As a horror fan I frequently have to justify my love for the genre to people who don’t understand it. One of the biggest problems I find is the psychological connection many have to the genre. To many, horror is the lowest of the low – it panders to the worst in human nature. It exploits sex, race, gender and any number of -isms and hot button issues to offend, terrify or scare.
For example, watching an American slasher film like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) can be a rough slog through everything previously mentioned. The sub-genre often positions a virginal female lead in opposition to her surroundings — amorous peers engaged in all sorts of debauched activity. It then forces her to endure further abuse at the hands of a brute-as-audience-surrogate, who murders his way through her peers in a warped morality play. From a certain perspective, it can be seen as the worst parts of America’s puritanical history manifesting itself on-screen.
The thing is, this overlooks the ability of horror to stand as a form of fiction that can function as both subversive and empathetic. That same slasher film? Depending on your outlook, it could also be argued that it’s actually very much pro-woman, as shown in writer Carol Clover’s fantastic “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film,” which argues that the “final girl” is actually a process of forced identification wherein both female and male audiences are asked to step into the role of the lead and experience her struggle, allowing for a more ambiguous reading on how we experience gender in culture.
This also ignores the history of the genre to grapple with ideas and subjects so far removed from the mainstream they almost don’t exist. Films like Freaks (1932) and Ganja & Hess (1973) offered empathetic portrayals of groups outside the concept of “normal,” giving viewers of their respective eras glimpses into worlds they might not have known existed and by extension allowed for a broader understanding of the world in which we all live.
This is why horror is important – it’s a form of mass culture that can be used to handle ideas in a way that isn’t overtly preachy or condescending. Most people have not seen The Act of Killing (2013), and most will not; but I can’t think of a person I know who hasn’t seen Night of the Living Dead (1968). They’re both very much horror films, one in a terrifyingly literal sense and the other as a subversion of genre convention. Both also speak to the dangers of unchecked power and the dehumanization of the individual by groups, but one is an overt artistic statement directed at a small subset of like-minded people while the other covertly couches its politics in gut-munching and appealed to audiences who may not have been as receptive to that message without the phantasmagorical underpinnings.
This month is intended to highlight ways in which horror can speak to something more than “Guy in a mask kills a bunch of nude teens.”
10/9/14 – The Medium Is Murder: Fears of Changing Technology in ‘80s Genre Cinema
10/16/14 – Desperation Economics and the American Haunted House Film
10/23/14 – Becoming Human: Or, The Misconception of the Modern Zombie
10/30/14 – Shut Up, Dude: Gender Identity and the Slasher Film