Other Thoughts

The Culture of Fear

I love being scared. I watch countless horror movies, read all the macabre mysteries I can get my hands on, and trek annually to a slew of New England haunted houses and hayrides. I come from a family of folks who HATE horror movies. I didn’t see Nightmare on Elm Street until I was 16 and I am still catching up with the movies that were so foreign in my house growing up.

When I was deep in the thick of film school, we would watch classic horror films and talk solely about the production logistics and cinematic elements that told a good horror story. What mattered to me, however, was not how horror movies were made, but why?

I minored in literature, and I noticed that there were constantly overlapping themes in horror films and literature. I started doing some research and writing boring academic papers on reflections of horror in society and how horror defines society, but I realized quickly that horror wasn’t affecting society half as much as society was being reflected in horror.

We see trends in the horror genre: zombies, vampires, aliens, possession. And, as with all good criticism, we can attach metaphor and meaning to these icons. However, what is especially interesting about these icons is not what they are, but when they grew to the height of their popularity.

In Mary Shelley’s novel of Frankenstein, the creature is described as terrible and frightening, but what he become in 1931 when Karloff immortalized the image we now associate with the creature is indicative of something far more sinister. If one looks at the state of the country in the 30s, we had just come off of one war and another was looming. Karloff’s monster walked in a uniform, military fashion. Karloff’s monster could reflect not simply an abomination of nature, but fear of an unknown force that is uniform, organized and completely separate from the American ideals and definition of “normal.” Going further with the metaphor, the townspeople go after the monster viciously–perhaps an indication of that “other” force turning even “normal” people into monsters themselves.

Zombies too have always been iconic. Mindless brain-eaters who turn good people into more mindless drones. The zombie films come in waves–and they usually correspond to social upheaval and a great divide in the country.

More recently, the “found footage” films have been gaining popularity. This could be indicative of our lives so defined by technology and the self-surveillance that so defines the current generation. We have to trust the camera because that is how we have come to define and express ourselves.

I adore foreign films because it is a lens to understand the society more fully. It is fascinating to see how other countries use horror as a mirror.

Any other horror icons that reflect the society in which they are popular?

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One thought on “The Culture of Fear

  1. This is great analysis. I had never considered that reading of Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. It’s really interesting when you think about how almost prophetic it was about scientific research under the Nazis, especially Mengele.

    Found footage is also an interesting phenomenon. It makes sense that with the proliferation of cameras on our person at all times our cultural items would be similarly affected. I wonder if there’s a correlation between characters in found footage films wanting ‘their story to be told’ and people’s desire to make everything public these days.

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