Here’s to the Horror Film: A Measure of Our Times

I have the unenviable task of wrapping up the Morlocks’ week-long blogathon devoted to horror. Actually, most of us jumped the gun and wrote on horror movies or related subjects even before the blogathon began. I wish I were clever enough to offer an insightful summary or, at least, a show-stopping list of terrific horror movies, but I don’t think I can surpass the articles and lists already posted. Looking back over the blog topics for October, we covered everything from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein to non-horror movies that are horrific to specific films that touched us for personal reasons, such as Voices and the The Hypnotic Eye. Along the way, we speculated on the meaning of monsters, questioned standard interpretations of classics, and drew attention to sound as a technique of terror. Our observations and interpretations speak volumes about the depth and breadth of horror, and I tip my hat to my fellow Morlocks for their insightful explorations of the genre. I conclude our blogathon by offering some thoughts on a genre that cinephiles tend to embrace, though mainstream movie-goers seldom take it seriously.

I think the genre appeals to movie lovers partly because it is visually driven but also because it speaks so loudly and clearly about culture and society—about us. Fans of horror love a good thrill or scare, but it is the metaphors and subtexts that haunt us. They linger in our subconscious so that we cling to certain horror films long after they cease to be scary.

HADDONFIELD in 'HALLOWEEN': AN ORDINARY SUBURBAN NEIGHBORHOOD, BUT ISOLATED AND FRIGHTENING

For all its hideous monsters, gory violence, perverted sex, and gallons of blood, the horror genre is fairly conservative in its themes and subtexts because is about maintaining moral order within a small group, family, or community. The isolated settings of horror, whether it is The Old Dark House in Wales or a suburban neighborhood in Haddonfield on Halloween, goes hand in hand with the narrative focus on a small group of characters. The conflict in a horror film generally begins when one or more members of the group becomes out of harmony with their family, friends, or associates. To be out of harmony or outside the group is presented as “not normal” in the context of the film, perhaps even abnormal or out of sync with the moral or natural order of things.

THE LAB IN 'FRANKENSTEIN' IN A HIGH ANGLE, SUGGESTING THE PRESENCE OF GOD OR FATE.

Horror storylines seek to re-establish or restore order among the group, the family, or community. Order is restored because of the social institutions of our mainstream society—such as the bonds of family and marriage, the power of romantic love, or faith in religion. In that way, the horror genre validates the traditional ideology, institutions, and ideals that define our culture. I read with interest fellow Morlock davidkalat’s post on Universal’s Frankenstein in which he questioned the standard interpretation of the film as a rebuke against playing God. Davidkalat’s interpretation holds that the Frankenstein story is a metaphor about our relationship with God, in which we question the methods and intent of a Supreme Being. While a thoughtful argument, especially if you take Mary Shelley’s original story into consideration, I still lean toward the traditional reading of the film as a criticism of science attempting to play God or control nature. The good doctor is clearly presented as out of harmony with his community and fiancée, so his methods and ambitions are painted as aberrant, or at least abnormal. The opening scene in which he digs up a body is as visually significant as the emphasis on his scientific equipment: Christ on the cross reminds us that only God can resurrect the dead, while Victor thoughtlessly throws dirt in the face of the figure of Death. While you can disagree with the horror film’s conservative take on social institutions—like religion—religious faith is nonetheless important in classic horror, and it weighs heavily on a genre-based reading of the original Frankenstein. While I am not particularly religious, I like that the genre has a strict morality of right and wrong, a clear line between normal and abnormal, and a rigid division between good and evil.

THE BABY IN 'IT'S ALIVE' (1974) SUGGESTED THAT ALL IS NOT WELL WITHIN THE NUCLEAR FAMILY.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when the politically liberal Film School Generation experimented with cinematic conventions, horror films began to question our social institutions and reveal that, for some, the American ideals were lies. The nuclear family, along with traditional views of women, were under attack in horror films. The nuclear family was presented as a corrupt institution rotting from within (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and the act of childbirth was depicted as a horrific event (The Brood; Rosemary’s Baby). Religious figures were absent, tested, or part of the problem (Carrie). Children, who in the past needed to be saved from evil, were now the devil or little monsters (It’s Alive; The Other). Many horror movies from this era did not restore order at the end because our social institutions were exposed by many to be unfair, unreliable, or not up to the task of protecting society. When those out of harmony are not brought back into the fold, and order is not restored , it is unsettling, except when endings are tailored to ensure endless sequels.

Personally, movies of any era that feature chilling depictions of diabolical kids give me the creeps. Whether they play a small role, like the twin girls in The Shining or the Little Girl as the Devil in Toby Dammit, or whether they are the central focus of the story, children make the best monsters. Horror films with monstrous children are sometimes interesting commentary on modern-day parenting skills, or lack thereof. In The Exorcist, Regan invites the Devil into her house because she suffers the ill effects of divorce. Her father, who is never seen in the film, neglects her as he cavorts in Europe, while her devoted mother is busy working long days as an actress. The divorce rate climbed during the 1970s, and magazines were filled with articles about the impact of divorce on children. The Exorcist reminded us that neglected children often fall in with bad company as Regan falls prey to the ultimate bad influence. The Ring featured one of the most frightening-looking kids I have ever seen in horror film. With her long, stringy hair hanging over her face, and her herky-jerky movements, Samara is no image of childhood innocence, and she is the cause of death for several people who have watched a forbidden video. The main character is a busy single mother who works as a reporter. When her young son watches the tape by accident, she has a week to unravel the mystery and find a solution. To me, The Ring offered a criticism of busy, modern parents who too often use the television as a babysitter without considering the possible long-term consequences.

THE DEVIL IN FELLINI'S 'TOBY DAMMIT' IS A DEMONIC-LOOKING CHILD IN WHITE.

The identifying characteristic of the horror film—and the one sure to excite most horror fans—is the presence of a monster. No matter how ugly or unrecognizable, most monsters have a connection to humans: They are human, used to be human, are deformed or mutated humans, or were made by a human. But, they are also unnatural, supernatural, or abnormal, and they prey on humans. In other words, they are the Other. Contact with the Other upsets the moral or natural order and pulls humans out of harmony with their group. The monster or the Other symbolizes some dark or undesirable human behavior that the group wants to control. No matter how hideous or depraved, the Other—the monster—is actually something we can’t openly face about ourselves. But, anything that is repressed or suppressed eventually comes out, and the horror narrative restores order by reigning in any dark, evil, or undesirable behavior represented by the Other. The Other can remind us of age-old dilemmas and fears that nag at us, such as sexual repression (vampires), the inability to control animal-like violence (werewolves), and fear of disease (zombies). Or, it can reflect issues and preoccupations of a specific time and place: Any horror film or thriller that depicts terror in the skies is a nod to our current fear of terrorists, from Snakes on a Plane to Red Eye.

'THE RING': MY VOTE FOR SCARIEST CHILD IN HORROR FILMS

I learned a lot about horror as a barometer of society by reading the work of Robin Wood, who found much depth in the genre. I never appreciated the richness of horror until I read his essays in an anthology titled American Nightmares, which prompted me to read more by him. Though a scholar, Wood never wrote in that tedious academic style marked by arcane jargon that alienates movie lovers from cinema historians. Remembering the framework and conventions of horror as introduced by Wood in his writings has helped interpret the imagery and ferret out the subtexts of many a horror film, even those that aren’t great movies. If you are a fan of horror, I recommend his writings; if you are not, I encourage you to read through the blog posts of the Morlocks from the last month, and give the genre a second look.

Happy Halloween!

16 Responses Here’s to the Horror Film: A Measure of Our Times
Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 31, 2011 3:13 pm

Great way to wrap up our month of horror at the Movie Morlocks! I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s posts this month even if I haven’t had time to comment on them all. I really wanted to jump into the conversation about FRANKENSTEIN started from davidkalat’s post but never got the chance. It’s interesting to read his and your own take on the topic. Mary Shelley became a very religious person later in life and was extremely weary of modern medicine (the modern medicine of her own time naturally) after loosing 3 children and her husband as well as other family members and I think that aspect of her personality can be found in her work. I’m not a religious person myself but I love FRANKENSTEIN for the important questions it asks, which have become more urgent with each passing decade.

And I’m glad you brought up the topic of creepy kids! Someone mentioned them in a previous comment thread and I hope they get the chance to see your post.

Happy Halloween fellow Morlocks!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 31, 2011 3:13 pm

Great way to wrap up our month of horror at the Movie Morlocks! I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s posts this month even if I haven’t had time to comment on them all. I really wanted to jump into the conversation about FRANKENSTEIN started from davidkalat’s post but never got the chance. It’s interesting to read his and your own take on the topic. Mary Shelley became a very religious person later in life and was extremely weary of modern medicine (the modern medicine of her own time naturally) after loosing 3 children and her husband as well as other family members and I think that aspect of her personality can be found in her work. I’m not a religious person myself but I love FRANKENSTEIN for the important questions it asks, which have become more urgent with each passing decade.

And I’m glad you brought up the topic of creepy kids! Someone mentioned them in a previous comment thread and I hope they get the chance to see your post.

Happy Halloween fellow Morlocks!

Posted By Emgee : October 31, 2011 4:26 pm

“And I’m glad you brought up the topic of creepy kids! Someone mentioned them in a previous comment thread and I hope they get the chance to see your post.”

I do! Great to read your take on this subject;for me one of the frightening things about children in horror films is the conflict between their assumed innocence and their abject, even violent behaviour in this type of movie. A threat from somebody you’d least expect it from is possibly even scarier than the threat from strangers.

If i have to sum up the appeal of horror movies in one sentence it is their power to unsettle your feeling of safety. Are you sure there’s nobody behind the curtain?

Posted By Emgee : October 31, 2011 4:26 pm

“And I’m glad you brought up the topic of creepy kids! Someone mentioned them in a previous comment thread and I hope they get the chance to see your post.”

I do! Great to read your take on this subject;for me one of the frightening things about children in horror films is the conflict between their assumed innocence and their abject, even violent behaviour in this type of movie. A threat from somebody you’d least expect it from is possibly even scarier than the threat from strangers.

If i have to sum up the appeal of horror movies in one sentence it is their power to unsettle your feeling of safety. Are you sure there’s nobody behind the curtain?

Posted By swac : October 31, 2011 5:16 pm

Love the creepy girl in TOBY DAMMIT, but she probably wouldn’t exist if Mario Bava hadn’t been there two years earlier with his girl ghost in (OPERAZIONE PAURA) KILL BABY KILL. And both of those lead me mentally to think of the later DON’T LOOK NOW, with a switch from white to red.

Posted By swac : October 31, 2011 5:16 pm

Love the creepy girl in TOBY DAMMIT, but she probably wouldn’t exist if Mario Bava hadn’t been there two years earlier with his girl ghost in (OPERAZIONE PAURA) KILL BABY KILL. And both of those lead me mentally to think of the later DON’T LOOK NOW, with a switch from white to red.

Posted By suzidoll : October 31, 2011 5:42 pm

I was going to talk about VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, PET SEMETARY, and other creepy kid movies, but I didn’t want this tangent to take over the whole post, so I backed off. I am glad others respond to this trope of horror as well. I am not wild about children in general, especially those who have their parents wrapped around their fingers. I always think that horror films are exposing what children are really like but parents are too blind to see it!

Posted By suzidoll : October 31, 2011 5:42 pm

I was going to talk about VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, PET SEMETARY, and other creepy kid movies, but I didn’t want this tangent to take over the whole post, so I backed off. I am glad others respond to this trope of horror as well. I am not wild about children in general, especially those who have their parents wrapped around their fingers. I always think that horror films are exposing what children are really like but parents are too blind to see it!

Posted By medusamorlock : October 31, 2011 6:10 pm

Suzi, I love your last comment about kids — parents are definitely blind! I’m glad our parents must have also suffered similar blindspots regarding us, too! :-) Great post!

Posted By medusamorlock : October 31, 2011 6:10 pm

Suzi, I love your last comment about kids — parents are definitely blind! I’m glad our parents must have also suffered similar blindspots regarding us, too! :-) Great post!

Posted By JK : October 31, 2011 10:34 pm

That “strict morality of right and wrong” sure comes in handy when the devil is turned loose in our lives!

I have to agree with THE RING. It managed to creep me out–and with a PG-13 rating! Horror filmmakers, think about that!

But my favorite scary kid film has always been THE OMEN. What would you do if you found out that the child you thought was yours (or at least acted like it) was really the son of Satan arriving to usher in the end of the world? Loved that story.

Posted By JK : October 31, 2011 10:34 pm

That “strict morality of right and wrong” sure comes in handy when the devil is turned loose in our lives!

I have to agree with THE RING. It managed to creep me out–and with a PG-13 rating! Horror filmmakers, think about that!

But my favorite scary kid film has always been THE OMEN. What would you do if you found out that the child you thought was yours (or at least acted like it) was really the son of Satan arriving to usher in the end of the world? Loved that story.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 31, 2011 11:31 pm

One of my favorite topics: Creepy kids in movies. Not only was Samara in The Ring creepy, but Naomi Watts’s son was also creepy. That kid was also kind of creepy in the TV movie version of A Wrinkle in Time (don’t bother). That kid is just plain creepy.

I think The Other and The Bad Seed are based on real life kids and how someone who was on the outside saw them for what they really were, unlike they’re snowed parents. At times they acted really sweet and angelic, but they were capable of terrible things, like so many children are. “My little angel isn’t capable of doing something so awful…” That’s what you think. My sister thinks the sun rises and sets in my nephew’s posterior region, but he can often be quite nasty and full of spite. I should write a screenplay…

Posted By dukeroberts : October 31, 2011 11:31 pm

One of my favorite topics: Creepy kids in movies. Not only was Samara in The Ring creepy, but Naomi Watts’s son was also creepy. That kid was also kind of creepy in the TV movie version of A Wrinkle in Time (don’t bother). That kid is just plain creepy.

I think The Other and The Bad Seed are based on real life kids and how someone who was on the outside saw them for what they really were, unlike they’re snowed parents. At times they acted really sweet and angelic, but they were capable of terrible things, like so many children are. “My little angel isn’t capable of doing something so awful…” That’s what you think. My sister thinks the sun rises and sets in my nephew’s posterior region, but he can often be quite nasty and full of spite. I should write a screenplay…

Posted By suzidoll : November 1, 2011 12:39 am

Couldn’t help but think of my post this evening as the “little monsters” were in my neighborhood trick-or-treating. What evil mischief were they up to? !!!

Dukeroberts: You are right about the little boy being creepy, too. But, I didn’t notice it so much at first, because Samara is so freaky scary. He kind of slips up on you.

Posted By suzidoll : November 1, 2011 12:39 am

Couldn’t help but think of my post this evening as the “little monsters” were in my neighborhood trick-or-treating. What evil mischief were they up to? !!!

Dukeroberts: You are right about the little boy being creepy, too. But, I didn’t notice it so much at first, because Samara is so freaky scary. He kind of slips up on you.

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