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Custom How They Play on Our Fears Essay

Horror films have one purpose: to instill fear in us. A good horror film will startle us, leave us on the edge of our seats and maybe even cause us to put our hands up over our eyes, compelling us to peak between our fingers in curiosity and suspense. A good horror movie will stay with us long after the credits roll. Anxiously, we peek underneath our cars before leaving the theatre, making sure there is no monster or killer there. We dash up stairs, lest a monster catches our ankles, duck under covers and sleep with the lights on at night. Once in a while, a horror movie is so good, we can hardly bare to watch it, and may leave the theatre or stop a home viewing of a horror film because it is just too frightening to continue watching. And yet, horror is the 7th top-grossing genre worldwide over the last two decades, with over nine billion dollars in total gross revenues. What is it about the thrills and chills that horror films offer that keep so many moviegoers coming back for more?

For one thing, horror movies give us safe ways to experience the horrific. According to one Professor of Communication at Purdue University, “when people watch horrific images, their heartbeat increases as much as 15 beats per minute . . . their palms sweat, their skin temperature drops several degrees, their muscles tense, and their blood pressure spikes”.  This is because our bodies respond to what is happening in front of us without distinguishing between reality and the big screen. Although researches still can’t quite explain just why we seek these “safe” experiences of trauma out in horror films (Sine), those who study this “horror paradox” acknowledge that “there's something really powerful that brings people to watch these things” (Sine). As the history of horror films shows us, the “really powerful” thing that scholars can’t quite seem to identify is precisely what good horror movie makers not only know but are able to tap into with the kinds of fears they present on screen. It is, in short, the narratives, codes, representations and symbolisms that good horror films embody, which “provide a revealing mirror image of the anxieties of their time”.

Since the horror film genre’s inception in the early 1900s, different sub-genres of horror categories have driven the industry. The popularity of these genres are often determined by the taboos and fears that are driving dominant socio-cultural anxieties at the time. What this means is that horror movies that incorporate narratives, codes and representations that depict or resemble the fears of the general population are the ones that are most popular. As one author notes, “these movies play on our repressed fears and social anxieties to give us a good scare” while “our culture pervades our horror films,” reciprocally.

Take, for example, the kinds of things that characterized horror movies when the genre first debuted. Nosferatu and other popular vampire films of the 1920s and 1930s were not simply movies about blood-sucking immortals preying on helpless young females. The narrative of a naïve or disillusioned youth losing their life force prematurely reflects the larger social anxieties brought about by World War I and the Influenza Epidemic which occurred several years prior. The fear of losing our youth to some dark and ominous force gripped society in the years following these tragedies, and are reflected in the vampire/helpless young victim narrative that these early horror films are based on.

During the 1950s, “mutant-monster movies and sci-fi thrillers” were dominant horror subgenres. Japan’s Godzilla saga, which gained immense popularity in America and Europe, is a perfect example of the popularity of these sub-genres during this time period. Other popular movies, like It Came from Outer Space and War of the Worlds, also feature foreign, unfamiliar entities bringing apocalyptic destruction upon society at large. According to author Marilyn Davis, these monster and sci-fi narratives “expressed our fear of the nuclear threat and the Cold War. In Japanese film, of course, Godzilla was born as a result of the atom bomb, while in the United States horror features were fraught with aliens and mutant insects” (Davis). This era in movie horror history shows that sometimes, the films of one country can also tap into the fears of another culture, and foreign horror also becomes a popular sub-genre.

Sometimes, horror movies utilize traditional narratives and representations in inverted or corrupted ways to show our fears to us. In the late 1960s and 1970s, for example, movies such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist featured the Devil himself. The social anxiety these movies reflect, however, is not a fear of devils and demons, but rather, a fear of “[finding] the enemy . . .  in your own home”. In Rosemary’s Baby, the main character is betrayed by her own husband and neighbors. In The Omen, the enemy is, in some respects, the father, and in some respects, the demonic child whom the father secretly had switched at birth. In The Exorcist, supernatural forces transform a sweet teenage girl into a hellish fiend and murderer. What these movies really portray is not a fear of devils and demons but rather, the social anxieties surrounding the crumbling family unit. After the movements of the 1960s, war, rebellion and divorce saw many family units crumble, with roles of family members changing drastically from what they were in the decades prior. To see one’s own spouse or child turn against them due to “possession” of an external evil on the big screen subjected people to the experience of finding the enemy at home -- a social anxiety that characterized the social consciousness during the 1970s.

The 1990s saw the emergence of serial killers and lunatics, as infamously depicted in movies like Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Scream. Although many film critics attribute this shift in horror to a “as a reaction to the splatterfests of the 1980s, and an attempt to create ‘horror for grown-ups’” (Wilson, 2011), I believe the psycho killer sub-genre of the 1990s reflected something darker about society’s fears. With the advances in media technology, people were being exposed to news horrors more than ever before. Not only was news about infamous killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and the BTK killer being broadcast daily in the news, but the notorious O.J. Simpson murder trial could be tuned into, day after day, on the television set at home. Enhancements in media brought perpetrators and the public into closer contact than ever before, and the resulting fear that horror movies of the 1990s reflect is the fear that the killer can be living right next door.

The current trends in horror, which include “torture” movies such as Hostel and Saw, may perhaps be too contemporary to look at from a hindsight perspective. One theory of mine is that these movies, which feature excess amounts of gore and focus on the suffering of the victim (Sine), are reflective of our social fears concerning terrorist attack and the threat of nuclear war. The “sawing” scene in the original Saw, for example, is not much different from the gruesome home video made by Al Qaeda, which depicts journalist Daniel Pearl being beheaded in a crude and horrific manner. Similarly, apocalyptic-style horror films such as The Divide and Devil’s Playground, reflect ancient end-of-the-world narratives such as the Mayan 2012 prediction that has currently gripped society in a state of heightened anxiety about what to expect next December.

Even though the narratives, codes and representations change throughout the ages, horror movies are successful when they capture and reflect whatever our society’s anxieties and concerns are at the time. In a way, this is therapeutic. Even though it frightens us to be subjected to these experiences, when our fears are played upon through the big screen, it gives us a safe way to experience and indulge in them, so that we can consider them, think about them, imagine them and thus understand them from the safe distance of our theatre seats. As long as there are social anxieties to be feared, there will be horror movies that give us the chance to experience them while still being able to walk away afterward, limbs and life intact.

Custom How They Play on Our Fears Essay

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