Horror Films

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Horror Films


Horror films take as their focus that which frightens us: the mysterious and unknown, death and bodily violation, and loss of identity. They aim to elicit responses of fear or revulsion from their audience, whether through suggestion and the creation of mood or by graphic representation. Horror paradoxically provides pleasure, providing a controlled response of fear that is presumably cathartic. Stories of fear and the unknown are timeless, no doubt beginning around the prehistoric campfire. It is around such a fire on the beach at night that John Houseman dramatically recounts the scary legend of Antonio Bay to the engrossed children in the opening of John Carpenter's The Fog (1980). With roots in such precinematic forms as medieval woodcuts, Grand Guignol theater, and the gothic novel, the genre has been popular since the beginning of cinema, as evidenced by the fantastic films of Georges Méliès from the first years of the twentieth century. Many of Méliès's short trick films dealt with monsters (a dervish in Le Monstre, 1903), ghosts (Le Revenant, 1903), magic (La statue animée, 1903), and the devil (Les trésors de Satan, 1902)—subjects that were to become central to the genre as it developed over time.

Horror films address both universal fears and cultural ones, exploiting timeless themes of violence, death, sexuality, and our own beastly inner nature, as well as more topical fears such as atomic radiation in the 1950s and environmental contamination in the 1970s and 1980s. As Stephen King observes, horror "is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful "(p. 81). Horror addresses that which is universally taboo or abject but also responds to historically specific concerns. Both kinds of fears are addressed by the main categories of horror, as Roy Huss and T. J. Ross usefully group them: gothic horror, monster terror (overlapping here with science fiction), and psychological thriller. Because horror provides us with manageable experiences of fear, it is one of the most sustained of film genres, as popular today as it has ever been.


Unlike such genres as the musical and the gangster film, which had to wait for the development of sound, horror movies were an important genre in the silent era. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was filmed as early as 1910, and in France, Louis Feuillade's serial Les Vampires (1915–1916) made use of earlier narratives with female vampires. Audiences were familiar enough with horror conventions that by 1927 they were being parodied in The Cat and the Canary.

The first significant cycle of horror films appeared in German expressionist cinema, a movement that began with the influential Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), directed by Robert Wiene. Its plot involves an evil mesmerist who forces a somnambulist to commit murder. Designed by expressionist artists Hermann Warm, Walter Reiman, and Walter Röhrig, the film contains almost no right angles in its distorted buildings and streets; shadows were painted directly on the walls and floors rather than created by lighting, and the make-up and acting are deliberately stylized. The film's design visualizes the madness of the inmate in the insane asylum who narrates the story. Caligari was a significant international hit and inspired the many films to follow.

A specific period or movement of German silent cinema in the 1920s, German expressionism eschewed realism in favor of projecting onto the exterior world abstract representations of intense inner emotion, whether of characters in the narrative or of the artists themselves. Characteristic techniques of German expressionist cinema include an emphasis on extreme angles, chiaroscuro lighting, distorting lenses or sets, and stylized acting and makeup. The films were shot mostly in the studio, many at Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa, the largest studio in the country), with an artificial look that deliberately sought to exclude the natural world. Thus German expressionism was a style ideally suited to the horror film, and many of the films dealt with the popular horror themes of psychological breakdown and madness and the supernatural, including Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920); Der Müde Tod (The Weary Death, also known as Between Two Worlds, 1921); Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror, also known as Nosferatu the Vampire, 1922), the first adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1898); Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926); and Faust (1926). Production of expressionist films in Germany peaked in the mid-1920s, and the movement dissipated in the early 1930s with the coming of sound and the emigration of many German directors, cinematographers, actors, and other film workers to the United States as the Nazis rose to power. In Hollywood they worked their way into the studio system, where they contributed significantly to the development and look of the horror film, particularly those produced at Universal, and later in the 1940s to the distinctive style of film noir.

In contrast to German cinema, the comedies and westerns already characteristic of Hollywood in the silent period expressed upbeat and open moods that were unsuitable to the dark and claustrophobic worlds of traditional horror. It was not until much later that Hollywood would turn for inspiration to the strong vein of horror that ran through American literature, from the demonization of native Americans and the wilderness in the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others to the more straightforward horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. But while horror was not a Hollywood priority in this period, Lon Chaney (1883–1930), known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" for his mastery of makeup, emerged as the first American star of the genre in such roles as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and in eight collaborations with the director Tod Browning. Unique among silent film stars, Chaney was known for portraying monstrous, physically deformed, and psychologically tortured characters.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), starring the highly regarded stage actor John Barrymore, helped legitimize the genre in Hollywood, but the genre was not clearly established until shortly after the arrival of sound when Universal Studios produced a cycle of horror films, notably Browning's Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, and James Whale's Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, both released in 1931. Lugosi and Karloff became the great horror stars of the 1930s, attaining iconic status in American popular culture. For three decades the studio produced a series of loose sequels and spinoffs, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944), ending in the 1950s with parodies featuring Abbott and Costello, another important Universal asset. The Universal films were heavily influenced by the mise-en-scène of German expressionism: for example, The Mummy (1932), another Karloff vehicle, was directed by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had photographed Der Golem and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), among others, before emigrating to Hollywood in 1929. Universal was run by Carl Laemmle, himself born in Germany. The popular mythology of Frankenstein's creature, the vampire, the werewolf, and the mummy (the latter invented by the movies) were established and reworked in the studio's horror films.

Although other studios produced the occasional big-budget horror film, such as Paramount's remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) with Fredric March and RKO's King Kong (1933), Universal dominated the genre during this period. The major exception was MGM's Freaks (1932), directed by Browning. The story involves a traveling circus sideshow and the cruel woman trapeze artist who exploits them. Browning used a group of people with actual physical oddities, and the climax, in which they pursue the trapeze artist in the rain and mud, is particularly chilling. Uniting in camaraderie, the "freaks" are depicted as more humane than the physically normal characters, anticipating the reinterpretation of the monsters that would characterize horror films from the 1960s onward. Evidently this was a radical reversal that was ahead of its time: the film was severely cut for its American release and banned for thirty years in Great Britain.

The war years saw the unwelcome intrusion of real horror on a global scale, and Hollywood movies accentuated the positive to boost morale on the home front. From 1942 to 1946 at RKO, the producer Val Lewton (1904–1951), a former script editor for David O. Selznick, made a series of nine horror films with several directors, including I Walked with a Zombie (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and The Body Snatcher (1945), directed by Robert Wise, that exploited ambience and suggestion through economical means. Tourneur's Cat People (1942), for example, concerns a young woman, Irena (Simone Simon), who believes the superstition of her Old World village upbringing that she will turn into a dangerous leopard when emotionally or sexually aroused; but there is no transformation scene such as those in horror movies about werewolves and adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which such scenes are not only a convention but a visual centerpiece. In one scene the woman Irena sees as her rival, swimming alone in an indoor pool at night, hears faint footsteps and sees an indistinct shadow cross the wall, and when the cold and frightened woman goes to retrieve her robe, she finds it shredded, as if it had been ripped by the claws of an animal. Similarly, in The Leopard Man (1943), also directed by Tourneur, we hear the violent death of a

b. Leonidas Chaney, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1 April 1883, d. 26 August 1930

Known as "the man of a thousand faces," Lon Chaney was the first major star of the horror genre. As the child of deaf-mute parents, Chaney learned the expressive possibilities of pantomime, a skill he brought to the silent screen in a series of bizarre characters, often featuring some variation of grotesque distortion.

After his beginnings as a comedian and dancer in the theater, Chaney went to Hollywood in 1912. He appeared in a steady stream of films from 1914 on, playing villains in formula Westerns as well as a variety of other strange characters, from a French Canadian in Nomads of the North (1920) to Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922) to a one-eyed hoodlum in The Road to Mandalay (1926). Chaney was famous for his skill with makeup, and publicly emphasized the extremes that he would undergo to create his monstrous, distorted outsiders. In The Penalty (1920), he plays a criminal kingpin whose legs had been mistakenly amputated, requiring him to wear a painful leg harness so that he could walk on his knees as if they were stumps; in The Unknown (1927) he played Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife-thrower, with his arms strapped tightly to his body. As Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), he wore a hunch in a harness that had a combined weight of seventy pounds.

Chaney made eight films with director Tod Browning, beginning with The Wicked Darling in 1919, and including The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown, and West of Zanzibar (1928), their last film together. Chaney's skill at physical metamorphosis combined with Browning's gift for macabre horror stories to create a series of films about masochistic men ridden with castration anxiety. This preoccupation reached a peak in The Unknown, where the viewer finally discovers that Alonzo really does have arms, which he keeps secret, but then amputates them in a doomed attempt to win the sympathy of the woman he loves.

Chaney's last role was as Echo, a criminal ventriloquist in the remake of The Unholy Three in 1930, his only talking film. He used five different voices in the movie, showing that he could make the transition to talkies. But shortly after the film's release, Chaney died from a hemorrhage in his throat. After Chaney's death, his son Creighton changed his name to Lon Chaney Jr. and followed in his father's footsteps by starring in a series of horror films, the most notable of which was his tragic Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941).


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Unholy Three (1930)


Anderson, Robert Gordon. Faces, Forms, Films: The Artistry of Lon Chaney. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1971.

Beck, Calvin Thomas. Heroes of the Horrors. New York: Collier Books, 1975.

Blake, Michael F. The Films of Lon Chaney. Lanham, MD: Vestal Press, 1998.

——. Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1993.

Barry Keith Grant

teenage girl attacked by the title creature, but all we see is her blood oozing under the locked door of her house.

In the 1950s horror overlapped significantly with science fiction. Cold War and atomic age anxieties produced numerous monster movies with creatures that had mutated or reawakened from eons of slumber because of nuclear radiation and testing. Monsters such as the giant dinosaur of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the giant ants of Them! (1954), and the creature in Behemoth, the Sea Monster (also known as The Giant Behemoth, 1959) all are the results of nuclear testing, as is the radioactive cloud that causes The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) to shrink and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) to grow. The Thing from Another World (1951) set the tone for the decade's monster movies. Based on a novella by the science fiction writer John W. Campbell, the film sacrifices almost all the scientific reasoning featured in the story to emphasize instead the inarticulate howlings of a vegetable-like creature, who somehow possesses technological knowledge way beyond that of earth-lings and is bent on killing humans for their blood.

By the mid-1950s the youth audience had emerged as a significant consumer group, particularly for movie-going, and many horror films, from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) to The Horror of Party Beach (1964), were produced with the aim of appealing to adolescent viewers. American International Pictures (AIP), an American film distribution and production company founded in 1954 by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, specialized in B movies—teen pics, exploitation films, and horror films such as The She-Creature (1956), Terror from the Year 5000 (1958), and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). A few of these were directed by Roger Corman (b. 1926), including the campy A Bucket of Blood (1959). One of the independent companies that showed the way in the 1950s toward the strategy of targeting market segments, AIP moved from distribution into production and eventually began making movies with higher production values, beginning in 1960 with Corman's House of Usher, a loose adaptation of a Poe short story, which starred Vincent Price and was shot in color and Cinemascope. Corman made several other films for the company based on Poe themes with Price, including The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which features cinematography by the British cult director Nicolas Roeg. Also in the 1950s and early 1960s, the exploitation master William Castle (1914–1977) moved from thrillers and westerns into horror with a series of gimmicky horror films including The Tingler (1959), Thirteen Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961).

In England, Hammer Film Productions Ltd. released several classic science fiction films along with their other dramas, including The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and X the Unknown (1956), but launched in earnest into the production of horror with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), directed by Terence Fisher (1904–1980), a studio stalwart. Hammer went on to produce a substantial series of horror films that revisited the monsters of old, including Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, and the Mummy, through the 1970s, as well as inventing new ones (The Gorgon, 1964). The Hammer films revitalized the genre by revisiting but also updating its traditional gothic iconography with a bold use of color and a decidedly modern dose of sexual content. Many of these films starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who were the most familiar and consistently productive horror stars of the period.


The British film Peeping Tom (1960) and Psycho (1960) radically reconfigured the genre by focusing on psychologically disturbed characters in mundane contexts rather than supernatural situations in gothic settings. Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted from Robert Bloch's 1959 novel, which in turn was based in part on the real-life exploits of multiple murderer Ed Gein, has proven to be perhaps the most influential horror film ever made. Set in contemporary motel rooms, hardware stores, and used car lots, Hitchcock's film imagined the site of horror in the quotidian world of the viewer, showing that horrifying violence was an integral part of middle-class America, repressed beneath its seemingly placid exterior. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) and William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) continued in the same direction, depicting satanism in contemporary New York and Washington, respectively. Both films were big-budget commercial blockbusters, and they helped bring horror more squarely into the mainstream.

In 1968 came the phenomenal box-office success of George A. Romero's independent Night of the Living Dead, one of the first midnight movies (which theaters scheduled for special midnight showings after the mainstream films had finished). Made in black-and-white on a small budget, the film became a huge cult success. Its low-budget aesthetic, combined with a new graphic representation of bodily violation—we are shown cannibalistic zombies eating steaming entrails—and its uncompromising violation of numerous horror conventions resulted in the film's powerful effect on viewers. Following in the style of graphic bodily violation introduced by Herschell Gordon Lewis in such films as Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Romero's sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), took graphic violence to a new level, and instituted a cycle of so-called splatter films that focused on bodily violation. A few years before Dawn, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) devoted most of its running time to the sadistic torture of its female protagonist. The Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made several horror films concerned with bodily invasion, including Shivers (also known as They Came from Within, 1975), with its repulsive sluglike parasites that enter the body through the range of human orifices; The Brood (1979), featuring scenes of monstrous parturition; Scanners (1981), in which heads explode in a spray of gristle and blood; and his version of The Fly (1986), in which a scientist's body slowly falls away as he metamorphoses into an insect. Splatter was taken to comic extremes in Peter Jackson's Braindead (also known as Dead Alive, 1992) and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981). Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987) focused intently on the pain of the flesh with scenes of flaying, bondage, and torture.

Following Romero, several young directors established their reputations by working primarily in horror, most notably Brian de Palma (Sisters, 1973; Carrie, 1976; Dressed to Kill, 1980), Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left, 1972; The Hills Have Eyes, 1977; A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984), Larry Cohen (It's Alive, 1974; God Told Me To [also known as Demon], 1976), and John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978; The Fog, 1980; Christine, 1983, based on Stephen King's novel). Many of these horror movies, like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead, subverted the genre's traditional distinctions between good and evil, normal and monstrous, critiquing the horrors of mainstream society rather than projecting the monstrous onto the exotic "other." Horror films were thus a significant part of the overall reexamination of genre movies that took place in American cinema in the 1970s.

However, the huge commercial success of Carpenter's Halloween spawned a cycle of slasher films that bespoke a much more conservative vision. Most featured elaborate serial killings strung together by weak plots. Slashers typically feature psychotic males, frequently masked like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980) and its sequels, who set about systematically to kill an isolated group of people, usually teenagers. Often the killer is motivated by a past sexual trauma activated by the sexual promiscuity of the victims he stalks, and the killings often seem to be a punishment for being sexual active or precocious, as is the case in the famous opening tracking shot of Halloween. Commonly a handheld camera is used to signify the killer's point of view, yet to what extent this use of the subjective camera encourages a seemingly amoral identification on the part of the viewer with the murderer rather than his victims has been a subject of much debate. It was slasher films that to a large extent spurred a censorship debate in Great Britain and prompted the passage of the Video Recordings Bill. By the mid-1980s the slasher film was in decline, but self-conscious postmodern slashers such as Scream (Craven, 1996) and its sequels, in which the characters are as familiar with the conventions of the genre as the audience, have proved popular.

b. New York, New York, 4 February 1940

A key figure in the new wave of horror films in the 1960s and 1970s, George A. Romero brought an entirely new sensibility to the genre, drastically reinterpreting some of its classic monsters and infusing it with a political consciousness and ironic self-awareness, as well as a level of explicit gore that had been largely lacking before. His first film was Night of the Living Dead (1968), which established a new zombie mythology that has spawned an entire subgenre.

Romero made industrial and commercial films in Pittsburgh before directing Night of the Living Dead, which became a cult favorite and one of the first midnight movies. Often serving also as cinematographer, editor, or screenwriter for his films, Romero is clearly an auteur with an original approach to the horror genre. Romero's vision comes through in the offbeat Knightriders (1981), a non-horror film that he wrote, edited, and directed. Its far-fetched story about an itinerant band of motorcyclists who operate a fair like a medieval guild is silly as drama, but makes perfect sense as an auteurist expression of the theme of group solidarity against the threat of cultural homogenization—at heme that also runs through his four zombie films.

Romero's earlier horror films, made on minimal budgets, deconstruct many of the conventions of classic horror and examine their ideological assumptions from a more critical and distanced perspective. Martin (1977), for example, is a vampire film without a true vampire. The young man of the title has been warped by Old World superstition, his grandfather raising him to believe that he has been cursed to be a vampire. Forcing transfusion on his victims to fulfill what he believes to be his vampiric fate, Martin has been made monstrous by irrational fear. Hungry Wives (Season of the Witch, 1972), similarly, shows that the very concept of the witch is grounded in patriarchal oppression of women.

Romero's later films, for which he tended to have bigger budgets, have also been less adventurous thematically. Creepshow (1982), written by Stephen King, and Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) are more conventional and lack the daring of Romero's zombie films, a territory that he has mined for almost forty years. A decade after Night, Dawn of the Dead (1978) was an apocalyptic masterpiece that raised the bar for splatter effects. Romero also combined comedy and horror in a striking blend that introduced a generation of subsequent horror directors, most notable among them Peter Jackson. Land of the Dead (2005) brought the political satire in these films about the American populace as soulless cannibals to the fore.


Night of the Living Dead (1968), Hungry Wives (Season of the Witch, 1972), The Crazies (1973), Martin (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Knightriders (1981), Day of the Dead (1985), Night of the Living Dead (screenplay, 1990), Land of the Dead (2005)


Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987.

Romero, George A., and Susanna Sparrow. Dawn of the Dead. New York: St. Martin's, 1978.

——, et al. Martin. New York: Stein and Day, 1977.

Waller, Gregory. The Living and the Undead: From Stoker's Dracula to Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George Romero: Knight of the Living Dead. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Barry Keith Grant

Horror has been a Hollywood staple since the 1930s, but, in addition to Hammer horror in Great Britain, there are also other national cinemas with rich horror traditions. In Italy, for example, giallo, graphic thrillers and horror films, flourished in the 1950s and 1960s.

Predating slasher films, the giallo ("yellow") takes its name from the color of the covers of pulp detective novels published in Italy in the 1940s and 1950s. The genre includes both police films (giallo-poliziesco) and horror films (giallo-fantastico), featuring an overtly expressionist stylization. The Italian directors Mario Bava (1914–1980), with films such as La Maschera del demonio (Black Sunday, 1960) and Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires, 1965) and Dario Argento, with such films as L'Ucella dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970), Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975), and Tenebre (Unsane, 1982) have become cult figures.

In Japanese cinema, both horror films, like Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness, 1926), Onibaba (The Demon, 1964), and ghost films, like Kwaidan (Ghost Stories, 1964), and Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Ugetsu, 1953), were prominent. A new wave of Japanese horror films includes Hideo Nakata's Ringu (Ring, 1998)and Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, 2002), both of which were remade, with mixed success, in Hollywood.


For the film scholar Siegfried Kracauer, German expressionist cinema was both a harbinger and a cause of the rise of fascism in Germany. The films' avoidance of the real world, both visually in the use of stylized studio sets, and narratively in the frequent appearance of monstrous figures like Caligari and Nosferatu who command the will of others, was symptomatic of the German people's turning away from political responsibility and an explanation of their embrace of Hitler. There has been more critical commentary on horror than any other film genre, with the possible exception of the western; and although today Kracauer's interpretations seem rather reductive, they share with all subsequent critical analyses of the genre the fundamental assumption that horror films, like most genre movies, reflect the values and ideology of the culture that produced them. Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for example, about an invasion of alien seed-pods that replace people with emotional replicas, is typically discussed in relation to American contemporary culture in the 1950s. Unlike earlier horror films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers imagines infection on an apocalyptic rather than personal scale, as in the vampire myth, a clear reflection of Cold War fears of nuclear destruction. But even as Americans felt threatened by possible nuclear war and Communist infiltration, the film also expresses a fear of creeping conformism at home. Invasion makes the commonplace seem creepy, and in the climax a mob of plain-looking townsfolk pursue Miles and Becky out of town in a horrific evocation of the kind of witch-hunting mentality witnessed in the United States just a few years before the film's release. The film's ambiguous ending (how could the FBI or anyone possibly contain the pod invasion, which by now has spread much wider than the town of Santa Mira?) initiated a trend that would continue in the revisionist horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, and is indicative of larger cultural tensions.

In a number of essays published in the late 1970s, Robin Wood set the critical agenda for much of the theory and analysis of horror. He offered a structural model of horror, informed by Freudian theory, built around a fundamental binary opposition of normal and monstrous. Wood was responding to the progressive wave of horror films by such directors as Romero, Hooper, Craven, and Cohen. For Wood, "the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization re presses or op presses" (as quoted in Britton et al., p. 10). He argued that the manner in which any given horror narrative resolves this conflict reveals its ideological orientation, and further, that most movies will be conservative, repressing desire within the self and disavowing it by projecting it outward as a monstrous Other. The monster thus is usually understood as the "return of the repressed." This interpretation applies particularly well to horror stories featuring the premise of the beast within, like The Wolf Man (1941) or

the various versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to such a reading, the monster (representing a challenge to the dominant values of heterosexual monogamy), must be defeated by the male hero in order for him to take his proper place in patriarchy by successfully pairing with the inevitable female love interest, typically represented as the attractive daughter of the scientist or lovely lab assistant. Horror films such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) follow this narrative pattern.

Wood provides a list of specific Others in the horror genre: women, the proletariat, other cultures, ethnic groups, alternative ideologies or political systems, children, and deviations from sexual norms. All of these have been taken up by critics of the genre over the last two decades, although the last category—deviations from sexual norms—has been the one most frequently explored. However, some feminist critics have shown how horror monsters may be read as projections of masculine desire and anxiety over sexual difference. Following from Wood's perspective, many horror films are about anxieties over masculine performance, with women as the victims of male aggression. However, Carol Clover has argued that horror is potentially empowering for women. Her emphasis on the one female, or "final girl," who often survives the killer's rampage in slasher movies, transforming from terrified screamer to active heroine, killing the killer, has influenced numerous readings of horror films from Halloween to Alien (1979) and its sequels. Finally, some readings, such as that offered by Harry Benshoff, find in the genre a consistent monstrous representation of queerness and challenges to normative masculinity.

Perhaps because horror tends to raise questions about gender and its "natural" boundaries, women have been relatively important in the genre, first as consumers of gothic novels and later as makers of horror films. Significantly, although women have found it difficult throughout film history to become directors, they are noticeably prominent in horror film production, as evidenced by Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire (1971) and Terminal Island (1973); Amy Jones's take on the slasher film, The Slumber Party Massacre (written by Rita Mae Brown, 1982); Katt Shea Rubin's two Stripped to Kill movies (1987, 1989) and Poison Ivy (1992); Mary Lambert's two Pet Sematary movies (1989, 1992); Kristine Peterson's Body Chemistry (1990); Fran Rubel Kuzui's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992); Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987); and Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000).

Critics have also examined representations of class and race in horror films. Mark Jancovich has persuasively linked the development of horror to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the dialectic of class. A classic horror film like King Kong (1933) evokes the fear of racial miscegenation in the figure of the dark ape, the beast in love with the (white) beauty, while fundamental to Dracula's appeal is his suave aristocratic bearing. Some late-twentieth-century horror films, such as The People Under the Stairs (1991), Candyman (1992), and Tales from the Hood (1995), covering territory explored only occasionally in earlier films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Blacula (1972), have addressed issues of racial difference in horror. Questions of race in horror emerged with the casting of a black actor as the hero in Night of the Living Dead: killed by redneck vigilantes at the end of the film, his body is unceremoniously tossed onto a bonfire in freeze frames that evoke the contemporary racial violence then erupting across America.

Some critics have extended the psychoanalytic approach to horror beyond the texts themselves to account for the spectatorial pleasures of watching horror films, an act that on the surface might seem inexplicable given that the experience arouses fear rather than pleasure. Critics have also argued that horror films are particularly enjoyed by adolescents because in their awkwardness they can easily empathize with the monsters, who are social outcasts, and because they express in metaphoric form the physical changes—the hairiness of the werewolf, the sexual drive of the vampire—that occur with the onset of puberty. Certainly horror films do function as adolescent rites of passage and socialization, but such theories do not account for the appeal of all horror films. Whatever the particular fears exploited by horror films, they provide viewers with vicarious but controlled thrills, like the fright one gets from an amusement park ride. It is no accident that so many theme park rides are horror oriented. As Bruce Kawin says in his essay "Children of the Light," "A good horror film takes you down into the depths and shows you something about the landscape." Like Charon, who in Greek mythology ferries the souls of the dead, the horror film takes you on "a visit to the land of the dead, with the difference that this Charon will eventually take you home, or at least drop you off at the borders of the underworld" (p. 325).

SEE ALSO Cold War;Cult Films;Exploitation Films;Expressionism;Fantasy Films;Feminism;Genre;Germany;Great Britain;Makeup;Teen Films;Violence


Benshoff, Harry. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Britton, Andrew, Richard Lippe, Tony Williams, and Robin Wood. American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Grant, Barry Keith, ed. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Grant, Barry Keith, and Christopher Sharrett, eds. Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, revised ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Huss, Roy, and T. J. Ross, eds. Focus on the Horror Film. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Jancovich, Mark. Horror. London: Batsford, 1992.

Kawin, Bruce. "Children of the Light." In Film Genre Reader III, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 324–345. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Everett House, 1981.

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

McCarty, John. Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen. New York: St. Martin's, 1984.

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Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower Press, 2000.

Barry Keith Grant

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Horror Films

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