Jun 28 2012 11:00am

Whatever Happened to Horror?

The essence of horror is horror. A potent amalgam of fear, terror, and  revulsion. The first masterpiece written in the English language, Beowulf, is full of blood and gore. Shakespeare was fond of horror too. I recently saw a production of Macbeth that made liberal use of buckets of the red stuff. And then we have the Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Magnificent books, that not only make us shudder, but also explore lofty philosophical ideas.

I’ve always loved horror, but I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the line—over the last 20 years or so—the genre has lost its way. It doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Is anybody attempting to address the big questions anymore? Does God exist? Is there life after death? Is there more to the universe than meets the eye? Horror is less likely these days to exercise its intellectual muscle. Indeed, the genre has become increasingly associated with younger audiences and teen romance.

Now, I have no problem with books and films that introduce new fans to the genre. Indeed, I would argue that you’re never too young to start reading horror. Most fairy tales, which frequently feature fanged predators and child abduction, are basically horror. This, I consider a wholly good thing (an opinion, might I add, shared by a large number of very distinguished child psychologists). Fairy tales work well because they are horrific. Yet, much of what passes for horror today is, in fact, ‘love story’.

This isn’t a trend started by Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight books. Horror has always overlapped with ‘romanticism’, ever since Dr. John Polidori recognized the fictional possibilities of his brooding patient, Lord Byron, and wrote ‘The Vampyre’ back in 1816. Be that as it may, if the unique potency of the genre is to be preserved, romance should be employed in the service of horror, not the other way round.

Of course, vampirism has always been understood as a metaphor for sex. But metaphors are most effective when they are subtle. Metaphors make an appeal to the unconscious and produce unnerving resonances. When the sexual subtext of vampirism is made explicit, we lose all those pleasing, tantalising unconscious resonances, and are left with an experience that lacks richness and complexity. Freud, in his famous essay on the uncanny, suggested that the unnerving feelings we sometimes get when presented with certain objects or situations is attributable to the stirring of unconscious memories. Usually, such memories are traumatic, sexual, or both. It only feels uncanny because we don’t really understand what’s going on. If we did understand, it wouldn’t feel uncanny anymore.  

Psychologists haven’t spent a great deal of time trying to work out why horror is such a popular genre, but one of the most persuasive theories suggests that creatures such as werewolves, zombies and vampires, represent exaggerated versions of the primeval threats encountered by our ancestors. Evolution has ensured that we will always take a keen interest in things that move around in the dark and bite, because, at one time, the survival of the species depended on it. If your remote ancestors hadn’t possessed this keen interest, they would have soon become cat-food and you wouldn’t be reading this now. The roots of horror sink deep into the human psyche.

An evolutionary account of horror suggests that for the genre to be successful, certain conventions must be observed. The threats that our ancestors faced were terrifying and utterly alien. There was never any danger of our ancestors sympathizing with the creatures that wanted to kill them. Yet, contemporary horror–particularly the romantic variety—abounds with sympathetic monsters, and thus, horror is severed from its deepest roots. Sympathy arises when we give our monsters an internal psychology. And this, in horror writing, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Anne Rice, for example, vampires didn’t really have an inner world accessible to the reader. I have a feeling that real horror requires incomprehension. Horror should return us to the state of our primitive forbears.

When I decided to try my hand at horror, these considerations were uppermost in my mind. I wanted to write a vampire story, but to get back to basics. I wanted it to induce fear, terror, and revulsion, and I did not want my monster to have an internal psychology or be in any way sympathetic. As for romance: well, I allowed myself romantic sub-plots, but the monster I created is the absolute antithesis of Lord Byron or a teenage heart-throb. I was eager to wrestle with some big philosophical questions, and I was intent on producing a book that would appeal to grown-ups.


Because I love horror. True, it might also be because I’m a middle-aged, reactionary bore. But naturally, my preference is for the more charitable interpretation.

F.R Tallis is a clinical psychologist and novelist. His crime series (written as Frank Tallis) has been nominated for numerous awards and optioned for TV. The Forbidden, published by Macmillan, is a tale of Gothic horror set in 19th century France.

alastair chadwin
1. a-j
I suspect there may be something cyclical about this. The Universal monsters had become essentially comic until re-imagined by Hammer. Something similar may yet happen with sparkly vampires. I also suspect that readers' need for cathartic horror is currently being met by the torture porn films (Saw etc) and walking dead films/TV series while vampires fill a 'Heathcliffe' (for want of a better analogy) role.

Good luck with your book.
Scott Silver
2. hihosilver28
One horror film that I loved recently was "The Cabin in the Woods". I thought it was very well written with a fantastic concept and I loved the meta aspect of it. Out of curiosity, has anyone seen "Funny Games" here? Not an "enjoyable" movie, mainly because the director purposely nullifies any catharsis, but very well made. I wanted to like it, but the moment it crashed through the fourth wall, just yanked me right out of the movie.
Wizard Clip
3. Wizard Clip
A very enjoyable essay. Mr. Tallis, I share your taste for old school, nasty vampires. Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" comics frequently feature vampires in this more classic mold, as does "Baltimore," the novel Mignola wrote with Chris Golden. A couple of years ago Eric Powell did a hilarious parody of Anne Rice-style vampires in his "Goon" comic, and a few months back he took aim at the "Twilight" vamps.

I would disagree somewhat with the claim that "There was never any danger of our ancestors sympathizing with the creatures that wanted to kill them." It is not unusual to find sympathetic monsters in fairytale, fable, and myth. Consider American Indian tribes that totemized predators such as wolves and, especially, grizzly bears. While these animals were perceived as potentially threatening, a warrior might also seek communion with them in order to gain their power. This was a common practice among various cultures worldwide.

We can also find sympathetic werewolves in European myth and legend. The Norse hero Sigmund lives as a werewolf for a period in the Volsunga Saga. Then there's the the werewolf hero of the medieval French legend "Bisclavret." This is a variation on the "beast groom" motif common throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Wizard Clip
4. Megaduck
Thinking about this, and about what makes good horror and I'm wondering if the questions that horror used to address have expanded into other areas beyond simply the monster genre.

Specifically, I'm thinking about Dystopia fiction such as 1984 or The Hunger Games. They both show a person against a larger and impersonal force that is trying to cause them harm.
Joseph Kingsmill
5. JFKingsmill16
I haved loved watching any of the Hammer Horror films that I can. I personally believe that they still hold up. Also, because of Hammer, Christopher Lee more symbolizes Dracula to me than Bela or anyone else who has played the role. I don't think anyone else can embody it more than him.

I also don't think Hollywood is capable of making quality horror movies like the original The Uninvited (1944), The haunting, and The Legend of Hell House. With horror I believe less is more. The need to put over the top cgi (and now 3d) just takes away from the atmosphere.
Wizard Clip
6. SF
I'm more familiar with horror in film than in the written form, so these comments may hold only for that.

In film, at least, sympathetic monsters are nothing new. Look at James Whale's two Frankenstein films, back in the early 30s. Look at The Wolf Man in the 40s. Look at Romero's treatment of zombies in Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead in the 70s, 80s and mid-00s. Look at Cronenberg's mid-80s remake of The Fly. I think all of those films, and others like them, would be weakened without those elements of sympathy.

I also think that sympathetic monsters can be useful for thinking about and telling stories about the relationship between society and its outsiders. And those stories, and those monsters, can resonate quite strongly for people who actually are outsiders for one reason or another.

I'm not saying that all horror stories should construct sympathetic monsters - Lovecraft works great without them, John Carpenter's The Thing works great without them, Murnau's Nosferatu, there are numerous other examples. And these kinds of stories can be powerful and useful as well, and are vital parts of the genre.

But I do disagree with the notion that sympathy for the monster necessarily undercuts or is alien to the genre in some way.
Ashe Armstrong
7. AsheSaoirse
I think the answer to the question is that slasher films happened to horror. With each new Halloween, each new Friday the 13th, each new derivitive or outright rip off, it became less about horror and more about body count. Less about the feeling of dread creeping up your skin and more about body parts and viscera. And those things are fine but they have oversaturated the film world. In the lit world, you can still find real horror stories, but in film and television, not so much.

The Hammer movies have been mentioned and bless them. Atmosphere. Moody, appropriately attired (clothing AND sets) atmosphere. This is, I think, what is so sorely missing anymore. Stings/Startles are not horror. People who are easily startled aren't scared, they're annoyed because that's not scary, it's startling. You can USE a startle to enhance the creeping terror but when it's nothing but that, it's boring, it's plain.

And now we have the torture porn and the "found footage" epidemic, the latter of which I despise even more than torture porn. Found footage could be good but, in my opinion, it just fails. The stories are thin, and it ends up just being about the style. And torture porn, well, the name says it all. Boring.

Anymore, I think most true horror films are billed as thrillers because slashers and monsters were relegated to "horror." And "Horror" was relegated to "shitty movie with monsters/killers." Vicious cycle and all that.

I do think that a lot of the issues that OP presents are fantastic points but definitely need the counter balance of some of my fellow commenters, (specifically sympathy for a monster). I would very much like to remedy some of the issues with horror films and will be endeavoring to do so the next time I try my hand at a horror movie.

As for literature, what's popular tends to be the things with heavy sex and romance, but there is still a wide array of true horror out there to enjoy. Keep adding to it!
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
With all due respect, having vampires, zombies and werewolves doesn't necessarily make a work of fiction "horror". It's nt that horror's gone soft, it's that its classic tropes have been taken over by other genres. Horror is still going as strong as ever, in SF, weird fiction and psychological horror; it's just old-fashioned supernatural horror that sufferes.
Wizard Clip
9. The_Picard
I think you've described the difference between dark fantasy and horror. For example: Salem's Lot is horror; True Blood is dark fantasy. True, dark fantasy was born of horror--but it's a separate subgenre.
alastair chadwin
10. a-j
What seems to have happened is that when Hammer used colour to emphasise the blood, that set the trend for films to concentrate on the special effects. Later films such as The Evil Dead cemented this. Horror films became all about the special effects, about the gore content. Interestingly I recently saw John Carpenter being interviewed where he expressed his dislike of the original Cat People because you never see the monster. I wonder how much influence he had.
However, we do seem to be living in a golden age for ghost films, with the Asian glories of Ringu, Dark Water, Eye etc, the Spanish hitting hard with The Devil's Backbone and Orphanage and us plucky Brits coming in with The Others and The Awakening. Not seen Woman in Black yet, but it seems to be popular.
Wizard Clip
11. Wizard Clip
I think the question of sympathy for the monster hinges on exactly what cultural anxiety the monster embodies. For example, much of the horror of the inter-war years featured deformed and patchwork beings (Frankenstein's monster being a prime example, as are many of the characters played by Lon Chaney). Society was repulsed by these individuals, who reflected the anxiety evoked by the presence of maimed and scarred WWI vets. At the same time, society bore responsibility for their creation (both the vets and their cinematic counterparts), hence the sympathetic portrayal.

A more subtle metaphor for the damage wrought by WWI might be found in Cesar the sleepwalker, from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Here the deformity is less physical and more psychological.

On the other hand, Graf Orlock, the vampire in Murnau's 1922 film "Nosferatu" is largely unsympathetic. The metaphor in this case is no mystery. Nosferatu comes from an old slavonic word meaning "plague carrier." When we consider the influenza epidemic of 1918, it's not surprising that Orlock is a repugnant character, more rodent than human (though the late 70's remake starring Klaus Kinski did attempt to turn Orlock into a more tragic figure).
Wizard Clip
12. N.Mamatas
Horror was never really about "exaggerated versions of the primeval threats encountered by our ancestors," and has always had an element of the abject: the Outsider that it is also the Insider. Horror's roots in the Gothic has much to do with a post-Reformation vision of Catholicism—that sect was seen as devilish and apostate, but its spectacle (eschewed by the Protestants) was still compelling. The terror of the vampire isn't that one might attack you, but that you might become one if insufficiently devout. Ditto the werewolf. The zombie clearly is about the outsider-insider—zombism as a state is a punishment for social transgressions in pre-Romero voudon conceptions. (To a certain extent it still is, though post-Romero the field of transgression has gone from the individual who flouts social norms to the level of class antagonisms.)

I also look askance at any suggestion that readers or viewers enjoy any particular genre because of "evolution."
Wizard Clip
13. SF
@10 a-j: But special effects, at least in terms of make-up effects and photographic effects, have been a part of the film genre from the start. Look at the creature creation scene from Edison's 1910 Frankenstein, Lionel Barrymore's Jekyll & Hyde in the 20s, or the work of Jack Pierce on the Universal films. Spectacle has often been part of these sorts of films, with the Val Lewton Cat People, from the 40s, offering an alternative approach.

What you do get in the 70s and into the 80s is the rise of special effects technology and special effects auteurs, so to speak, like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Rob Bottin. And this extends to the present day - Greg Nicotero (the "N" of KNB Efx, one of the major physical effects houses), got his start working with Savini on Day of the Dead in the mid-80s.

Savini, in particular, has talked about how his experience as a military photographer in Vietnam influenced his work. Check out the documentary "The American Nightmare" for a good look at the development of the genre in the 70s. Some good interviews with Savini, Romero, Carpenter, Cronenberg.

I think the biggest part of the most recent ghost cycle has already passed for now, in the early 00's. Films like Woman in Black (which is a remake, isn't it?) and The Innkeepers feel like the outliers in the genre right now. The Innkeepers in particular feels like a deliberate throwback (including shooting on film), kind of like director Ti West's House of the Devil was a deliberate throwback to 70s/80s slasher and devil films.

The early 00's ghost cycle might have been influenced by the influx of J-horror in North American and British markets, but the fact that these films could be PG-13 also seems to be important. Possibly, the PG-13 ghost films of the early 00's helps pave the way for the later PG-13 romance-horror films, like the Twilight films.

@12 N.Mamatas: In addition to the class aspect (most evident in Land of the Dead), I think Romero-style zombies are also about the inevitability of death, both for ourselves and for those we care about. This is something I think is lost with the newer running zombies, where they're basically just another monster with teeth.
alastair chadwin
14. a-j
Fair point about effects always being at the heart of most horror films, but I hold that an emphasis on gore and body mutilation. But then I tend to differentiate within the genre between ghost stories, horror and gothic fantasy (Hammer et al) which are attempting somewhat different things. Horror seeks to elicit fear through disgust and trepidation of death/severe pain; ghost stories seek to do so by implication and atmosphere and gothic fantasy (which is a term Christopher Lee used to describe his Dracula films) creates a lush sensuous world filled with temptation and dangerously seductive evil. Thus MR James' stories are always described as ghost stories despite ghosts rarely appearing in them. Horror motifs such as giant spiders, animated corpses and vampires are far more common with him. But he seeks to arouse fear through the use of atmosphere.
I hope you're wrong about the ghost film era coming to an end, but fear you might be right. It's one of my favourite genres and wistful thinking may be part my comments.
Oh, and fwiw, The Woman in Black is based on a novella by Susan Hill which has already been adapted for TV (with a script by Nigel Kneale no less) and for theatre with an insanely successful London West End production which has been running for years.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment