Shared Nightmares: Horror films and society as mirrors
by Ronald Hogan

"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
                                                                                                                                                       --Stephen King

Opening Credits

     Since the beginning of time, there have been few things that unite people like a good, scary story. Early man huddled around the campfire telling spook tales about the vengeful animal Gods waiting to strike down the unwary hunter. Indeed, one of the earliest stories recorded in Western Europe is Beowulf, about a man and his adventures battling Grendel, Grendel's mother (setting up for Friday the 13th, perhaps?), and the dragon. The tales took on a more religious tone in the Middle Ages, but the descriptions of the demons of Hell no doubt frightened those misbehaving peasants straight from the fields to the Church with tithes in hand. The play Dr. Faustus, a traditional and popular tale adapted into a play by Christopher Marlowe, is an excellent example of a medieval horror play with graphic depictions of Hades, ghosts, and even Mephistopheles himself making an appearance. The vast and lonely stretches of the old West were full of spook stories and tall tales. One story known by many children is the story of the prospector who, in a fit of hungry desperation, cuts off his deceased partner's big toe and makes soup from it only to be haunted by the ghost of that very same partner (or possibly indigestion). Even now ghost stories exist, both as horror films and the quaint colloquial stories known dismissively as urban legends. These stories are designed and disseminated in order to frighten children and teenagers away from forbidden behavior frowned upon by their parents, which is why so many urban legends involve drugs, drinking, excessive partying, talking to strangers, and having sex in the back seat of the car.

     Disturbing works of creativity are no longer relegated to Christian morality plays and cautionary tales designed to frighten gullible teenagers, though gullible teenagers do serve to pad the box office and body count of this genre. As new media are invented, horror subject matter is oftentimes the first thing to be unleashed on an unsuspecting audience. Georges Melies is credited with a horror film, The Devil's Castle, in 1896. The first horror film made in America would be Thomas Edison's version of Frankenstein, and one-reel horrors about 'vamps,' or conniving women, were seen as early as 1909. In the 1950's, when comic books were truly gaining their steam amongst the youth of America, William H. Gaines' company EC Comics led the way with such titles as "Vault of Horror" and "Tales From the Crypt". Interestingly enough, by the time television came into being, there were already censorship organizations in place over both the comic book world (with the Comics Code Authority) and the movie world (The Motion Picture Association of America) determining what could and could not be shown to the general public, yet network standards and practices did not stop early TV from hosting such standout horror anthologies such as The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

     Not only are horror movies still being made, they are still doing astounding amounts of business at the box office. Taking figures compiled by the Website Box Office Mojo, an example would show that the 33 filmed adaptations or sequels to the works of horror writer Stephen King have grossed an astonishing 836.9 million dollars in unadjusted gross. The three films in Wes Craven's Scream series have raked in a healthy 293.5 million unadjusted dollars. The seven films in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, excluding 2003's $81.9 million dollar box office for Freddy vs. Jason, have dragged home 224.8 million dollars, and the 10 films under the Friday the 13th banner (once again leaving out Freddy vs. Jason) have impaled a healthy 234.6 million dollars. Frightening people seems to be very good business, but why?

     People will always want to be scared, because by being scared, we find out more about ourselves than would be possible otherwise. One never knows what kind of person lurks beneath one's skin until the things that one fears most in this world have confronted them. By facing and conquering our fears, we become something more than what we were before, and horror movies prove to be an easy way to get the thrill of conquest without the danger of actually facing off with a chainsaw-wielding inbred man wearing a mask made out of human skin and a butcher's apron splattered with the blood of our friends.

     If horror movies use the collected fears of our society, then what exactly do those horror films say about the society as a whole, and how does the changing subject matter of what is considered a horror film reflect the changing fears and worries of a society entering a new millennium? Perhaps an easy way to show how horror movies change with the times would be to track the changes in the subject matter of horror films from the earliest movies from each specific sub genre to the current standard-bearers of the horror archetype. These movies, after all, are meant to scare the viewer and to fulfill the public's desire to be frightened, so naturally the movies that scare humans will change in response to the changes in the ideas that scare.

     There are three types of general horror films in the opinion of the author. The most prevalent type of horror film being produced since the fall of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, is the film with the premise of science gone awry and the repercussions this has for the rest of the world. Most zombie movies, disease and aftermath films, and most movies involving genetic mutations are considered science gone awry films. A second type of horror film, popular especially in the late 70's and early 80's, is the idea of the human being as a mad killer. These are films about serial killers, rogue cops, or random murderous groups of freaks that are filmed on the cheap and filled with naked, brutalized bits of usually female flesh. The third type of horror film concerns itself with solely supernatural, or perhaps a better term to use would be the phrase 'non-human', horrors that strike out from beyond the grave, or in some cases, from within their graves. Movies involving demonic possession, ghosts, and evil spirits would be considered supernatural thrillers.

     What is the attraction to fear? Why do people enjoy being scared? Joe Bob Briggs, noted "drive in movie" critic, says that "(W)e like to frighten ourselves so that everything else in our lives seems LESS(sic) frightening" (14 Oct. 2003). Roger Ebert states that good horror movies "can exorcise our demons" ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"). Horror movies affect the watcher in tangible physical ways, as well. Fear stimulates the 'fight or flight' response, which kicks off with a rush of endorphins that make the body more alert, tighten the muscles, and slow down nonessential functions like digestion. The scared person's pupils dilate, their heart beats faster, and that person also has an increased supply of blood flow to the brain (Sheslow Kids' Health). Being afraid is similar in some respects to sexual arousal, and the feelings imparted to someone by watching a horror movie or riding a roller coaster can be very, very pleasant. Most psychology texts refer to the condition fear as a state of arousal, and studies have proven that there is only the state of arousal and the state of non-arousal, and the brain is what determines after the arousal whether or not the sensation should be anger, fear, hate, or sexual in nature (James-Lange Theory of Emotion). The David Cronenberg film Crash deals with a set of couples who cannot achieve sexual satisfaction without the aid of the fight or flight adrenaline jolt that accompanies a car wreck, which further illustrates the connection between fear, sex, and cinema.

     Horror movies appeal to the viewer in a manner awfully similar to the manner that adult films or adult content in films do. Fear/sexual content stimulates a response, and those two forces are the impetus behind basically every deed, great or small, undertaken by human kind according to Sigmund Freud and his followers. Horror movies act as sort of a Freudian reflection of reality. Everything devolves down to sex and violence, which is why so many horror films take great lengths to exploit sex as a secondary trait to the plot. The sex in horror movies is simply an added bonus, and strangely enough, the sex in horror films seems to point towards a perversely conservative attitude towards teenage copulation. After all, as the character Randy mentions in Wes Craven's Scream, two of the major rules of horror films are "you can never drink or do drugs" and "you can never have sex". Horror movies both question, some would say even assault, our traditional values while at the same time reaffirming the positives of those values.

Science Gone Wrong

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race."
                                                                                                                --Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski

"Oh Hubert, you and your atomic monsters!"
                                                                                                                --Mom, Futurama

     Despite all the positive things that science has provided for humanity, there is still an inherent distrust towards members of the scientific community. There is just something about scientifically minded or medically minded people that just strikes an ill chord with the lesser-educated people of the world. Perhaps there are too many bad doctor visits in the shared unconscious of humanity to ever completely trust those in white lab coats and scrubs, or perhaps Joe Average's distaste for Dr. So and So stems from a sort of educational penis envy-type of situation. It's well known that Americans do not like intellectuals unless they appear to be harmless crackpots like Einstein. Whatever the case, people do not trust intellectuals and the watershed moment in this high-stakes war for public image was the notable Presidential race between Harry S. Truman and Thomas Dewey.

     Dewey was, by all accounts, a very intelligent man. He was a lawyer, with a college education, unlike Truman, who was dismissed as "a little man [who] was inept" ( Truman played up his common-man image, stumping in small towns and rural areas, and he won over the affection of the American people because of his unsophisticated lifestyle. Truman was, after all, a Missouri boy. Dewey seemed a bit snobbish and aloof, thanks in part to his low-key campaign, while Truman showed himself to be a friendly man of the people.

     Americans blame the advancements of science for economic hardships, which furthers their distaste for intellectuals. "[America's] relationship to science and technology is complex and increasingly embattled. A puritanical suspicion of the intellect is still deeply ingrained in the American character; ideas [. . .] are still regarded in many quarters as a slippery slope to hell" (Skal 25). There is no surprise, then, when scientists become 'mad' and when scientific discoveries lead to horrible events in the annals of America's popular films. Science does, indeed, go awry.

     One of the more common monster ideas from the 50's was the idea that atomic testing and the atomic bomb itself could cause normal, everyday creatures or normal, everyday people, to enlarge themselves to incredible proportions. Insects and arachnids, because of their generally-creepy look and the fact that many people are deathly afraid of crawling insects, are very common fodder for the 50's nukesploitation films meant to condemn the forbidden knowledge and dangerous proliferation of the atomic bomb. People fear the Bomb; people fear the bug, which makes the two a highly potent combination.

     The threatening atomic monsters in the 1954 film Them! would be enormously sized ants mutated and agitated by atomic testing. The ants in the film serve both as an early conservationist's dream and a warning against the spreading Communist threats faced by the democratic western world. "[T]he ants [are] products of nuclear tests [. . . and] they also symbolize the cold and faceless efficiency of the Soviet army and intelligence machine" (Freedland 71). Like many of the films produced in the period, Them! is a parable of the Cold War meant to prey on America's fear of both the power of the Soviet Union and the uncertainty of the atomic bomb era.

     The majority of the horror films from the 50's enforce these parables, though not necessarily both parables at the same time. The classic movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers is obviously related to Communist infiltration of the suburbs of growing America. Films like The Amazing Colossal Man and Godzilla/Gojira stand as parables against the rampant testing and usage of atomic weapons, almost serving as early environmentalist works. However, technology and time develop new enemies for Americans to fear, and the atomic monster story has run its course. These movies are now considered hokey, despite 1980's remakes of Body Snatchers and Godzilla.

     By the middle 1960s, thanks in part to Kubrick's satirical Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the monster no longer had to be some sort of atomic mutant or beast gone awry, though those genre conventions still exist today and even have taken on a new role. Indeed, the atomic bomb was becoming an afterthought, as skyrocketing technology levels and increased spending in the field of weapons research replaced the Bomb with a much-scarier threat. The idea of genetically manipulated diseases, chemical and biological warfare, and the rise and sudden reappearance of unknown or formerly eradicated strains of virii and diseases in isolated corners of the world has returned with a vengeance thanks to the recent SARS scares in Toronto and China.

     The antagonists, and to some extent protagonists, in horror films were no longer necessarily deformed monsters created by the perverted sciences of the intellectual, but seemingly ordinary human beings. The brilliant but flawed British film 28 Days Later does more than use its raging hoarded of murderous medical maladies as a parable for the violence and rage bottled up within the human being, the creatures, called Infected by the film's normal protagonists, are themselves perfectly normal and perfectly human, though in the climax of the film an enraged Jim blurs the line between Infected subhuman monsters and human monsters.

     The Infected in the Danny Boyle film are both the creation of mad scientists, who were experimenting on humanoid primates by infecting them with a blood-transmitted virus known only as 'Rage', which awakened the dormant fury of the human animal. The Infected are still humans, as they need to breathe and eat, yet they have lost all capability for rational thought, compassion, and seemingly all higher brain functions not related to stalking and killing other humans. The blankly angry faces and vacantly hateful eyes of the Infected mirror the blank slate faces and casual calmness associated with another human monster, the serial killer. The Infected serve as the synthesis between the monster as created by science and the subject of the next section of this work, which deals with human monsters like Henry Lee Lucas, Ed Gein, and Ted Bundy.

Man's Inhumanity Towards Man

"She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"
                                                                                                                         --Norman Bates, Psycho

"I just can't take no pleasure in killing. There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it."
                                                                                        --Drayton Sawyer, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

     One of the most disturbing aspects of the horror genre, other than perhaps the fear of widespread and uncontrollable viral or bacteriological plague infecting and killing all of mankind, would be the popularization of serial killers. Both inspired by and inspiring real-life killers (John Hinkley was inspired by the character Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver), movie serial killers come across as "all-powerful, unpredictable, and, above all, sources of hideous violence" whose approach to their fellow humans is "loathsome" (Freeland 180). In science gone awry films and in most traditional horror movies, the killer is immediately recognizable. Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolfman, and Dracula are Universal's icons, immortalized in postage stamps and on thousands of tee shirts. These beasts are acceptable to society because they are easily recognizable threats. These characters are well known and accepted by the general public, no thanks in part to a string of mediocre comedies involving Abbot and Costello meeting various monsters, and trashy, inferior films where Dracula fights Billy the Kid or where The Monster tangles with the Invisible Man.

     While movie slashers who deliver bodies in bulk may well be immortalized in postage form, the iconic 80's figures of Freddy Kreuger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers have become a modern-day Universal-style monster stable. Thanks in part to the great success of the crossover Freddy vs. Jason, will sequels pitting Freddy vs. Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Jason vs. the animals from Critters (tiny carnivorous space creatures with an appetite for human flesh and the ability to fire porcupine-like spines from their rotund bodies), all New Line Cinema properties, be far behind? Given that Hollywood filmmaking practices have not particularly changed since the Universal days, it will only be a matter of time before future crossovers and sequels will be planned. While there are trading cards honoring famous murderers, there will never be a series of stamps dedicated to serial killers. Trading cards are easily hidden, after all, and every letter or piece of postage mailed in the United States has to have a stamp on it, meaning that Albert Fish's leering face would be visible every time someone opened their mailbox. Serial killers lack the necessary appeal to cross over to legitimate mainstream likeability. Serial killers are too disturbing, because anyone may be a serial killer methodically stalking his (or her, to be fair) next victim. This unpredictable chameleon nature of the serial killer is what makes serial killers frightening, both on film and in the real world.

     Serial killers also frighten us for a different, more fundamental reason. Essentially, no one has a perfect childhood, and if someone says they did, they are probably lying or glossing over some nefarious details. No one has a perfect life, yet when one examines the family lives of serial killers, one can see just why these men are so dangerously atypical. Henry Lee Lucas was one of the most notorious serial killers of the 1980's, and he was the basis for the excellent film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Incorporating aspects of the real Henry's life, the film's portrait of Henry is accurate down to his chillingly flat affect, remorselessness, some details of his past, and his wandering nature which allowed him to elude true justice for a substantial amount of time. Henry's mother, in both film and reality, was an alcoholic prostitute who forced her son and crippled husband to watch her while she had sex with strangers. Young Henry was beaten by his mother and forced to wear dresses. The only person to show any pity for the boy was his father, who died of exposure when, after a night of heavy drinking, he passed out in the snow outside and froze to death. Their family and traumatic upbringing create serial killers, who gather notoriety thanks in part to the news media and film industry, which in turn inspires more serial-style killers. "[T]he killer is driven to madness or is already mad because of an extreme trauma. [. . . B]ecause of this event, the killer experiences a loss [. . . and] responds with rage, sometimes expressed immediately in an act of vengeance or sometimes withheld [. . . until] the killer returns to take vengeance on the guilty parties or on their symbolic substitutes" (Dika 59).

     The psycho killer in the stylish 1997 film American Psycho is a character known as Patrick Bateman. Patrick is a stockbroker at a very successful firm by day and a maniacal killer by night. The problem with his dualistic nature is that eventually Patrick's nightly bloodlusts trickle over into his daytime activities, which causes the slick and sinister Bateman to run into a little bit of a problem once he stops killing anonymous bums and starts killing coworkers and relatively noticeable New York glitterati.

     The late 90's was undoubtedly a time of 80's revival. Trends are cyclical, and what is out of style one minute will return with a vengeance the next minute, and American Psycho was released just in time to cash in on the nostalgia that was rampaging the time period. Wes Craven's Scream film brought back the dormant slasher genre, and Patrick Bateman was very much a traditional slasher villain in his relative coolness towards his victims, be they friend or foe, his interesting and bloody methods of murdering, and his generally strange emotions. Bateman says early in the film that the only emotions he has are greed and wrath. Wrath, of course, is the common emotion that overwhelms the movie slasher villain and drives him (in this case) to slay as many people as he can before he is apprehended. Greed, and the statement "Greed is good" is a very omnipresent hallmark of the 80's, and it reflects the way the Internet economy of the 90's caused many people who would traditionally ignore the stock market to throw their money into the pit and try to cash in on the hot dot com stock of the week. The soundtrack to the film, peppered liberally with Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, and Whitney Houston, reflects not only the music of the period the film was set in but also the fact that in the later part of the 90's, best of the 80's compilation CDs were being advertised every night on television in infomercial format, which further shows the grunge decade's longing for the old days of slicked back hair, pinstriped suits, and power ties. Patrick Bateman's promiscuous sex with prostitutes, business associates, and his frigid, tranquilizer-addicted girlfriend and the fiancée of his homosexual coworker reflects a desire to return to a time when only homosexuals and IV drug users contracted AIDS and when heterosexual sex without protection (and indeed Bateman is never seen reaching for a condom) was a relatively risk free activity no matter what sort of woman was lured in off the street to satisfy one's desire to copulate with a stranger. Bateman's residence is filled with stark, Spartan furnishings, like the pages of an Ikea catalogue, and Bateman's primary choice of non-sex, non-murder entertainment, the videocassette, reflects the incredible rise of video stores and home theater systems throughout the 1990's. Even the cocaine that gets used so much in the film became a drug back in vogue in the late 1990s after spending most of the decade in decline.

     Killer families have been used to great effect in films such as Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, and indeed the killing family unit was a staple of Craven's early works. Last House on the Left features a mother and father who unite to avenge the killing of their daughter and her friend by a dysfunctional family of killers (the patriarch, his heroin-addicted son, and patriarch's sadistic girlfriend). While the most famous killer family in the real world remains Charles Manson and his devoted cult of followers, one of the most famous (or should that be infamous?) killing families in cinematic circles is the deranged redneck Sawyer family, from Tobe Hooper's seminal horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

     In a movie full of insanity, horror, and destruction, the sole islands of normalcy spring forth from the demented cannibalistic Sawyer family. They gather together for family meals! Despite ample chances to violate Sally, whose grandfather brought about the misfortunes of the Sawyers, she is seen by the family "as a cow to be slaughtered," and Leatherface treats "all of the youths alike as mere 'meat'" (Freeland 248). The entire perspective of the movie from a character standpoint is skewed, inviting the viewer to empathize with both sides of the issue and perhaps examine him or herself. Freedland believes that the Sawyers are pitiable because they "have been displaced from their jobs and role in life" while the teenagers who form the Sawyer family's feast are "shallow and vapidly pleasure-seeking' (248). Sally, who Joe Bob Briggs calls the prototype for the final girl in every horror movie, has "almost no personality outside of wanting to be with her boyfriend. Her only merit is sympathy for her brother Franklin. She is not especially strong, brave, or resourceful: she runs around and screams. We sympathize with her only because she is a 'victim'" (Freeland 246). Sally's brother Franklin is noteworthy because of his high annoyance factor and the utter lack of sympathy he receives from the viewer. "His [Franklin's] constant demands for attention, his high-pitched cries of 'Sally!' and his anger at everyone else for being ambulatory makes him one of the most despicable handicapped people in film history. [. . . He] almost seems to deserve his death" (Briggs 191-193).

     The Texas Chainsaw Massacre exemplified the 70's because it was the first real youth-based horror film. "Chain Saw [sic] was the first baby-boomer shocker, in which pampered suburban children, distrustful of anyone older than thirty, are terrorized by the deformed adult world that dwells on the grungy side of the tracks" (Briggs 188). Chainsaw reflects the way the youth of the flower-power 60's reacted once they hit the real world, and in many ways Chainsaw reflects the horror that most teenagers feel when they first step foot out of the sheltered environments of college and into the same working world that warped the hopes and dreams of their parents. The twisted nature of the Sawyer family reflects, to some extent, the twisted nature of the family unit and mainstream society to teens.

     To the casual viewer, the exploits of serial killers are unbelievable. The feats of these deranged and dangerous men shock and amaze the masses of morally upright citizen because these feats seem wholly unnatural. Humans do not kill other humans with axes. Humans do not eat parts of other humans. Humans definitely do not make clothing and masks out of the skin of other humans. These sorts of deeds seem more at home in the animal kingdom than buried somewhere deep within the recesses of the human psyche. Humans are civilized, after all, and patterned in God's own image. A person should not be capable of this sort of horrific behavior under any circumstances.

     The poor, persecuted high school girl and central character of the classic horror film Carrie is an excellent example of a hybrid character that is on one hand entirely human and filled with human frailty and at the same time an unstoppable supernatural force bent on revenge. Carrie is an excellent metaphor for the adolescent revenge fantasies that so many picked on teens indulge in and, frighteningly enough, in this generation act out. While Carrie does not have much in the way of commentary on current society, it does comment on the negative and tumultuous feelings that teenagers experience during their developing years. Carrie herself is a tormented and outcast teen, unsure about her body and the changes she is undergoing. Every event in the girl's life, from her first period (the other girls in the locker room stand around Carrie, chanting the phrase 'Plug it up' while hurling feminine hygiene products at her) to her senior prom (she is made prom queen only so her enemy can dump a bucket of pigs' blood on her) ends up being a horrifying torment for the girl, and at the end she is pushed just a little too far and her nascent telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers flare up with murderous, spectacular results.

     Carrie is like any other teenager until the pranks and taunts go too far. Her supernatural powers manifest themselves in a psychotic, murderous rage. She morphs from a normal, if naïve, girl to a murdering beast of rage in a matter of seconds, and every moment of her fiery revenge seems earned and even deserved. Every picked-on teen can empathize with Carrie's feelings, and while generations change, teen angst stays the same. Because of this, Carrie remains a notable film in the horror genre and a bridge between the realms of the psycho killer and the supernatural entity.

Poltergeist, Evil Spirits, and the Haunted House

"Some places are like people: some shine and some don't."
                                                                                                                 --Dick Hallorann, The Shining

Ash [talking into mirror]: I'm fine… I'm fine.
[Mirror Ash jumps out of the mirror and grabs Ash.]
Mirror Ash: I don't think so! We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound 'fine'?
                                                                                                                                          --Evil Dead 2

     One of the longest-lasting conventions of the horror genre is the supernatural as a source of horror, and no matter how far or how much humanity advances through science and industry, and no matter how scary the idea of biological warfare might be, there is just something about the unknown and the unexplainable that makes the hair stand up on the backs of the necks of one's audience. These films are less cyclical than the two previous genres, and to some extent are universal and even eternal in terms of subject matter; something weird happens and no one can explain it. While the heyday of these types of films was probably in the 1970's to the early 1980's, these chillers are still being produced to this day, and several of the movies in the genre continue to be cult favorites amongst horror film fans to this day and supernatural or haunted-house type films continue to pop up every few years without fail.

     Based off newspaper accounts of a real 1949 exorcism, the 1973 film The Exorcist is still a legend in horror films today based on its sheer gross-out potential, as well as for the way it affected its audiences. "There have been only two horror films, really, that caused the whole country to go nutzoid (sic). One was the original Frankenstein (sic) [. . .] and the other was The Exorcist (sic). People would throw up [. . . and many] fainted. People claimed they had to have psychiatric help [. . . and] people used it as a murder defense" (Briggs 156).

     The film was railed against on all sides by all manner of conservative groups. "The video {The Exorcist} was banned in England for more than a decade. [A] Church of Scotland official said he'd 'rather take a bath in pig manure than see the film.' Billy Graham preached sermons against it" (Briggs 156). However, the movie was made with the approval and cooperation of the Catholic Church, which makes the denouncements strange. The movie itself, barring its frightening effects, is not an 'unchristian' enterprise. In fact, The Exorcist is a very Christian film, and it reinforces forcefully the idea of the Devil. The film "[externalizes] the evil and [locates] it handily in one mythic figure – the Christian devil, who is presented as vulgar, limited, and preoccupied with sex." [. . . H]e becomes in the film responsible for all modern evil [ . . . and as] we recognize this and call on the church (and traditional morality), we can cast him out and make everything good again" (Waller 45).

     Through its use of horrific images (there is a close-up spinal tap in the film that the director will not watch), disturbing obscenities (Regan swears and utilizes any number of gross sexual statements while possessed), and borderline heretic imagery (Regan, in a shocking scene, masturbates frantically with a crucifix), the film reinforces the power of traditional morals and values as a defense against the supernatural horror. The unspoken message of the film may very well be that leading a good Christian life is what is necessary to keep the opportunistic Devil at bay.

     The main characters not possessed by the Devil, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) are at odds with one another in the beginning. The atheist MacNeil believes that her daughter is possessed. The priest Karras believes that Regan is suffering from some sort of psychological ailment. The usual and expected character traits are juxtaposed against one another to create a level of tension. This tension, as well as the oppressive sounds and noises in the background of the scenes and the subliminal cues dropped into the soundtrack add to a level of tension that leaves the viewer scared before the exorcism takes place and even before Regan's first possession scene is shown. "The first possession scene is delayed for a full forty minutes, and it's not until the sixty-five minute mark that someone finally says 'What about exorcism?' Yet, the audience is already scared to death" (Briggs 160)

     Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is a film that is more than just its surface elements. The Exorcist not only reinforces traditional morality, it serves to prey off the fears of parents captured by the waves of the "explosive social change [. . .] that took place in the late sixties and early seventies" (King 168). To some extent, it reflects more than just the fears of parents in the Hippie Generation, but the fears of every parent as the preteen "sweet, lovely and loving Regan turns into a foul-talking monster strapped into her bed. [. . .] It was a movie for all those parents who felt, in a kind of agony and terror, that they were losing their children and could not understand why or how it was happening" (King 168).

     By the 1980s, Reagan had taken office and conservatism and consumerism had risen to new heights. People were no longer worried about losing their children to hippies and Satan, but there was an entirely new set of worries to be preyed upon. The house of horrors, with spiritual hangers-on and unwelcome visitors, began to manifest itself again in the benign regions of suburbia. Everything looked okay on the outside, but on the inside things were horribly wrong.

     The film Poltergeist centers on a relatively normal family. There is a husband and wife, three children, and a beautiful house in a newly planned subdivision, which stands to net the family a substantial sum of money thanks to the father's job as a real-estate developer. There is a small problem, however, in the fact that the land the subdivision is built on is a reclaimed cemetery, and in an effort to save money, the contractors do not move the bodies of the people interred, just the headstones. Of course, no ghost likes having his or her headstone disturbed according to every horror film ever made, so this causes some problems for the Freeling family.

     This film, at least in tone, differs quite a bit from the more pessimistic and negative films of the 1960s and early 1970s. "[T]he 1960s and early 1970s were dominated by the pessimistic, mystical mode of horror, then the predominantly conservative-moving America of the late 1970s and 1980s [was] being dominated by the optimistic, mystic mode of fantasy" (Waller 169). Poltergeist is a "film that views suburban life and American values as predominantly good and demonic spirits as anomalous and ultimately vanquishable" (Waller 169). The family itself, unlike some previous films, is not the source of the problem nor really responsible for the evils that befall them. They are essentially good people who "are loving and nurturing, [ . . .while] the source of the film's violence is unambiguously derived from outside the family and its political structures" (Waller 169-170). The film even offers us an upbeat ending, unlike The Exorcist, and the family appears that they will go on to live happily ever after as opposed to eternally tormented by their personal demons.

Closing Credits

"He who fights monsters should look into it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you."
                                                                                                                          --Friedrich Nitzsche

"One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses."
                                                                                                                                   --Robin Wood

     Over the course of this paper, lots of movies have been discussed, yet a lot more prominent genre figures have been ignored. Traditional monsters like vampires and werewolves have been ignored, as they are not 'modern' monsters despite attempts at updating them. While they may well be scary, they have also suffered a tragic fate; these creatures have been analyzed to death. Other characters, like Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), and Michael Myers (Halloween) have had all semblance of social commentary or cohesive storyline sequeled away into oblivion as studios seek to wring all the money they can from their franchises.

     One of the problems with categorizing films by genre is that so many films do not fit into neat little categories. Some worthy films, like Alien, have been left out because they cross too many genres to be adequately shelved into the horror section of the video store. This difficulty accounts for the scarcity of material in the 'science gone awry' section of this paper, and films that could fill that slight void, like Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, are left completely ambiguous with the reasons behind the rampaging corpses left completely unsolved and unexplained.

     The year 2000, harbinger of the new millennium, has come and gone. Indeed, the dawning of a new century is old news by now, and the world fortunately is still here and still turning on its axis and the movies that preyed on our fears that the world was going to explode or God was going to come down and smite the sinful are long gone as well. There was little to fear as a citizen of America, at least until September 11th, 2001. Now it seems as though the terrors of the real world will surpass the terrors of the cinematic world permanently. The genre of horror has recovered, of course, as entertainment is big business even when the world outside is teeming with warfare and violence, but the quality of horror films is remarkably low, even by horror movie standards. 28 Days Later is the last real horror film to make an impact and still be disturbing. The rest of the notable box office successes from the horror genre have been remakes of superior movies (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Ring), sequels (Freddy vs. Jason, Final Destination 2), or action movies pretending to be horror films (Underworld).

     Is legitimate, inventive horror dead? Has the studio system killed off the good horror films? Horror films, like certain iconic 1980s horror villains, will never die, because the instinct to scare and the drive to be scared will always exist. The business of horror itself, while prospering at the box office, is cyclical. A groundbreaking or successful movie comes out, such as The Blair Witch Project, and imitators are spawned or old favorites are re-imagined until someone comes up with the next big scare that resonates with audiences and critics alike. The genre, like most of Hollywood, is weak, but the next spark of life is just around the corner as new fears come to the surface to be exploited.

     Horror is, at its core, a very personal genre. What horrifies one viewer may not have an affect on another viewer, but so long as there are human beings with fears, morals, and desires, there will always be someone out there waiting to exploit them for entertainment purposes. There are fears that are shared by members of society, revealed in the moral codes of that society, which can be exploited for a good time and an even-better scare. From the Red Scare of the 1950s and 1960s, to the stalkers and psychos of the 1970s and 1980s, to the universal and enduring tales of the demons and haunted houses throughout history, horror movies have continually adapted and shifted themselves to meet humanity's desire to be scared, and as society changes over time, so too will our shared horror films change to keep the scares coming until the horn of Judgment sounds or a plague wipes out humanity.

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