For a long time, I wasn’t sure if my father took joy in much of anything at all. He was a lower-middle class guy, even if he had made his way up the economic ladder a bit. He didn’t have many hobbies, and didn’t enjoy the company of his peers. And one of the only things he truly seemed to love was seeing fantastic amounts of viscera on screen. He thrilled himself by watching the obliteration of teenagers meddling in the occult, seeing yuppies gored, or academics rent to pieces for indulging their skepticism. Sometimes I thought I heard him cooing like a blissful newborn as he watched human flesh being noisily torn to shreds on his large-screen television with the volume on max. And, of course, in line with his taste for the diabolical, he didn’t seem to have an issue with inviting me, as an especially timid 9-year-old, to join in on the "fun."
The first horror film he showed me, I remember, was "The Gate"—the plot of which involved two boys, best friends, who uncover a hole in one of their back yards. A hole, of course, that turns out to be the gateway to hell. If I were to watch it again now I’m willing to bet this B movie, not even worthy of a Wikipedia page, wouldn’t qualify as the height of fright, but at the time it was enough to keep me sleepless and weepy for a week, and to pique my curiosity for years to come. My fate was solidified soon after at the behest of my six-foot-tall Scottish nanny. Her name was Jackie, and she was a brash woman with a fox pelt of red hair who owned a depraved 78-pound Rottweiler named Jack-o-Lantern with a taste for blood. It was under her ward that I watched my first "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie, "Freddy’s Dead." When I asked Jackie to stay with me until I fell asleep, afraid of clawed men in the night, she laughed heartily, and, as if looking to teach me a lesson, began to sing a lullaby.
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five six, grab a crucifix.
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten, never sleep again.
With the last syllable she shut the light off and closed the door with a click.
Over time the horror genre wormed its way into my favor. I’d never become as stalwart as my father or mad Jackie, but once I was able to look behind the curtain, to understand that directors and writers had specific goals in mind, I developed the ability to stay up late marathoning one grisly gore-fest after another. The process became exploratory and eventually therapeutic. An exercise in testing my own mental boundaries and trying to understand what, exactly, was drawing me back for more. In that time I learned that horror isn’t by any means monolithic. Subgenres existed aplenty. To this day trends tend to rise and fall and new subgenres are created every year. But whether you’re talking about "Saw"-style torture porn or modern, George A. Romero-style zombie invasions, the litmus test for a work of horror is that it attempts to instill intense discomfort in its audience--a discomfort that the audience wants.
But strangely enough, if I’ve gained anything from blood-curdling terror, it’s been a deep sense of comfort. When I watch or read a work of horror, it’s not because I want to feel bad. Whether it lines up with the goals of those in the industry or not, I watch horror movies to feel good. According to studies performed at the Rockefeller University in New York, horror fans fall into the category of "thrill seekers," compared with those who enjoy skydiving, base-jumping, or flirting with death in any semi-safe form. The study also concluded that horror films can raise both blood pressure and cortisol levels, and, most disturbingly, unlock repressed memories.
It’s hard to dispute the surface veracity of such facts. It’s undeniable that, particularly for casual fans, horror movies speed up your heart, make you perspire, leave you jumping at shadows and checking the back seat of your car hours, or even days, after viewing. But at the same time, I know that I’m the last person in the world to want to jump out of an airplane or bungee off a suspension bridge. I am terrifically afraid of risking my safety in service of an adrenaline rush, and in terms of physical activity prefer long walks to Tough Mudder. My father, while an avid gym devotee, was also not a thrill seeker (unless you consider going on Royal Caribbean cruises an act of death-defying adventure) and would sometimes fall asleep to the sound of chainsaws whirring. And as for Jackie, safety-oriented as she was, I think she would have worn a suit of armor around town if she could have. It seems the three of us, like many horror fans, came to find some sort of solace in destruction. We became intrigued by the sheer inventiveness involved in creating new ways to give people nightmares.
When the genre was revamped in the seventies, giving birth to what we consider to be modern horror, unprecedented amounts of gore were released onto the screen to poor results. The response at the time encircled a mixture of confusion and disgust. Steven Koch, writing on the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in Harpers in 1978, labeled the film “a vile little piece of sick crap…with literally nothing to recommend it.” The film was subsequently banned in the UK, and was only re-embraced as culturally and critically important in more recent times.
Gene Siskel, though he found John Carpenter’s "Halloween" worthy of praise, said of its derivative, "Friday the Thirteenth": “There is nothing to (it) other than its sickening attack scenes; remove them and you’re left with an empty movie.” "Halloween" itself, when released in 1980, though favorably compared in some ways to Alfred Hitchcock’s "Psycho," was still viewed by critics across the industry as schlock, a meaningless thrill-romp that had managed to land a keen director. Only among those who really care about horror films did the slasher subgenre, and horror as a whole, seem to gain any thoughtful attention, as it has been analyzed over its treatment of women and the way it defies mainstream narrative expectations.
In his famous essay "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s," the late film critic Robin Wood wrote the following: “The true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization repressed or represses.” In other words, whether you’re talking about the classic horror films of the 1930s or the modern variety, horror exists primarily to defy social conventions. And not just social conventions, but narrative conventions. Not to say that successful art doesn’t ever challenge the status quo, or that it exists primarily to cater to the mainstream. But that conventional works rely on pre-established norms.
Horror films, on the other hand, seem to be more concerned with examining, and then widening, the cracks in polite society, playing on paranoia when the barn is on fire. This is particularly true in modern horror, which deals with late 20th and early 21st century social dilemmas such as wealth inequality, sexism, immigration and terrorism. You begin with a family as normal as any other in pop-cultural representation, a symbol of the American middle class, possibly with children, and, as opposed to examining their lives, deconstructing them in the manner of John Cheever or Jonathan Franzen, you breach the home, you defile it, you tear it to pieces. You leave it bloody and dying on the ground without asking questions, and decide whether the victims are worthy of survival.
Another of the conventions of modern horror visited upon the middle class is the killing the family dog. There are too many modern horror films to count here in which the beloved canine is killed in the opening moments by an encroaching malevolence. Whether in "Halloween" (which in many ways set the precedent for the trope) to the experimental Austrian film "Funny Games," the killer, ghost, or monster first defiles the home by doing away with man’s best friend. The idea of such a thing is disturbing if only for the reason that dogs, and animals in general, are innocent. But in the context of the horror genre, they also represent the pinnacle of human civilization: domesticity. The family dog in particular, beyond the family cow or chicken or even cat, is, in a Western context, viewed as representative of luxury and protection. Dogs aren’t just meant to bring pleasure to a family, to be loyal and respond to commands. They are, if large enough, meant to guard against danger.
So when a dog is killed, then, as usually happens early on in a great number of modern horror films, the notion of stable society is breached. The family unit is endangered. Societal norms, heights of human achievement in this new age of civilization, have been rendered ineffective, and crumble before the primeval forces of an evil that seethes beneath us all. In Stephen King’s "Salem’s Lot," the precursor to a vampire invasion of a small town is marked by the grisly murder of a local dog. "Cujo" is even more disconcerting, the story centering on the animal turning against its masters. A more recent film, "The Conjuring," which made waves for harkening back to a seventies horror aesthetic, kills off its friendly canine. The same goes for "Cape Fear," "Drag me to Hell," "The Grudge," and countless others.
In the book "Stephen King’s America," author Burton Hatlen remembers a time when the great horror author talked about how he looks at character. “A writer like Flaubert in 'Madame Bovary' writes about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances. I write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” Though King isn’t the first author to work within such a framework, I think there’s a good reason why he’s been such an influence on American horror. If there’s one thing that everyone understands, it is fear. Fear is understood by people like my father, who never had a taste for anything intellectual but the occasional historical biography and newspapers. People like Jackie, who looked after other people’s bratty kids. People like me, who click away on laptops, thinking about why things scare me. Horror as a genre seems to think that the stable world you’re presented with is false, and the one depicted in horror films--caustic, chaotic, dangerous--is a refreshing balm for the brain. Not because you enjoy watching violence—particularly for someone like me, who cringes at the sight of actual blood--but because fear reveals more about the world we live in then we’d like to admit.
On some level, whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s possible that we all expect society to crumble, and realize that we’re living on shaky ground. And if that’s the case, modern horror tests those eerie frontiers, hoping, perhaps, that we’ll be able to use it as a tool to fight against our downfall. To survive. How many times have you heard people screaming at the screen during a scary movie? How many times have you done so yourself? How many times have you yelled, “Don’t go in there! Don’t open that door!” All as if to say that, if we were to find ourselves in the same situation as the characters on screen, faced with a killer standing behind a shower curtain or a monster lurking in the dark, we would have known better. That we wouldn’t have gone down that dark alley. That when the threat came for us, we would have defeated it.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that, if anything, horror has been a beneficial force in my life. It’s helped me tackle my fears, or at least face them head-on. In observing different ways in which the end can come, I’ve begun to feel connected to my humanity in ways I might not have been before. I find that a world in which no one is safe is more similar to the one I know. To me, horror tells the stories of ordinary people with bills to pay and families to raise and vices to fight. Ordinary people that, the more in tune with adversity they are, the better chance they’ll have of survival. Horror takes on our societal fears head-on, in grotesque and questionable ways.
For instance, and though I’m not a fan of the films myself, the vicious imagery of the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises coincided with the horrors of Abu Ghraib, as the United States entered a period of serious soul searching over how far it would go in the name of national security. Instead of attempting to beat around the bush, horror goes right for the jugular. It wonders what happens when humankind is pushed to its limits. It’s the genre of immediacy. More than just offering an audience a thrill-ride, raising the heart rate and dredging up fear, it helps those who have been hurt by this world to survive.