Horror Movies, Why We Love [Some of] Them
Why [do we pay to watch horror films]? Some of the reasons are simple and obvious. To show we can, that we are not afraid, that we can survive the roller coaster…We also go to reestablish our feelings of essential normality.
- Stephen King, “Why We Crave Horror Movies”
It is a right of passage. The first horror film. Every Halloween, millions sit down to watch or rewatch movies where people are vivisected. Foolish teens meander down dark corridors. Vampire bite virgins in their beds. In the 1930’s, people trembled as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff occupied the silver screen, bringing Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to life. However, it may be hard to believe that Dracula and Frankenstein frightened anyone from our modern standpoint, after nearly a century of fictitious and real world horrors.
It is no secret that some horror films lose their power over the years, and, while the aforementioned films are undeniably great, they may no longer be “scary.” But what is scary? Surely not just a series of “Boos!” and dark corridors. People can handle more than that. If anything, overexposure removes the fear from a spooky monster or trope.
Only the very best films rise to prominence in history. Films that are both good and scary. Films that capitalize on something a little more than just jump scares. There have been numerous films that found success in their day, but failed because they failed to capitalize on true, underlying terrors.
But what does that even mean?
Look at Years Past
Like most love affairs, the public’s love for horror is inherently conditional. Looking at the scope of horror will establish that trends come and go out of style.
In the 1920’s, the greatest horror films dealt with physical deformity. Phantom of the Opera featured a man twisted on both the outside and inside. Nosferatu‘s Count Orlock had more in common with a rodent than a human being. During the 30’s, elements of this remained, but had taken a slightly more metaphorical approach. Universal’s vast catalog of horror films dealt with monsters that perverted human nature, but could very well look normal. Dr. Frankenstein played God. Dracula corrupted purity. Im-Ho-Tep defied death and tradition to find his own happiness. The Invisible Man–well, obvious explanation as to why he’s out there. Even lesser known films like The Black Cat dealt with very clear perversions of nature. Boris Karloff’s character is essentially a devil worshiping necrophiliac. And the hero (Bela Lugosi) skins him alive in a cruel, sadistic fashion.
The clear conclusion here is that horror films capitalized on different societal fears in different eras.
But why is this?
Take a look back at the 20’s. Post-World War I. People went to war whole, but came back broken and damaged. Some lost limbs, but many more came back with invisible scars. Emotional scars. While today we understand PTSD and trauma far more, back then the soldiers were essentially told to man up and deal with it. This caused many to go into deep depressions, disconnecting from society.
And the movies served as a means to capture the distrust and pain.
Then comes the 1950’s–with the Atomic Age, the Cold War, and McCarthy Hearings. People feared that science would bring about the end times, or, if not science, then the end times came in the form of groups of people different from them. A “colder, unified” people. When one looks back at the horror films from that era, one finds horror films capitalizing on these societal anxieties. For those fearing science, you have Godzilla and Them, monsters birthed from atomic warfare. On the Cold War front, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Throw in the infamous Roswell Incident and UFO Mania, and now aliens pop up. The Thing From Another World. Why not combine it all and get the masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still?
The 70’s were a world unraveled. Post-Vietnam, post-Charles Manon, post-MLK assassination. Nothing felt right. Order that had dictated society for years fell away. 1968 saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, both obvious responses to real-world trauma at the time. This continued with The Exorcist, where even the innocence of a child is no longer safe.
Again, these are the master pieces. The ones that stand the test of time. And, again, one can do this with every decade. And many have. But, while that is captivating, perhaps what is more interesting is when horror films don’t connect.
Or, at least, might not connect at the time.
There are many reasons why horror films may fail. One of the most obvious being that they might just suck. Ed Wood made a career (or at least tried to) making low-quality horror films, many of which paid tribute to his favorite films growing up. Bride of the Monster is a z-grade movie where Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist making monsters in a laboratory. This contains all the elements of a horror film from the 30’s, from the set design to casting Lugosi. Sure, the production values are awful and the acting is wooden, but, had this been released 20 years earlier, it might have found success. But he tried making a 30’s horror film in a very un-30’s environment. Even his later “classic” Plan 9 from Outer Space had a 1930’s and 40’s sensibility while trying also to capitalize on 50’s tropes (aliens, most notably). Yet, even in an era where low-quality horror films found some traction, these films remained forgotten until after Ed Wood’s death.
The fact that Wood’s films failed to impress critics is almost irrelevant as to why they failed financially. A lot of lame films found success in their time by finding an audience who, at that time, wanted what they offered. In the 1980’s, Friday the 13th stood atop all the competition. The films are fun popcorn films, but aren’t really that well-written, well-acted, or anything. The appeal comes from watching teens get sliced up, and most of those teens are fairly forgettable. Meanwhile, a movie like John Carpenter’s The Thing, itself a remake of The Thing From Another World, failed at the box office and with critics. No one liked it…at the time. Now, most horror fans regard it as one of the greatest horror films ever made. At the time, no one cared.
Why is that?
Perhaps the greatest example of an undeniably great horror film failing at its time is Peeping Tom. The film came out in 1960, the same year as Psycho. Both are remarkably similar films, except that Peeping Tom ruined the career of its director, failed to impress critics, but succeeded at disturbing audiences. Only years later did anyone actually admit the film was pretty good.
If one accepts the theory that horror films thrive on the cultural fears of their era, then the reasons why these films all failed in their day becomes obvious. Ed Wood made nostalgic movies from a time past. Only when ore people became nostalgic for the past did anyone discover his films. John Carpenter’s remake came a few years too early, and only now in an era where paranoia has overtaken our society, in a post-AIDS era, can we truly fear a movie about a microscopic alien that can turn the people you trust into Lovecraftian monstrosities. And only now, after the hardship of the 60’s, can people appreciate a film detailing the cruel underbelly of crime.
This happened even in the 30’s. After making Dracula, Tod Browning had the chance to make his dream project: Freaks. The film nearly destroyed Browning’s career. The world wouldn’t be ready for that film until years later.
All of these films are “great” movies. Plan 9 from Outer Space may be the most poorly made film before The Room, but it is hard to forget it once one sees it. The rest are part of the classic horror pantheon. They all had either memorable characters, memorable dialogue, memorable visuals, or something else that kept them stuck in the public consciousness for years.
But in their day no one saw them.
If one takes into account that great horror films exploit the fears of their era, this is logical. But what about the opposite? What of horror films that lacked anything beyond the exploitation of fear in their day?
Have you seen Dracula lately? Most of Universal’s Horror films hold up (the scene from Frankenstein where the monster innocently drowns a young girl is still a profoundly disturbing moment), but Bela Lugosi’s star-making role feels…underwhelming. From a technical standpoint, it is filmed like a stage play and the whole thing feels stilted. Whenever Bela Lugosi isn’t on screen, the film is dull.
Let’s move forward in time. The 50’s brought a ton of Creature Features to the cinema. Films like The Crawling Eye and Tarantula filled the tropes of the great horror films…but were only walking in the footsteps of titans. They lacked something else, something truly scary. While successful in their day, now they’re mostly forgotten.
They pioneered something society feared at that time. They traversed territory that WAS unknown, but now no longer is. Unless you have characters, scenes, imagery, etc to keep a story memorable, it fails to move a person. If horror films are reactions to societal issues, there needs to be an element of universal fear that keeps things potent. Not just the fear of its time, but the fears of all time.
Frankenstein is a universal morality tale that never loses its potency because man will always fear what science will bring next, but the film presents everything in a manner that feels meaningful. The audience is shown Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession. Shown is clear ignorance of the risks and flaws. But also is shown that he genuinely believes he is onto something amazing. The monster in turn isn’t evil, but actually an innocent child rushed into a world that cares little for it. Society hates him because of his nature. That is something profound, and that is something that remains with the audience after they go home.
The Exorcist succeeds where so many other similar horror films fail because the first half of the film tries to rationalize the supernatural elements of its film with science. Only when science fails do they suggest “maybe take Reagan to an exorcist.” And, even then, the church doesn’t take her seriously. Compare this to literally every other exorcism film since, where the first solution is “grab the holy water and let’s go!” There is no sense at any point in these imitations that the authorities won’t know exactly how to treat the possessed victim from the get-go. There is never any doubt about what is going on. The closest a modern horror film has come to this is The Taking of Deborah Logan, where the symptoms of possession are confused with dementia, and, until the serious supernatural stuff starts happening, it isn’t even clear if the film IS a possession movie. Think of how often in this world people go undiagnosed with serious symptoms until it is too late, and, even then, the possible cure for the individual’s ails is either “experimental” or “unsafe.”
The point is that these films that survive age well. They tap into more than just the fears of their day. The films that exist only in their era can no longer survive outside it. And, therefore, fade away.
What do you think? Leave a comment.