The Changes in American Horror Why do we love horror?

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In class two concepts stood out to me, the almost negative connotations of genre and their conventions, and the thought that the monsters in horror come from our deep fears which often stems from history and the social climates at the time.

What we expect from horror:

When I think of horror films first and foremost I think of fear. It’s no secret that the ability to induce fear in the audience is the biggest goal of most horror films, though the way they are able to create this fear splits up the genre into numerous sub genres. Horror stories have a long history in literature and ancient myth, but today the most common way for people to get their necessary dose of fear is through movies (Grant). Today genre is something that is looked at in a less than positive light, mostly because modern movie industries, and as Bo Burnam kindly pointed out the music industry as well, genres have become more of a template for selling more movies. Lots of the common conventions of modern day Horror aren’t necessarily singular to that genre, but still hold a very important role.

One of the things that most horror movies traditionally have is binary opposition, commonly good vs evil or human vs nonhuman (Cotton). Many movies use this form of binary opposition to make it easier for the audience to find one singular thing to project their negative feelings on. Another common structure in horror movies is the three narrative structure, which includes the setup and introductions of characters, the confrontations, and then resolution. This basically goes over how the evil upsets the balance of normalcy but eventually the evil is overcome and like nothing ever happened everything is back to normal (Bettley). Another exceedingly common part of generic horror is the objectification and victimization of women, though this is something that is very common in many genres historically and in the present (Cotton).

Generic horror often also employs the use of stereotypical characters, which does tie in to the helpless woman and the heroic man, but also includes the athletic guy that everyone looks to but usually dies anyway, the innocent one who leave unaffected after the event, and the slutty blonde who probably dies first (Bettley). Now these are just a few common conventions for generic horror, but more and more this generic Hollywood style of horror is becoming subtler and less cookie cutter, still often using similar iconology. More and more horror movies are starting to blend the line of binary oppositions and internalizing good vs evil struggles.

Even as movies try to get less and less generic, probably because it has become a sort of comedy to make fun of these generic conventions (for example the Scary Movie series which do hilarious genre analysis of horror), there are many conventions that most can’t seem to get away from…though probably to their benefit. A few subtler and highly common conventions include the use of isolation to create a sense of desperation, many times using the weather to trap someone so that the thing that is going to cause fear cannot be avoided and no one can help. Lighting and sound are always used to add suspense by giving clues to when something bad is about to happen. Jump scares often take advantage of this built up suspense and the added darkness of the scenes (Bettley).

How this has changed and evolved with time:

Horror has and unmistakable place throughout history, usually it is influenced by historical events and is almost like a coping mechanisms for the very real fears within everyday life ("What is Horror Fiction?" & 100 Years of Horror ). “Horror, by nature, is a personal touch -- an intrusion into our comfort levels. It speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand.” ("What is Horror Fiction?"). Most people can agree that horror is made to scare, disturb, and in general elicit a response. It was surprising to me when it was brought up in class that monsters and villains were heavily effected by real world events at the time of their creation, though once I thought about it more and did research I was disappointed with myself for not connecting the dots on my own. Once I looked at historical events side by side with the evolution of horror entertainment it seemed to be filled with parallels that now seem easy to spot if you are paying attention. In (100 Years of Horror) there are four distinct evolution in American horror entertainment that outline the changes in popular horror and “the state of the American Dream.”

1. The first era begins in the 1930’s, this is highly dependent on the great depression. People were so eager to escape their difficult and taxing lives that they often turned to cheap entertainment…like the movies. The horror genre reflected the need to escape in most of their films in this era, the movies were almost always set in foreign lands with fantastic monsters from 19th century stories and folklore, for example Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The detachment from familiar surroundings allowed people to escape their fears and watch the fears of others in faraway places (100 Years of Horror).

2. The next era is the 1950’s, this change in horror is heavily influenced by the end of World War 2, and the beginning of the Cold War. The general public’s very real fear of nuclear annihilation and invasion of an alien presence (communism) translated easily into the fear of giant normal creatures altered by nuclear science (giant spider that destroys whole town for example) and alien invaders from outer space (100 Years of Horror).

3. The 1960’s and 70’s altered the conventions of horror once again, this time because of the Vietnam War as well as the emergence of counterculture and activism. The Vietnam War was the first war that the American public could not simply forget about until it was over, mostly because it was highly covered and many people could see easily the real horrors of war through news casting. Because of the eye-opening nature of this coverage, many people turned against the war, which in turn lead to development of counterculture. As the American public split apart and the true horrors of war were revealed, the Horror genre began to change from symbolism and fantastic escapes from reality to ‘ultrarealistic’ and full of taboo busting, really holding a mirror to the possibilities of evil in every person. Two quotes from (100 Years of Horror) perfectly outline the nature of these movies “unflinching view of human brutality and moral depravity” and “the staid, censored horror films of their parents’ generation gave way to more explicit, provocative, and boundary-pushing works of cinematic terror.” The counterculture movement allowed the general public to truly see the terrible and very real consequences of violence, and also looked deeply at the rift between old and new within the country. This was highly influenced by the extremely popular movie Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, which forced the general public that evil doesn’t just exist on the opposing side, or just in monsters and villains. Monsters are everywhere hiding in plain sight, even hiding behind the mask of someone seemingly normal (100 Years of Horror).

Psycho is extremely monumental in this era.

4. 2001- present stared with a kick-start, the biggest even being 9/11. This started the era of torture and terror. This era caused a blur in the typical binary oppositions, people started to realize that monsters are on both sides and the representation of right and wrong involved less black and white but mostly the grey in-between the two. “Two sides calling each other monsters doesn’t prove that monsters don’t exist” (Asma). Torture became popular, possibly to highlight the shamefulness of the accusations that the Bush administration faced concerning the torturing of war criminals and innocent people in the name of fighting terror (100 Years of Horror).

This era is a revival of horror, and is constantly blurring the lines of good and bad. Dexter is a perfect example of this

“Horror, by nature, is a personal touch -- an intrusion into our comfort levels. It speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand.” ("What is Horror Fiction?").

Asma, Stephen. "Monster and the Moral Imagination" Chronicle of Higher Education. Oct. 2009.

Bettley, Arron. "Generic conventions of horror." Share and Discover Knowledge on LinkedIn SlideShare. N.p., 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.

Cotton, Shannon. "Research: Conventions of the Horror Genre." Shannon Cotton. N.p., 22 Apr. 2013. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.

Grant, Barry. "Screams on Screens: Paradigms of Horror" Brock University. web. 07 Feb. 2017.

"What is Horror Fiction?" Horror Writers Association - What is Horror Fiction? N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.

"100 Years of Horror: Culture Shock: The Influence of History on Horror." Bloody Disgusting! N.p., 09 July 2010. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.

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Mary Brown
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Created with images by taymtaym - "OKIMG_9026" • ErikaWittlieb - "joker heath ledger batman" • cdrummbks - "frankenstein" • shawnzrossi - "Alien Invaders" • bmills - "Sunny Side Motel" • Dyl86 - "dexter"

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