Although horror is often seen as mere pulp fiction, to dismiss the horror genre in such a way is giving this style of creative work a disservice. The bible is filled with works of horror which in turn influenced, Dante Alighieri to create his epic poem, the Divine Comedy which includes the truly horrifying, Nine Gates of Hell. Such stories have been told to keep us on the straight and narrow, while more modern day classics have tapped into our primal fears, including: Bram Stokers, Dracula, Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Although the book was written as an adventure yarn, Stoker’s explored some of the key fears that are used in modern day horror films, including: fear of women being corrupted by their own sexual urges outside of the marital bedroom, fear of death, coupled with the fear of what lies beyond and the fear of the ‘other’.
For decades, women haven’t fared too well in horror fiction, a point that has been lampooned both in the Scream franchise, and more recently the brilliant, The Cabin in the Woods, unless they are pure and virginal. In Stoker’s Dracula, there are two women, Wilhelmina, the school teacher, engaged to lawyer, Joathan Harker, and her best friend Lucy. Although both women play to the Victorian values, Lucy is single at the beginning of the novel and has three men chasing after her. This in modern day horror terms would make Lucy the blond victim, who has tons of sex, smokes a joint and therefore not going to make it to the final chapter.
The other fear stoker tackles is the very fear of death and more frightening, the uncertainty of what lies beyond. This is something that has gripped us from the day that man (or woman) created fire, sat around it and told stories. Do we just get burnt to a crisp and scattered or buried in the ground and fed on by worms? Or is there something beyond this world of ours? For those who believe in the latter, the vampire myth really messes with their head; tapping into the anxiety that Dante wrote about with his vision of being stuck in limbo, not belonging on the earth and banned from heaven. However, a more realised fear is one of foreign invasion. These films tap into horrors past and present: from the flea infestation resulting in the black death of 1665, right up to the scare mongering of Blair and Bush’s cries of, weapons of mass destruction, which funnily enough where both invisible to the eye.
This fear of foreign invasion has been used time and again in some very diverse horror films; one of the most iconic being, Don Siegel’s, 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the population are turned into emotionless, empty pods, with the appearance of human beings. Siegel’s film tapped directly into America’s fear of a communist invasion, drummed up by the McCarthy administration.
George Romeo’s, took this idea one step further in his 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Romeo cranks up the fear factor to the hilt, where loved ones look normal on the outside but had become soulless member of the family, to a rotting corps, soulless member of the family…with a taste for brains.
Again the film was tapping into a number of fears, that generation of America faced. These included, a continues suspicion of a communist uprising, the nuclear threat posed by Russia during the cold war, during the time of the cold war. (the film shows televised news reports citing the reason the dead had crawled out of their graves. Romeo also made his audience look at the issue of race and racism, by casting a black actor, Duane Jones as Ben, into the lead role, a role that didn’t specify a black person, a first for American cinema and made all the more powerful, with a highly dysfunction, all white supporting cast.
Jump forward a couple of decades and a whole new horror is sweeping across the world. The 1980’s saw the destructive force of AIDS, killing hundreds, mainly gay men. An interesting take on the epidemic may be seen in David Fincher’s take on the Alien franchise; Alien 3. For example, the film is set in outer space where a wooden monastery, houses a, male only order. The men find their very lives under threat by an alien invasion, to which they have no weapons or means of defense to fight back.
More recently, horror has upped the gross factor it direct response to the horrors of our time. Torture porn style films, Hostel (1-3) Saw, (1-7) rewrote the rules of horror, and upped the gore factor. Although there was an up cry at such graphic torture, violence and gore, this genre was only doing what it has always done and reflected the real horrors of the world around us. From the news of torture and humiliation taken place behind the bars of Guantanamo Bay, to the news stories of young men being blown up by bombs.
Far from being mere pulp fiction, horror plays a vital role in the way we see the world, from a controlling force to something that allows us to face and challenge our primal fears that lay just below the surface of our goose bumped skin, to showing the violence being committed in the world.