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Toward an aesthetics of cinematic horror in culture

Toward an aesthetics of cinematic horror in culture
© Photograph by Universal Studios

Since the dawn of man, there have been stories told to frighten others. Some of the elements of horror are present in the form of massive epics like ‘The Odyssey’ or ‘Beowulf,’ where monsters and men interact on an alarmingly regular basis, but horror, as we understand it today, has been shaped not only by the distance of time but also of geography. Although cultural variations such as the Eastern European vampire mythology and tales of the Irish Banshee differ, there is still a shocking amount of universality to the human concept of horror.

In past centuries, it was possible for these tales and legends to exist in isolation, rarely if ever being encountered by a listener not a part of that culture, but the twin specters of technological innovations in developing and sharing visual mediums and growing globalization of the world has increased connectivity, and these old stories of ghouls and goblins are not only reaching new audiences but also facing new competition in the vast marketplace of ideas of what horror precisely consists of.

As Andrew Jones states, “Horror fans had truly international taste long before ‘world cinema’ came into its own, and still watch more foreign films than devotees of any other genre,” but, to some, what has been particularly problematic with this increasing communication between cultures is the domination of the American ideas of culture penetrating the people of other lands. Horror films are a unique example of American exceptionalism in this regard as the United States of America not only the worldwide capital of moviemaking but most notably in those that craft and portray nightmares. While the great trio of Gothic horror literature, ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ and ‘Dracula’ may have all been British inventions, their influence, as well as their characters, have migrated over the pond and taken on a truly American character. The weight of the United States of America culture on horror movies is strikingly evident, to the point where it may be considered to be a form of cultural imperialism, and this poses an interesting quandary for not only for a horror movie aficionado but also for studies of intercultural communication. As Stefan Dziemianowicz of the Washington Post put it in his review of ‘The Monster Show,’ “To understand a culture, you must know what it fears.”

Unfortunately, those two brands of scholars do not seem to overlap very often in the mind’s eye, but each brings a unique perspective to the question of horror movies as intercultural communication. The student of horror can articulate an answer to the question of whether or not horror movies have any social or artistic value, that is, whether there is any message to be communicated at all. The student of intercultural communication, on the other hand, can speak to the effects that the relative size, character, and influence of different sources and markets for horror films have on whether or not any communication takes place and what that communication looks like if it does. This paper’s arguments are twofold. The first is that horror movies provide a form of communication by virtue of being shaped by and speaking to the nature of the fears of society at the time of their creation. The second is that, while American culture plays an outsize dominant role in the international marketplace for horror movies, elements of other cultures have continued and still continue to exist, and can even exert some influence on the dominant United States of America culture. Ultimately, successful horror movies are those which best address the fears of their audience.

In his seminal work on horror, ‘Danse Macabre,’ Stephen Edwin King contends that, beyond serving pure bone-chilling thrills, horror as a genre serves as a form of catharsis, helping humans by allowing us to “make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” In this way, while much of the terror generated by horror movies tends to stem from the eternal human fear of death, Stephen Edwin King argues that, in the horror genre, “those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people” and that such fears, “are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural.” Stephen Edwin King further posits that “the horror genre is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful,” as a means of discovering the underlying fears of its audiences, and, “When the horror movies wear their various sociopolitical hats […] they often serve as an extraordinarily accurate barometer of those things which trouble the night-thoughts of a whole society.”

An incredible number of examples exist, from the dawn of horror film to the present. David John Skal notes, “that both America and Germany, in the years immediately following [World War I], found Jekyll and Hyde to be a viable commercial subject. The story of a man’s — and by way of audience identification, a country’s — descent into bestial violence had a clear metaphorical link to the conflagration just past.” The Great Depression saw horror movies become mainstream affairs, and David John Skal again points out that all of the archetypes of the period, “contained perceptible, if unintended, metaphors of economic and class warfare” in the form of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster serving as stand-ins for capitalists and laborers respectively. After the Second World War, David John Skal continues, “Monsters came in two basic shapes in the fifties: gigantic stomping mutations, explicitly the product of atomic testing; and alien invaders […] usually intent on some kind of brainwashing or ideological control. Fifties monsters personified the Bomb as well as the Cold War itself.” From these examples alone, Stephen Edwin King’s hypothesis that horror movies increase in popularity every ten or twenty years seems to be gaining credence, and it is important that he notes that “These periods almost always seem to coincide with periods of fairly serious economic and/or political strain, and the books and films seem to reflect those free-floating anxieties […] which accompany such serious but not mortal dislocations.”

Perhaps the most significant example of horror film serving as sort of mirror to a culture’s psyche comes from the late sixties and seventies when horror films seemed to seize upon all of the fears of the United States of America, with films representing the economic, sexual, and social fears of the era performing incredibly well at the box office. ‘The Amityville Horror,’ an ostensibly true tale about a haunted house, became the horror story of mounting bills and inadequate homeowners insurance in an era facing a severe economic crunch, ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ “A low-budget production, the first feature-length film of a group of independent filmmakers in Pittsburgh, released on the drive-in circuit with no fanfare,” as Gregory Walker recounts, “gained a large and committed audience and a rising critical reputation, so much so that the film department of the Museum of Modern Art invited George Romero to present it in a showing at the museum as part of a series devoted to the work of significant new directors” and David John Skal explains that “the plot of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was a brilliant metaphorical distillation of the widespread ambivalence and anxiety over sex and reproduction, concerns overshadowed by the garish glare of the swinging sixties.”

High above even these seminal films, however, stands, ‘The Exorcist,’ a movie that became a cultural phenomenon in the United States of America as a response not only as a religious answer to the widespread undermining of traditional religious authority and spirituality in America, but also as a cultural answer to the generation gap between the Woodstock generation and their elders, “who felt, in a kind of agony and terror, that they were losing their children and could not understand why or how it was happening.” Stephen Edwin King recalls that “Lines stretched around the block in every major city where it played, and even in towns which normally rolled up their sidewalks promptly at 7:30 P.M., midnight shows were scheduled. […] The country, in fact, went on a two-month possession jag.” ‘The Exorcist’ did so well at the box office because it addressed the cultural concerns of its audience, and that translated into revenue and prominence in that culture.

A more recent example of horror films expressing a coded message can be found in ‘28 Days Later,’ and its sequel, ‘28 Weeks Later.’ Birch-Bayley uses this pair of films as definitive examples of millennial horror films, arguing that, “horror films began to intensify as a result of a changing, unstable global climate,” with “the transformation of the global media following 9/11” playing an important role in crafting the new zombie aesthetic. The directors, Birch-Bayley argues, were focusing on was “not necessarily the fear of violence but the fear of society’s inability to suppress violence, and in the end, society’s inability to suppress a global crisis,” with ‘28 Weeks Later,’ in particular, representing “the pervading sense of futility in modern military intervention.” Both films speak to the new fears of the globalised, post-Cold War world, terrorism and global pandemics, by using the coding that has existed in horror films since the beginning.

But it is not just American audiences who find their taste in horror determined by their cultural preconceptions and fixations. Across the Pacific Ocean, Japan has cultivated one of the greatest examples of horror being geared toward cultural specifications, with Godzilla. As David John Skal explains, “Godzilla grafted atomic trauma onto the King Kong formula and launched one of the biggest ritual displays of naïve metaphor the world has ever seen.” To Western eyes, Godzilla may be seen as a goofy, over-the-top spectacle, but to the citizens of a country devastated by the dropping of two nuclear weapons, Godzilla served as a metaphor for the dangers and fears that they faced as a result of the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This cultural connection not only made the first Godzilla film so successful but also launched a horde of spin-offs and sequels that all built on the original film’s message and adapted and contorted it to new audiences.

Other cultures, on the other hand, have a less receptive attitude towards horror. Alexandre Aja, for example, states that “in Europe there is no horror movie”, with the lack of a receptive audience stemming from the problem that European people and governments have with violence, comparing it to American discomfort with nudity. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, Schneider and Williams see the very idea of horror served as repellent to those in charge, with officials of the state believing that “The horror genre […] and the formulas that constitute its essence, contradict almost every major tenet of Marxist historical materialism, of Soviet doctrine, and of socialist realist dogma” with “The fears and anxieties underpinning horror films […] [contravening] a materialist philosophy that holds as self-evident the primacy of man as a social and rational being, who acts primarily out of motives of material interest, and whose alienation stems from specific economic and social conditions.” Schneider and Williams also detail how the government has also played a role in hindering the production and distribution of horror films in Egypt, “since their transgressive violence and sadistic notion of sexuality […] could never pass official censorship in Egypt.”

So horror movies play an essential role reflecting the fears and feelings of a culture, but how well do these messages work when communicated across the boundaries of culture? Again, history provides many examples. From the start of the industry, Andrew Jones explains, “The contrast between European and American horror movies was stark. Whereas European studios went for dark artistry and inner meaning, in America studios were interested solely in cheap thrills and marquee exploitation.” Yet, these films found audiences in each other’s home country, helped by the fact that, according to Terence Rafferty, “horror is by its nature a good deal friendlier to cross-cultural transplantation than most movie genres, because fear is universal in a way that, say, a sense of humor is not: what we dread is far less socially determined than what we laugh at.” Although the United States of America is the worldwide leader in movie-making, and horror film especially, there have been many European success stories, even today. For example, the Spanish film ‘The Others,’ shot on a budget of $17 million, grossed “more than $200 million in worldwide rentals in theatres alone.” The earlier examples of ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘28 Weeks Later’ were British creations that, as we saw, found a receptive audience in the United States of America. Naturally, American films found a receptive audience in Europe as well, with the Wall Street Journal reporting, “that it was the top money-making film in all of Europe in the year of its release.” Europe and America were and are not the only players, however. From Japan came ‘Ju-on,’ which was remade in the United States of America as ‘The Grudge’ in 2004 and set the American record for any horror film’s opening weekend.

Why are films successful internationally? There is no real question as to why the studios are sending their films out to foreign countries since, as Christina Klein writes, “finding export markets can be the key to maintaining a solid stake in their own domestic markets” and “Growing revenues are necessary to raise film production budgets to levels beyond what their domestic market alone can support”, but what determines their success? One theory, put forth by Ian Olney, is that, “For all its commitment to crowd-pleasing spectacle, contemporary Hollywood cinema simply does not offer audiences the same opportunities for performative spectatorship that Euro-horror does”, and that a contemporary American horror film, “is a form of disposable entertainment intended to be consumed and quickly forgotten, a roller-coaster ride designed to thrill audiences without asking them to overthink or feel too deeply.” Euro-horror classic European horror cinema in contemporary American culture. In other words, American cinema lacks the excitement that its audience seeks, so they are turning to foreign films as a replacement. This is indeed an interesting hypothesis, but it fails to account for the historical exchange of horror films between cultures and narrows its view to the limits of films produced in the United States of America instead of exploring the relative merits and weaknesses of different cultures film output. Domestic horror movies do best when they speak to the fears of their audience, not merely the pedestrian fears of death and bodily harm, but rather the more nebulous economic, social, and political terrors undergone by that culture.

Films like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ became cultural landmarks in their countries of origins because of the connection that they established with their audience. But even horror films that make it to other countries are not exempt from the necessity of speaking to the deeper fears of their audience. The performances of ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘28 Days Later’ demonstrate this. They had to sink or swim by how well they communicate a message to a receptive audience. Horror movies use coding as a means of representing the deeper fears of society, and that viewers, both domestic and abroad, respond most positively when that communication addresses the worries and tribulations that they experience. In this way, horror films serve as a valuable means of communicating across cultures. Fear is one of the fundamental human emotions, and understanding what a culture fears of can shed an incredible amount of light on both the current status and concerns of that culture and the more historical, root aspects of terror in that culture. Everyone is afraid of something, but not everyone is scared of the same things. Horror cinema has the incredible potential to work on this level and deepen understanding across the divides of language, geography, and, of course, culture.

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