scariest of them all, humans, our emotions are manipulated by the seemingly limitless and terrifying imaginations of horror film directors. They reflect the pervasive topical fears of a society, offering viewers a space to share in their collective anxieties. And we lap it up, revelling in that which makes us most uncomfortable.
The Journal of Media Psychology published a study which found people watch horror movies for three main reasons: tension, relevance and unrealism. There’s a biological reason for the enjoyment we get from scaring ourselves to the point of sickness. Watching a scary movie can actually be neuro-chemically comforting; after the period of terror, our brains will experience a dopamine release as part of the ‘rest and digest’ response. Through this experience our beliefs about risk are challenged, for we experience fear and still come out safe and secure.
Horror movies have come a long way since the George Méliès days of cauldrons and animated skeletons in the late 1800s. Across the decades there have been some breakthrough films that have come to define the subgenre of each era.
Firstly, rewinding back to the 60s – an era of rapid social change – horror functioned as a cautionary tale, warning against the danger of abandoning traditional values. When we talk about horror, particularly the slasher kind, it’s impossible not to mention Hitchcock’s cult classic, Psycho (1960). Not only was it one of the first to show explicit gore and violence against a female, but it was also the first to set up horror within the family context. The family had always been a place of safety and security, but Hitchcock turned this upside down.
The subsequent era of horror brims with throat-slitting rampages, and they’re a sure-fire recipe to make a whole lot of money; John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween grossed $70 million at the box office, and currently consists of a twelve-part franchise. It has also been attributed with the creation of the ‘Final Girl’ trope as all the female victims are killed just before or after having sex. These cash-grabbing slashers continued to dominate horror throughout the 70s and 80s. Films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) enjoyed so much financial success that sequels are still being made in this decade.
However, interestingly what came next was slasher’s self-contemplation, with Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) leading the way into the meta satirical age. Through varying levels of spoofy self-parody, films like Braindead (1992), Scream Queens (2015-16) and Scary Movie (2000-13) played on the defining themes. Horror parodies became popular because they articulated the staleness in the formulaic nature of the genre and confronted this predictability with comedy.
The British horror scene is often overlooked, when in fact we have made some important contributions. These include the likes of folk horror The Wicker Man (1973) An American Werewolf in London (1981) and eerie supernatural spook-fest, The Woman in Black (2012). Influenced by the gothic and taking advantage of Britain’s rugged, bleak landscape and ancient history, British horror differs greatly from the American-centric world which dominates the box office.
Next stop on the history of the genre is significantly more gruesome than its already-pretty-disgusting predecessors: the ‘Torture Porn’ era. Emerging from the horror womb covered in blood and guts, this particularly potent strain of sadistic violence dominated the screens in the early 21st century. Films like Saw (2004) and The Human Centipede(2010) thrived in a post 9/11 world where ideas concerning the necessity of torture as part of the war on terror were constantly part of a public conversation. The displays of highly graphic cruelty posed the question: can watching horror films be problematic for society? In a 1996 study Tamborini and Salomonson found that the more men watched sexually violent horror, the more likely they were to view that violence as humorous rather than offensive and degrading to women: essentially becoming desensitised. Although it’s not as simple as ‘man watches horror and no longer cares about women’, the above argument must be placed in the wider context of the way we discuss safety of women, especially in the public space. Horror films are part of the narrative that normalises violence.
Increasing self-awareness led to a development: the feminisation of horror. The lone survivor no longer had to be sweet and innocent, and could display masculine qualities in order to survive. She could have had sex and not die. The epitome of this trend was shown in the feminist cult classic Jennifer’s Body (2009) in which the eponymous protagonist-turned-antagonist, Jennifer, fails to be properly sacrificed to Satan by an all-male boy band, as she is not the virgin they believe her to be. The film, although originally a flop in the cinema, has now become a classic; satirising the trope that punishes women for their promiscuity.
Jordan Peele has played a key role in the genre’s recent transformation. Get Out (2017) was a pivotal moment in previously white-centric horror. Racial prejudice is masterfully satirised and conventional themes subverted; the antagonist is a beautiful young white woman; the Black protagonist survives and escapes the scene, whilst the majority of the white characters lie dead on the floor. Horror is a unique tool for processing trauma and can give production teams and audiences an outlet for emotions. What Peele executes so skilfully is the representation of Black trauma without exploiting it, avoiding lingering on scenes of racial violence and turning the film into ‘trauma porn’- as Amazon series ‘Them’ (2021) has been widely criticised for.
Finally, we arrive at the pandemic years; a living horror for many, a real-life global mission of survival. But also, an event which provides ample inspiration for the next series of horror movies. Already, a Zoom thriller-horror has been released: Rob Savage’s Host (2020)- described mortifyingly as a ‘computer-screen horror’, it was momentous in that it was created in lockdown, about lockdown, including all the associated anxieties of that time. Other Covid-related creations such as Songbird (2020) and Covid-21: Lethal Virus (2021), which show boundless mutations and life in the 200-and-something week of quarantine have enjoyed varying levels of success. In the current phase of the pandemic, which focuses heavily on the vaccine rollout, it is likely that we will soon see a fresh batch of zombie films that use the idea of science turning against us to articulate the climate of vaccine hesitancy and anti-vax movements. None of which I will be watching, real life is enough for me.
There’s something to be said about watching scary movies in quarantine though; we wanted to watch something worse than what’s happening outside our windows. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) had a renaissance as we found safety under our duvets. I personally watched Room (2015), where, for a good proportion of the film, Brie Larson’s character and her son are living in a small shed where they’ve been kept captive for many years. Safe to say, watching that did indeed make me feel a lot better about my own lockdown situation. Isolation and fear of contagion have lived at the core of the horror genre for years; and I have no doubt that we will see a heap of horrifying covid-related movies that, despite the immense tragedy of the pandemic, we will revel in like pigs in mud.