BY KENDALL R. PHILLIPS
One of the popular conceptions about horror films is that they gain in popularity during times of cultural turmoil and upheaval. And, for the most part, this observation is true. Horror films first emerged as a recognizable genre in the early 1930s, when the world was in the depths of the Great Depression. The 1970s, an era filled with the violence of Vietnam and the turmoil of the struggle for Civil Rights, produced some of the most influential and iconic horror films like The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Halloween (1978). Not surprisingly, the tumultuous first decades of the twenty-first century have also been particularly productive for the horror industry. Part of this popularity may be a simple desire for catharsis. When the world is horrifying, perhaps it is satisfying to go into a darkened theater and scream at something that is even more absurdly horrific.
In much of my work on the history of horror, I’ve tried to find something a bit more complicated underlying this correlation. While there is undoubtedly a cathartic thrill at seeing something gruesome and terrifying, I think the historical depiction of these horrors has often shared a notable resemblance to the kinds of anxieties and fears circulating in the world outside the theater doors. I’ve characterized this as a relationship of resonance, a kind of diffused sympathetic hum, between the monster on the screen and the real fears outside. This is more of a feeling that the monster is relevant and real than a logical allegorical connection.
Now, if I’m right that horror fiction invokes feelings related to real world concerns and anxieties, then the question we might ask is what kind of work are those feelings doing? Are there ethical implications, in other words, to the way horror narratives unfold and the feelings they provoke in audiences? While recognizing that the horror genre is remarkably diverse and that thousands of films connected to the genre have been produced over the past 90 or so years, I’d like to suggest that one of the ways horror films engage our ethical thinking is through the way they operate at the limits of our experience and ask us to reconsider the boundaries we place around our lives.
One key boundary that horror narratives challenge is our assumed knowledge of the world around us. Gothic stories typically hinge on a sense that there are things beyond our understanding lurking somewhere in the shadows. The first films to really be talked about as “horror films” were Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. This was, of course, a period of great turmoil and a moment when the seeming certainty of industrial progress and the invisible hand of the market seemed to be undone by the economic and political chaos of the Great Depression. The plot of Dracula interrogates our sense of certainty quite explicitly. The key plot point is Dracula’s desire to get to London where he knows people don’t believe in vampires. As Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing notes, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” As their world crumbled around them, Americans in the early 1930s were likely particularly open to the idea that all the scientists, experts, and leaders of industry could be fatally misguided.
If Dracula suggested that science doesn’t understand as much of the world as it pretends to, then its counterpart, Frankenstein, questioned whether we really understand what science is capable of. Adapting Mary Shelley’s meditation on the boundaries of science and religion, James Whale’s Frankenstein brought the potential of science gone mad to vivid and terrifying life. Whale’s film cemented a long running theme of science and scientist crossing ethical boundaries and consistently raising the point that Jeff Goldblum’s character makes in Jurassic Park (1993), that scientists can become “so preoccupied with whether or not they could [do something], they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Of course, Frankenstein is far more nuanced than a simple cautionary tale and one of the more poignant and provocative aspects of Frankenstein is the deeply sympathetic portrayal of the monster. Far from being a force of evil, as in Dracula, the monster is portrayed as an innocent cast out into a world it does not yet understand. When watching the film it is, in fact, difficult at times to determine who is really monstrous, the undead creature or the angry mob of villagers baying for the creature’s blood. Indeed, throughout this foundational film, the audience is asked to ponder the boundary between humanity and monstrosity.
The ambiguous nature of monstrosity has been at the heart of many horror films. While 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers can easily be understood as a dramatization of fears that Communists were infiltrating American society and brainwashing its citizens, the same film can also be seen as a meditation on the ravages of paranoia during the Red Scare. The key question of what a monster looks like has been a persistent theme in modern horror films. Consider Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film that both shocked the nation and changed the course of horror film history. At its heart is a charming, awkward young man named Norman, who also happens to don his mother’s clothing and kill young women who stop at his hotel. While there are tomes devoted to analyzing Psycho (1960), it is notable that the film never really gives us a clear sense of who the real monster is. Is it Norman, a deeply disturbed young man? His manipulative mother? A negligent father who left the family abandoned in a failing roadside motel? Hitchcock not only refuses to answer this key question, his film gives numerous conflicting signals on the subject.
In the modern era of horror, even monsters that are neither as sympathetic as Frankenstein’s creature nor as charming as Norman Bates, are often cast in ways that raise questions about the source of their monstrosity. Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding cannibal from Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is probably not high on the list of monsters eliciting sympathy, but the film is clear in sketching out the conditions of economic and social neglect that led to the depraved state of Leatherface and his family. Hooper is careful to hold up the monstrous Leatherface family as a kind of distorted mirror to the traditional conceptions of the family, just as Hitchcock had before him. Perhaps one of the most disturbing sequences in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the dinner sequence in which the traumatized final victim, Sally, is forced to participate in a grotesque version of the family gathered around the table for a meal. Traditional family values rendered through a nightmarish lens of torture and torment, and a reminder that the dynamics of family are not supportive and comforting for all of us.
Horror narratives have consistently played up this concept of mirroring, suggesting the monster is a mirror image of us. Modern horror films have used this technique along similar lines, using the parallel between the monster and the social norms they threaten to not only frighten but also raise questions about our conception of what is normal. Perhaps the best examples of this trend have come from Jordan Peele, undoubtedly one of the driving forces in horror’s recent resurgence. While 2017’s Get Out is a masterclass in plot, timing, and tone, it is also a disturbing mirror held up to our notions of race, white privilege, and entitlement. His follow-up film, Us (2019), takes this mirroring further. In that film, our lives of relative privilege and ease are literally mirrored by other versions of ourselves who are relegated to an underground world. The horror of the film ultimately lies in our confrontation with the costs of the privilege upon which our sense of normalcy rests. These films ask us to explore our social norms and practices by showing us exaggerated and grotesque mirror images, returning to that question of who is the real monster and how do we know?
From my perspective, these disturbing stories about those we fear are ultimately about who we choose to be. While some might contend that viewing acts of violence and mayhem is ethically questionable, I tend to think that these narratives can encourage us to rethink ourselves and what we hold to be true, normal, and right. While we should probably always examine our assumptions, such reflection seems more urgent and important during periods of tension and turmoil. The last decade has seen numerous and serious challenges to the set of cultural and political values that undergird American society, challenges that have been both loud and, at times, violent. Perhaps this is why we see our screens filled with monsters, giving us a gruesome mirror image of our own capacity for monstrosity. Looking into this distorted mirror can be exhilarating. It can also provide a new perspective if we are brave enough to take a serious look.
1) Have horror films pushed social conversations around topics of ethics? What examples of productive conversations can be identified?
2) Why do people go to see horror films? Is it for excitement or the thrill?
3) Are certain horror films more likely to invite serious reflection on social norms and practices? What characteristics do they have in common?
4) Do you think contemporary horror films are helping society process recent events? If so, which films are promoting the most productive conversations?
5) Horror films typically involve violence and victimization. Are there ethical problems with viewing such acts as entertainment? Do those problems outweigh the potential social benefits of horror narratives?
Blake, Linnie. The Wounds of Nations: Horror Cinema, Historical Trauma and National Identity . Manchester University Press, 2013.
Coleman, Robin R. Means. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present . New York: Routledge, 2013.
Jones, Stephen Graham. “You’re Anxious. You’re Afraid. And I have Just the Solution,” New York Times (Oct 15, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/15/opinion/halloween-horror-movies.html.
Lowenstein, Adam. Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film . New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture: Horror Films and American Culture . Westport, CT: Prager, 2005.
Phillips, Kendall R. A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema . University of Texas Press, 2018.
Reyes, Xavier Aldana. “Violence and Mediation: The Ethics of Spectatorship in the Twenty-First Century Horror Film.” Violence and the Limits of Representation. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013. 145-160.
- Kendall R. Phillips is a professor in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University. His research focuses on controversies and conflicts arising around topics like public memory, popular film, and popular culture. He has published several books, including: A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema; Controversial Cinema: The Films that Outraged America; and Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture.
- Photo: Stefano Pollio / Unsplash