The State of the Horror Genre in America
Written by Tom Bevis
A Brief Introduction
You know me. And if you don’t, now’s the time to start seriously reconsidering what you’ve been doing with your life. Over the years, due to a life of pillaging through mountains old paperbacks and a dreadfully long Netflix queue, I’ve become something of an expert on the horror genre. This self-diagnosed expertise has led me to do little more with my life than sit around, alone, and plan out essays regarding the genre.
One subject that seems consistently at the front of my mind is how the genre has held up in the last fifty years. The sad truth is, it hasn’t. Horror has seen some brief resurgences as pinnacles of the genre manifest before the market is bogged down by cheap imitators and popularity wanes. I’ve stopped to consider what it is about the genre that causes this to be true, and why, modernly, in a world where we do everything short of killing ourselves for a cheap thrill, horror isn’t able to thrive.
The Evolution of Terror
Horror, perhaps more than any other genre, adapts to suit the social climate. In the 1800s, where the earliest roots of the genre take hold, was a time filled with anxieties regarding advancing technologies and where such advances will lead. This period produced three iconic works, pioneers in a new genre: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (in which technology and science defy the laws of nature), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (in which man is turned into monster by science), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (in which increasing technologies such as the typewriter and steam train divide the east from the west).
As time progressed, the decided theme of the works under the umbrella of the horror genre likewise progressed. Horror in the cinema is equally dynamic. The fifties, on the edge of the Cold War, pushed fear of living in an atomic age into the cinema. Enter giant rampaging insects and invading aliens to reflect our fears of the result of our nuclear advancement and invasion from foreign governments and influence. The seventies flooded the market with “slasher” pictures, which preyed on members of an evolving culture, feeding on the fears and guilt surrounding sexuality. Anxieties carried by the Vietnam War inspired the spectacularly violent films, laden with gore at every turn.
Modernly, we fear little socially. Growing up, we are taught that the world can be ours, given the impression that we live in a huge world as our need for personal space sky rockets. As a result, a type of social claustrophobia runs along the nation and we see individuals in modern horror pictures trapped in confined spaces, or worse: our person itself is invaded and damaged, ergo the popularity of the torture porn subgenre. As a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, Americans are imbued with a special breed of xenophobia aimed against the culturally unknown, reflected in films centered on foreign abduction, such as Hostel. Despite this dynamic evolution to the times, however, horror in America is on a quick decline in both popularity and quality.
The Death of Horror Tropes
One of the most significant factors in the decline of the genre is the dissection and repurposing of classic horror tropes. Icons and creatures found before exclusively in horror have since been relocated to other genres and adapted to new formulas, restricting the horror elements that once made them so great.
Perhaps the most notable of these is the vampire. Classically, the vampire represented a wide gamut of social fears: sexually transmitted diseases (as seen from the spread of vampirism from fluid contact), drug addiction (as seen from the vampire’s blind pursuit of mindless nourishment) among others. The vampire centered on the bestial weaknesses of humanity. However, in modern culture, the vampire is seen as something above human, sometimes possessing qualities such as super strength and keen senses. Even more apparent, the vampire is used obsessively as a sex symbol, always being the height of sensuality and desire. These entirely human qualities directly contradict the trope’s classic anti-human foundations. The vampire, then, instead becomes a background object or a character attribute, similar to ethnicity or nationality. Werewolves, likewise, have been transformed from their origins. At the onset, the werewolf represents the complete loss on control, self, and humanity. Now, the werewolf poses brute strength and Olympian agility. Therefore, the werewolf becomes more comfortable in the pantheon of action films. Similarly, zombies have been granted near-superhuman abilities and the ability to think, causing most modern zombie films to display more traits of action pictures than horror pictures.
The Advent of Torture-Porn
With the loss of the horror subjects, we lose the face of our evil and are left with no original basis for a good horror film. Americans’ inherent self-centeredness and lack of self-security opened the door to the newest and already most over-used trend in the horror genre. Franchises such as Hostel and Saw brought the torture-porn subgenre to popularity, pitting utter strangers as the aggressors and everyday people as the victims.
Films fitting this mold, though, too often lose sight of the hallmark of horror. They lack suspense or true shock. Instead of hitting the audience in the heart or the mind, they instead hit their stomach as filmmakers bypass suspense-bearing pacing and character development for instant gore.
Somewhere along the lines, filmmakers (and perhaps audience members, as well) blurred the definition between fear factor and gross out factor. These cheap tactics, though, usually only captivate the young and senseless, those obsessed with seeing the pain of others and utterly unrealistic bloodshed. This, of course, limits the audience pool of the genre to a near minimum.
The Face of the Devil
Falling in line with the follies of torture-porn, one of the biggest mistakes being made by horror pictures today is a lack of modesty. Filmmakers are under the impression that by overloading the audience with content, they can heighten the effect. Therefore we have blood by the barrel load, monsters and murders galore, and more sub-par nudity than any prepubescent boy can handle.
Those elements can all serve to help a horror picture, but only in moderation. Horror is a subject in which less is truly more. The industry personnel, however, get lost in their liberal blood slinging and forget how to properly pace the effects to achieve maximum effect. Instead of an increasing effect, the more of any given element shown on screen tends to desensitize the audience to that element. Ergo, the more blood the filmmakers opt to use, the less of an effect it will have on those watching the picture.
Similarly, filmmakers seem to have a problem unmasking their villains. Keeping up with the “less is more” dictum, filmmakers fail to realize that the most climatic time to unmask their villain is at the utter-most climax, and then it will only be effective if it is the first time doing so. Modern cinema tends to over saturate the screen with the face of the devil until, finally, it means nothing to the audience.
The Lurking Unknown
With the loss of tact and modesty in the horror genre, the industry has forgotten that which scares humanity the most: fear of the unknown. The fear of death itself, in fact, is rooted with the unknown. We are afraid of dying because we don’t know what will follow. The very reason we mask our villains and drape our monsters in shadows is to utilize this fear of the unknown to our advantage, something modern filmmakers have seemingly forgotten.
The unknown is such a dramatic and dynamic fear because it is suggestive. The reason for this is that the unknown can be anything. We leave it to ourselves to place a face on the devil, and the face that we chose (or the one we are forced towards), that which we anticipate, is often much more frightening than any face that can be concocted by Hollywood. And therein lies the secret to great suspense, the key long missing from the horror genre.