I have always been a sucker for the horror genre. There is an inherent universality to horror that other genres lack: while comedy may be unique to a specific culture, fear transcends boundaries. This likely stems from the fact that the fight-or-flight reaction the genre may garner from us has been hard-wired in our brains since the first men and women faced their first life-or-death threat. That instinct remains, even as the catalysts have changed: oftentimes we feel the physiological effects of the sympathetic nervous system during job interviews, verbal confrontations or horror movies instead of due to threats from predators. We all know what it is to fear for our safety, for the safety of our loved ones, for our social status and possessions. We all know what it is to fear, above all else, the certainty of death.
As such, the horror genre (and its trends) can be one of the truest conduits into both individual fears and collective cultural dread. The focal points of our fears often center around a symbol that speaks to our reality. Take the alien invasion narratives that haunted the Cold War era–Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) both stoke paranoia through the existential panic of losing one’s identity, being supplanted by “the other” and being homogenized into a hive-mind of sorts. Is it reasonable to link the recent surge in exorcism-narratives to cultural fears of a loss of religious identity as atheism and agnosticism are on the rise? Or to link the zombie sub-genre to consumerism? The ghost or haunting sub-genre to universal questions about death and the afterlife? The vampire sub-genre to repressed sexuality? The serial killer sub-genre (which took the reins from the Universal Studios monsters–and the safety therein, as audiences were able to associate their fear and dread with a grotesque “other” instead of with humanity itself–and most notably did so with Norman Bates replacing Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man) to growing understanding of and terror with human psychology?
Some may argue that the trends merely follow whatever is lucrative at the time, with one successful catalyst (one Psycho, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Paranormal Activities, Insidious or Scream) spawning countless tedious knock-offs. But it stands to reason that the financial success of the catalyst is due, in part, to that catalyst finding a way to find the pulse of the cultural subconscious and exploit or greatest fears. Horror, then, has a way of encapsulating the political, cultural, sociological and psychological anxieties of a given era in a way that no other genre can. Beyond that, it can also allow us to define our own fears, and what those fears say about us as people.
The genre’s respectability has of course had its ups and downs from the popularity of penny dreadfuls to the Grand Guignol theater productions, from the Universal Studios monsters to the German surrealist silent films, from Hitchcock in black and white to technicolor Argento, from the VHS horror boom in the 80’s that allowed for expanded viewership but also impacted quality, from Stephen King to Thomas Harris, from the self-aware and self-mocking horror of the 90’s to the contemporary resurgence of horror’s respectability as new mediums (particularly television) explore new avenues.
As a child of the 80’s who grew up on a steady diet of Tales from the Crypt, and whose grandfather allowed indiscriminate Blockbuster video selections, I have seen my fair share of the classics, the cult-classics and the garbage. There’s much to be said about what makes a horror film successful beyond the subject matter’s cultural significance: the ability to use atmosphere to create tension, writing characters who the reader or audience can identify with, creating scenarios that elicit dread, using imaginative and evocative imagery and metaphor to establish a deeper pang to the subconscious. One thing is certain: the most successful entries in the genre bring us all back to that primitive space where the only emotions that mattered were the emotions that kept us alive.