Horror film

What horror films reveal about society’s fears

October 31, 2019

When Doctor Sleep opens in theaters on November 8, moviegoers everywhere will have the chance to return to a terrifying Colorado setting that—thankfully—exists only in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece (and in Stephen King’s 1977 novel, too, of course). To better understand why horror flicks like The Shining resonate with audiences and what they reveal about our deepest anxieties, film and horror genre expert Andrew Scahill, PhD, assistant professor of English, explains why some horror films are worth a second look. You can also see Scahill in the documentary Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, which premiered at Fantastic Fest and is touring now.

To learn more about the Film Studies option at CU Denver, click here.

How did the horror film genre get its start?

[Scahill:] “Horror has always been part of the film vocabulary. Filmmakers were adapting Gothic literature even in the earliest days of silent cinema. As an identifiable film genre, though, I would say German Expressionist cinema in the 1920s is where we should look, with titles like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and, in a certain aspect, Metropolis—even though it’s sci-fi, there are lots of Gothic horror elements, too. With Hitler’s rise to power, there was a transfer of Jewish talent to America, like Karl Freund, who went on to work as a cinematographer for Universal horror titles like Dracula [1931] after his work on Metropolis.”

“There’s something archaic about horror, something deeply mythological. It’s how we work out the difference between us and them. What we know about identity formation now is that we don’t really form our identity through similarity; we define ourselves by what we are not. We’re constantly forming our identity by the Other, by the monster, by I know who I am because I’m not that.”

What underlies this fear of the monster?

“[Film scholar and philosopher] Noël Carroll, in The Philosophy of Horror, argues that we don’t fear monsters only because they’re physically threatening; they’re cognitively threatening, too. They’re horrifying because they don’t fit into categories neatly. They threaten our fantasies of categorization.”

But aren’t most horror films inherently subversive?

“No, horror can be easily the mouthpiece of the status quo. Horror became a major genre because it’s not so much a genre of chaos as it is a genre of containment. The primary question [posed by early horror films] was often how do we contain things that might erupt or challenge the status quo? During the Depression, you might think that audiences facing economic ruin wouldn’t want horror films, but horror gave them that fantasy of control. It’s actually quite a comforting genre.”

What benefit do audiences derive from watching horror films?

“It’s a question that’s been guiding the study of the horror film for decades: Why would you subject yourself to a negative experience? It seems biologically improbable, and it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose from an evolutionary perspective. But why do we subject ourselves to films that make us cry? Are we masochists? According to the ‘escape valve’ theory, we constantly repress so much of our sexual and violent impulses to be part of civilization, and these movies allow us the release of our aggressive impulses. This was a prevailing theory from the 1960s to the 1980s, but all of that pleasure sounds like it is only sadistic. It seems to suggest that the reason we go to horror films is to take on the persona of the killer or the monster and release these bestial impulses. However, we primarily identify with the victim.”

“Today, we would say it’s more likely that you’re switching between sadism and masochism as you watch. Slasher films are specifically written so you take on the perspective of the killer for the first half of the film. You watch him dispatch thinly drawn, unlikable, arrogant, bratty characters; there’s a certain pleasure of sadism in watching them dispatched. And we desire it because, if the murders stop, then the movie ends, and we don’t want it to end. We desire murder after murder to drive the plot forward. However, at a certain point that point of view switches. Although you’re initially in the mind of the killer, the film forces you to switch your allegiance to ‘the final girl,’ the candidate hero, the best of the young people who are being dispatched. We attach ourselves to her, and we want her to turn the tables on the monster.”

“Interestingly, the slasher often forces its primary audience of young teenage boys to identify with a woman and to desire a vanquishing of a male monster. And that’s incredible: No other genre forces cross-gender identification quite that way. It’s an interesting reclamation of a genre that has been dismissed as sadistic and misogynistic.”

What makes for a good, or historically relevant, horror film?

“There was a shift that happened in the 1960s, a number of cultural crises [that resulted in] people losing faith in authority. All of that changed many genres, but horror in particular. Afterward, we start to see films like The Stepford Wives, in which the lone individual struggles against a conspiracy, and films about patriarchy as monster, like The Shining.”

“In the line ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ play is being able to do whatever you want, like conquering. Work is repression, work is empathy, all these things that patriarchy traditionally didn’t have to do. Jack hates the life he has, his heteronormative suburban nightmare, and he longs for the endless New Year’s Eve party. The hotel activates Jack’s repressed rage, courts him to stop pushing all that down, and just be the patriarchal monster. It’s no accident that it’s set in Colorado, in the American frontier, because it’s addressing masculinity and colonialism and that desire to conquer—all the things that formulated westward expansion. But we forget the violence that was committed in pursuit of those things. It’s a complicated film.”

Carpet pattern in The Shining

What does the future of horror look like?

“We’re finally to a point where we have women and minorities in the director’s seat or the screenwriter’s chair, which means we get different uses of horror like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Because of those new perspectives, we might see a return to the paranoia style of 1970s horror, films that explore what it feels like to be an Other in the majority culture.”

Last, what will you be watching on Halloween?

“I love a classic haunted house movie, so probably The Haunting (the 1963 version) or The Innocents.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.