An Introduction to Horror Films

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An Introduction to Horror Films

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An Introduction to Horror Films


What Makes a Horror Film?

As with all

genres the label is a loose generalisation designed to characterise visual or thematic elements that typify a product in the mind of the consumer.

These include

the structure,





and the


of the film to the viewer.


“We have such sights to show you”

The Horror Film’s Structure

Basic structure

= Order, Chaos & Reconstruction


= Show a society (or microcosm thereof) dealing with catastrophic change, usually inflicted by a monster

Opening Act

= Depicts an ordered society unaware of impending disruption, e.g.

‘Normal’ Town


Halloween, Gremlins, A Nightmare on Elm Street

Isolated Group


The Thing, Evil Dead, Alien



Carrie, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby


= Threatens stability, is the chaotic element that breaks down the social order. The core of the film that establishes it as ‘horror’


= A return to stable (not necessarily good) form. The process of reconstruction provides the genre’s basic narrative drive


“It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

Sub-Genres & Horror Themes

Horror is a malleable genre, often merging with Sci-Fi, Thriller, & Fantasy

making it difficult to categorise or properly



What normally defines the horror film is the presence of a


There are many kinds of monsters & sub-genres but they generally fall into one or more of four categories, although each of these is subject to

cross-fertilisation & amalgamation




Nature represents primal fear. It’s chaotic, unpredictable & violent. Man’s insignificance in the universe is epitomised by futile attempts at controlling its forces.

The ecological horror film shows the effects of the planet on humankind, either as punishment for meddling

(The Host, Tremors),

the primitive attacking the modern

(Jaws, Grizzly)

or man as insignificant to the greater purpose of nature’s cycle

(Volcano, Long Weekend)

This sub-genre often crosses with the scientific monster

(Piranha, Jurassic Park).

Resolution is often achieved by scientific means

(The Swarm)


confrontation which re-establishes the protagonist’s link with the primitive self

(Jaws, The Descent)

or by nature simply running its course

(The Mist)



The supernatural monster is usually a

fantastical bogeyman

that cannot rationally exist. This monster often attacks both the body and the soul.

Many supernatural creatures are based on

religious mythologies



Associated with these are prescribed methods of dispatch, although the cinematic form will often expand, develop or defy them.

Supernatural monsters, because of their unfathomable & enigmatic nature, also allow the filmmaker to let their imagination run riot, creating terrors outside our waking reality



, The Grudge, Drag Me To Hell).



The psychotic killer is based in the real world.


from the


to the


have relied on the evil or madness of a vicious perpetrator to elicit their thrills.

Sometimes they are given an excuse or a reason for their actions; abuse at the hands of the father

(Peeping Tom),

a frightening Oedipal complex

(Maniac, Psycho),

or noisy neighbours

(Driller Killer)

. Occasionally there is no obvious motive for a killer’s crimes

(Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer).

Stories can be taken from the news

(Wolf Creek)

or claim to

be based on true events to provide extra chills


Chainsaw Massacre).

Sometimes the psychotic killer is

crossed with the supernatural

creating such memorable

horror icons as


Myers, Freddy Krueger &

Jason Voorhees.



Frankenstein’s monster is a product of man’s obsessive determination to create life from dead flesh, but who is really the monster, creation or creator? Scientific horror movies often reflect contemporary fears, such as radiation & the atom bomb

(Them!, Godzilla) or biological terrorist attack (28 Days later).

A popular staple of the genre is the mad scientist, with a brilliant mind yet fanatically driven, blinkered vision that can lead to all kinds of evil, accidental or intentional.

These films often explore the ethical

considerations of using science for

evil as well as good.; science is often

to blame when things go awry yet is frequently called upon to save the day.


“The world is so different in the daylight. But at night, your fantasies get out of hand” - The Mechanics of the Scares

As with all movies, horror films have a specific language that the audience subconsciously knows how to read.

Horror’s main aim is to elicit fear, terror or an unnerving sense of unease & there are many techniques that the filmmaker can employ when it comes to generating tension and pacing.


show nothing at all.

This lets the viewer’s imagination run riot, can be cheaper on the effects budget & can help lower the certification

(Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting).

However, the audience will eventually expect some gratification lest they feel cheated.

Secondly, make effective use of

tension, suspense & shock


Alfred Hitchcock

explains the difference between surprise & suspense by reference to a hypothetical scenario involving a bomb under a table in a restaurant. In one film the audience are unaware of the bomb, in the other they are not; ‘In the first case we have been given the 10 seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with 10 minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that wherever possible the public must be informed.’

Tension plays somewhere between suspense & shock & is important in the horror genre; the equivalent of misdirection in a magic trick. Tension is created by giving the audience a hint of what could happen, but not letting on when & how.

Shock provides a quick adrenaline rush & is usually preceded by tension, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be

(Final Destination).

Red herrings, however, are almost obligatory and form an important tool in the horror filmmaker’s repertoire of scare tactics.


“Movies don’t create psychos, they just make them more creative” – The Viewer’s Relationship to the Horror Film

The complex relationships between the viewer & screen provides a variety of conflicts that form the tone & emphasis of a film. This isn’t exclusive to horror, but the way in which various viewpoints are mixed dictates the overall feel of a piece and marks the film as horrific.

Key to the success lies with the director’s ability to appeal to an audience’s

emotional response

rather than a logical one – the medium is inherently artificial so that the viewer’s

suspension of disbelief

is vital if the film is to have resonance. The 3 modes of audience relationship to the screen in the horror film:

Voyeur, Victim & Violator.



The privileged spectator watches the acts of terror from a

detached viewpoint. The enjoyment lies in the spectacle or the relaying of the story.Linked with voyeurism is scopophilic desire &, conversely, helplessness that derives from being outside narrative intervention.

However, the detached viewpoint can result in a disinterested perspective, which allows the audience the luxury of viewing the film at an

aesthetic level

, removing any personal attachment to the characters.




with the character & experiencing the action from their viewpoint occasionally makes the viewer the

surrogate victim

of the horror. While the advantaged viewpoint leaves the spectator helpless, there is at least no direct threat to them, but from the victim’s POV this is not the case.



when Sally regains consciousness we watch (as she does) the ogling faces of the cannibal family who have captured her. In a sense we have become her for that moment.



The camera as a killer is a popular component of the horror film from

Peeping Tom






The viewer sees as the killer does & becomes implicated in the perpetration of the atrocity. It has been argued that this type of viewing somehow encourages the spectator to align with the killer’s way of thinking.

Associating with the killer through POV can create paradoxical reactions & meanings for the viewer; on one hand empathetic thrills on the other revulsion at being complicit in the violent act themselves. This technique is also commonly used to help hide the identity of the killer.


“Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: They confuse reality with illusion” – Censorship & The Scary Movie

The Hays Code

(a code of morality designed to curtail the decadent excesses of Hollywood at a time of authoritarian Puritanism) was implemented in 1934 & effectively restricted depictions of sex & violence. Compare the difference in tone between Frankenstein (1931) with its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

The history of the horror film is tied up with


Horror is considered lowbrow entertainment & calls have always existed for the establishment to curtail excesses or impose a morality code. Horror’s relationship with the censors has driven the market in various directions.


The collapse of the American

studio system

in the late 1960’s heralded a new era of unbridled sex & violence in the US. The breakdown of censorship guidelines allowed not only for a greater degree of exploitation and viscera but also allowed filmmakers to criticise the political process.

The emergence of the


movement coupled with international & domestic turmoil provided the impetus for a slew of horror films that used this new found freedom to critique the situation in a way that would reach people not normally exposed to

political allegory.

The links between political subversion & the horror film are strong, providing an alternative to reactionary state entertainment & holding up a mirror to society’s concerns.


In Britain, the 1980’s saw notorious the



furore. At the start of the home video boom there was no regulated form of censorship for home viewing & a

moral panic

was unleashed by the tabloid press outraged by the availability of such titles as




SS Experiment Camp.

Following a series of trials the decision was made to censor videos in a far stricter way than cinema through the

Video Recordings Act 1984

; this resulted in nearly two decades of limited and mangled content for the horror aficionado.

The situation has now changed although there are still restrictions that apply to various territories. The result is a world where anything goes and everything is denied. Somewhere.


“You can’t kill the Boogeyman” – Repetition, Remakes, Recycling & Reinvention

A prominent aspect of any genre film is the familiarity of the concept, the repetition of ideas that provide a short-hand for audience tastes

. Cinema is a

commercial art-form

so proven storylines inevitably generate imitations and sequels. What is unusual about the horror genre is the sheer number of sequels and imitations that are often generated.


alone has spawned 7 sequels & 2 remakes so far!


There are 3 elements to the horror

film franchise based around the popularity of the original film.


If a film is popular, continue the story but make it bigger, louder & with more thrills. When audiences go to see a sequel they are essentially looking to re-live the



experienced the

first time

around. However

, the law of

diminishing returns

usually comes into play

sooner rather than





would disagree, but it makes sound business sense to rejuvenate past successes. Horror films are most popular with 15-24 year olds, so if a story works, why not make it again, but update it for the next generation? A popular story can

easily accommodate

a reinvention every decade or





Many older horror films now find themselves ‘sexed-up’ for modern audiences with state-of-the-art gore FX & pounding soundtrack. Things become confusing when these films spawn their own sequels. Is the

Hills Have Eyes 2

(2007) a remake of

The Hills Have Eyes 2

(1985) or a sequel to

The Hills Have Eyes

(2006) which was a remake of

The Hills Have Eyes

(1977)? Does it matter in an era of post-modernity?


Foreign Remake:

Many classic horror films that were popular in their native country have been remade by Hollywood to appeal to an English-speaking audience who either can’t be bothered to read subtitles or are unaware of the original’s existence

(The Ring, The Grudge.)

Sometimes Hollywood studios will even hire the original director to helm the remake

(The Vanishing,



although the results rarely match up to the original, chiefly because a great deal of the culturally specific nuances that made the original what it was have been lost in translation.


Audience turnover combined with the joy of the familiar has ensured that we will continue to get

repetition, remakes & reinvention.

From a

marketing perspective

, even if the audience has not seen the original film, the familiarity of the titles & characters means that the advertising task –

awareness of the product

– is already complete.





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