An analysis of horror film
(Disclaimer: Spoilers, naturally.)
As autumn-time breaks, leaves fall, and the chill turns our ears and cheeks red, there is a shift in our true nature. The dark grows longer, the sun sleeps earlier, the clouds hang lower, snuffing out the blue sky. It is about now that time slips us into a state of obsession for the ominous and the bizarre — the petrifying and the macabre. Perhaps it is the dismal and melancholy death of the trees — symbolic providers of our life’s breath — that begin our descent into an obsession with art that spotlights blood-curdling screams and stalking killers silhouetted in moonlit forests of fog. We devour this art, but is it right to do so?
It must come into everyone's mind at least once whether the ethics of what we are consuming should be questioned, and that goes for all art. We should consider the way any content effects us, and it would be wrong to suggest that there are none. Horror is no different, and conceivably, we should use this time as a chance to learn about ourselves and perhaps, even more, examine our relationship with the people who develop horror.
There is a reason why our parents never wanted us to watch modern horror movies (beyond the fact that they can be terrifying); it is because of the belief that this art impacts people. It is no secret that violent imagery and horror tropes can change moods and emotions, which in turn can ultimately affect how people act. Although it may be our wish to watch horror in spite of our seniors, there is some reasoning that we should at least consider.
It shouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that horror, and more specifically, its brutality and intense violence, does have consequences on its viewers. This is not a referendum on anyone who falls into watching bloodbath-heavy films, or listens to “death-heavy screaming metal music.” All I ask is that people question the duality of such subjects with the rest of our lives. It’s not a sick or disturbed person who watches horror films, considering that tens of millions of people who live relatively normal lives enjoy these entertainments, but there is a desensitizing effect that I believe we should question within the context of our society.
The horror genre throughout history, even beyond film, is an interesting topic, as it tells us about ourselves. Horror, in whatever contemporary era that it was conceived, typically demonstrates what that current society feared. Books like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” took the public by storm, warning that unethical and overwhelming technological innovations could devastate society or poison humanity by violating the traditional ideas of morality.
The 1940s was a decade filled with radioactive giant monsters and foreign invaders from space, the products of fresh wounds from the World Wars, with films like “Them!” or “It Came From Outer Space” telling how humanity was in jeopardy by the possibility of total nuclear annihilation, or figurative “aliens” coming into our Earth and embedding a rottenness into our culture, clearly based on the spheres of influence wars we had with the Eastern bloc.
Up until the 1990s, seemingly all horror could be chalked up to either foreign forces, the supernatural, an impossible-to-understand brute, or a combination of these. That’s why perhaps the most influential film of the genre, even still today, was Wes Craven’s “Scream” (1996). “Scream” was the first major horror film to make the killers not some stalking force in the woods, but kids in high school, going around murdering other kids. They don’t do it for any motive greater than their own pleasure. It is a fear of the elders to see their children revolt into people who see life expendable — as nothing more than a game without rules or responsibility — and even willing to devolve into psychologically broken people. It is terrifying to think that the dangers of death are not things that bump in the dark or lurk outside your home, but instead are sleeping within your own walls, under your own roof, and are the products of a corrupt world that you have no idea how to control.
In 2022, we are in another era of fears. We see it in our horror movies, with cyber technology and commodities being used against people. It makes us think about how long we have until we are no longer individuals but puppets or a meaningless number in an algorithm, fearing if any of our ideas are really our own. Horror is not a bad genre, by any means. Its existence is very appealing to our primal and animalistic tendencies. It is, however, not free from criticism. Perhaps its biggest criticism is its earned reputation with exploitation.
As a method through which to tell a story, horror earns its validity by commenting on society. Often, horror demonstrates the darkness that exists within ourselves. Just as often however — and this is probably the impression that many people get from the genre as a whole — it is an exploitative and disgustingly juvenile form of obscenity which uses cheap gimmicks and immoral titillation to sucker in viewers. Horror is the cheapest, the most violent, one of the most swear heavy, and the most nudity-showing genres of film. With such facts one begins to hold skepticism of horror as a whole, and rightly so.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we must deal with this duality of interests with a certain mindset. It is the mindset that we should see these artworks from the perspective of the person who is making them, and interrogate what they want to show us. If a creator who is making anything brutal — horror or not — is doing so without malice, we should try to listen what the creator has to say
A probable interjection to this principle might be that one should see the art itself and only examine the qualities of its message. The reason I disagree with this principle is that even if a piece of art has a “good” message, the creator may still be creating the art with evil intent. Some fine examples of this are two horror films which I’ve come to absolutely abhor with every fiber of my being: Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” (1972) and Meir Zarchi’s “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978). Both of these films sing a similar tune, centering around the topic of people who have been wronged by the world getting revenge on those who commit disgusting acts, a topic which is tried-and-true, and often leads to some greater understanding of emotions and justice.
These films, however, execute this topic so terribly, it makes one sick. “The Last House on the Left” has a disgustingly long assault scene against a 17-year-old girl by a group of terrible people, intercut with slapstick comedy that tries to draw some titillation from the audience. It’s clear that the average viewer of this film does not go to see a revenge story but sees it because they want to see this poor woman suffer, despite what the end consequence of it all is. “I Spit On Your Grave” has a similar scene, a ceaseless perversion of a woman by a group of men, which doesn’t cut away or give a chance to the audience to breathe, but wishes to disgust and pervert all normal rules of decency. Both of these films are, by all ways films can be, obscenity to the highest degree. No matter what message these films and those similar to them leave us with, they are inexcusable with what they contain. These are films created with malice in mind, and seek only to mentally maneuver the audience with all senses they can manipulate. Good-hearted films do not do this to people. It is from this which we should learn to discern what is made with a good heart and what is not.
Ultimately, I cannot tell you what explicitly makes a film have a good heart. It is not something which is checked off a list, but is embedded into the fabric from which the film is cut. It should be a lesson for everyone to be wary of where the hearts of these filmmakers lie, and to be careful not to lose yourself in the malicious. Some might find their boundaries for what is good-intentioned to be much tighter than others, but it is ultimately something which one should have, no matter where it lies. Look within yourselves to find it, and have a wonderful Halloween.