Horror films are experiencing something of a revival with the recent release of It spearheading the way and drawing audiences in at record breaking levels. Horror fans are enjoying this time in the spotlight, having more films and TV series to be able to watch, and also talk about with people who wouldn't usually share the same interest. But after talking to someone about my love of horror films, they raised a point that made me think "there's enough horror in the real world at the moment. I don't want to watch a film that scares me, I want to watch one that makes forget about it all." After listening to them talk about their fondness of Love Actually it made me wonder why I, along with many others, find solace in horror.
Then it finally dawned on me: escapism. People need to get away from the constant news of terrorism, racism, xenophobia, and everything else that is going on to feel as though they are in control. I started watching horror films at a young age, as a way to avoid going out and being bullied. I liked the control of being afraid, but knowing I could turn off the VCR at any point and stop the terror that I saw on screen. In order to feel safe people need to feel in control, even if their fears are being pushed to the limits. After all, the best way to scare someone is to tap into their deepest fears and paranoia. This has been done successfully throughout cinematic history by reflecting society’s fears on film and letting audiences feel safe in their fear.
In the 1930s and 1940s most of the horror movies that were finding success were those of universal monsters. The format was simple: the fear of an unknown terror, and something powerful and dangerous from a foreign land. The world was in disarray after WW1 and American audiences looked on to Europe and the surrounding areas with fear, and the monsters in these films represented some of these places. Dracula was from Eastern Europe and preyed upon God-fearing Anglo-Saxon women; Frankenstein, a monstrous force from Germany, was created from science without thought or concern for morality. Films like these helped audiences face their fears, and walk away unscathed.
The rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s made people confront the fear of integration vs. segregation, and in Night of the Living Dead, they were shown a group of people having to work together to survive, regardless of race. Some people's worst fear was a society where a Black person could be in charge, and they sat uncomfortably through as George A. Romero made this fear a reality. America was at war with Vietnam in the late 60s and audiences were getting used to seeing horrific real-life violence. This made horror directors even more determined to scare audiences with extreme violence, which lead to Hitchcock bringing the character of Norman Bates to the screen in Psycho, and the viscous attack in the shower genuinely made people fearful that it could happen to them.
The 1970s played on the fear of the serial killer. Tragic killing like the ones by Charles Manson and his followers were exemplified with films like Last House on The Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It made them see that America had a gruesome underbelly in society that could emerge given the right circumstances (e.g. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre showed the effect of social and economic isolation on a rural family). Similarly, The Last House on the Left brought horror into small-town America. A film like Halloween, however, tapped into immorality with a young boy who, traumatized by the rising sexual liberation of teenagers, focuses his violent attacks into punishments for their "immoral" behaviour.
The 80s focused on the teen demographic—a group who had been overlooked. Teenagers became a market force and a greater one that once pandered to adult demographics during a decade of excess. So how could filmmakers tap into this market? Well, killing all the teenagers for drinking and having sex would be a great start. It’s cathartic to older generations feeling forced out of the limelight, but teenagers were the ones that went to see these films so had to appeal to these also. It played upon the fear of an older generations, but offered comfort by punishing the youth. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, Fright Night—all of them featuring the now well-known and understood tropes of punishing youth and elevating villains to star status.
The 1990s started with the explosion of grunge and generation X; the attitude of caring about nothing was difficult to capture on film. The musical shift was to simple DIY music that anyone could make, and mocked the past generations for their failings and creating this "monster" which was now taking over from the prefab acts of the 80s. Ironically, it was Wes Craven that managed to capture this with Scream, a self-mocking look back at the slasher genre where the killer—far from being an ugly, supernatural being—was just a normal person pushed too far by everyday instances.
The post-9/11 society once again brought about horrific images being shown on TV. Much like the 1960s, horror directors had to up the violence to reflect what was going on in the real world. Films such as Saw, Hostel, and Cabin Fever shocked people with the content and gore, but made them realize they were safer than in the real world. Later films such as The Purge: Election Year and Get Out rely on political upheaval and the ugly re-emergence of racism to reflect its current society and get under the skin of the viewer.
Like my friend though, some don't want to be reminded of society’s ills and want to escape into an idyllic world of love and happy endings—but they will always know that this isn't the world they are facing when they leave the cinema or turn off the TV. When it comes to horror, truly the scariest thing is that you faced your fear and won. But once you leave that safety, you have no control over whether these things will happen to you or those around you.
This is what makes me have that twinge of realism and anxiety that cannot be replaced by any other films. So when asked "Why do you watch horror when the real world is a terrible place?" all I can say is "I watch these films because the world is such a terrible place and it scares me not having control"
It may be hard to understand, but within a horror film I am still the kid that can turn off if it gets to be too much. But in life you can't.
Jan Siery is a husband, dad of two kids, two cats, and a dog, and is an all-around nerd. He likes gaming, horror movies, dark and disturbing stuff, Twinkies, and people telling him things.
Follow Jan on Twitter: @jansiery