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Saturday, October 26, 2019

October 26-27, 2019: Ariella Archer’s Guest Post: My Scary Thoughts: The Evolution of Three Horror Subgenres

[As with so many of my AmericanStudies contacts and colleagues, I met Ariella Archer through Twitter, where she’s one of the most consistently compelling voices on American history, social studies education, and more. She teaches in Texas, has an MA in History and will soon be pursuing a PhD, and is a great example of the best of AmericanStudies—and thus a voice I’m very excited to feature in this Guest Post!]

The first scary movie I ever watched was The Wizard of Gore. I was eight or nine at the time and was not supposed to see it. My parents thought I was in bed asleep, little did they know, I was peeking around the corner of our hallway, watching Montag the Magnificent disembowel people on stage. I was terrified. Paralyzed with fear, I watched it through to the end. I have been a fan of horror since that day. The culmination of special effects, music, jump scares, suspense, and wondering if you are brave enough to continue watching makes the movie going experience worth viewing for die hard horror fans like myself. Horror has been around as long as people have been telling stories around a campfire. Urban legends, myths, ghost stories, monsters, and demons are all things that fill the darkness when our imaginations run wild. When moving pictures came on the scene, people no longer had to use their imagination, they could see the worst of mankind played out before their very eyes.

Horror movies have always been an important part of Hollywood. Pop Culture has turned horror into a big business. The Numbers don’t lie! Countless subgenres have flooded the market, which include but are not limited to Slasher, Zombie, Supernatural, Monster, and Found Footage. These give a variety of choices to even the pickiest of horror fans. My favorite is the Slasher subgenre and my first choice for a Slasher feature is Friday the 13th. Jason Voorhees makes a great horror hero. The audience roots for him, just as they root for the lone survivor at the end. Voorhees was not the first horror hero in a Slasher movie; however, that honor can be given to Leatherface. Each subgenre can be traced back to a single movie that changed the future of horror. A movie that was so profound, writers and directors continued to create movies in response to the original’s success. Horror subgenres carry with them a distinct history, which makes them interesting. I pay good money to feel the frights of my favorite subgenres, which themselves have their own interesting backstory. So, in keeping with the spirit of the horror movie lists (and there are plenty), I have created my own that includes my three favorite subgenres, the groundbreaking movies that started them, and how they have evolved over the years.


1.       Zombies
The 1968 movie that started it all was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s movie brilliantly houses a group of strangers together and pits them against hordes of zombies. Knowing they are trapped, the main character, Ben, tries to rally the group, with little success. In the end Ben meets the same fate as the other house guests, but unfortunately, it is at the hands of search and rescue. They mistakenly thought Ben was one of the undead and shot him. This ending was not without controversy. It is hard to ignore the fact that Ben was an African American male trapped in a house with white people that were unhappy with him in charge. In the end, McClelland, the white sheriff, shoots Ben, killing him. Romero insists that he was not tackling a race issue, but instead he hired Duane Jones (Ben) because he gave the best audition. Zombies stem from Haitian folklore that is rich in African religious customs. The word zombie first meant, in general terms, spirit or ghost but was later used to describe a person brought back from the dead, and used as a slave. There are tales with zombie themes that have been around for a long time; however, Romero laid the groundwork for today’s popular zombie. Over the last 50 years the dead have taken on many different forms. Romero’s zombies are mindless, slow, and represent the worst of humanity. Slow zombies were a staple in the subgenre for quite some time. In an interview, George Romero said slower zombies are scarier, easier to escape, and more fun to work with. On the flip side, fast zombies, or zombies that run, climb, and jump, are relatively new and have become quite popular.  Movies like 28 Days Later and World War Z have made it difficult for humans to elude the zombies. They include an endless amount of inventive ways to escape precarious situations. The look of zombies has also changed. In Night of the Living Dead, zombies were subtle and hard to distinguish from the living. They almost looked like everyday humans wearing regular clothing. Nowadays, they are rotted, disgusting, dirty, and even look like they smell bad. The more current movies have a backstory exploring the origins of zombies. Some claim viruses and bacteria are the culprit. In Night of the Comet, an opportunity to witness a rare comet creates the violent flesh eaters. One of the scariest things about zombie movies, and even television shows like The Walking Dead, are the people that are trying to survive. They lose their humanity along the way, become desperate, and eventually must kill to survive. It becomes a post apocalyptical world where survivors turn on each other for their most basic needs. This loss of self is terrifying and forces the question; to what lengths would I go in order to survive?

2.       Slashers
Slasher movies are known for their memorable villains turned horror heroes. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jigsaw, and Ghostface are extremely popular, and marketable even after all these years. Action figures of these and other horror evildoers are available year-round. The movie given credit for laying the groundwork of the subgenre is the 1974 movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Directed by Toby Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was brilliantly marketed as a true event. Audiences flocked to see a family of cannibals terrorize 5 friends on vacation. Although the idea is loosely based on the serial killer Ed Gein, the movie plot was fiction. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre led to other very successful Slasher films. Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Saw each have a very similar formula that makes for successful Slasher flicks. Those ingredients include: the murderer with a disturbing past; dark settings; a group of deviant and unsuspecting teens; foreshadowing musical scores; death (lots of it); a number of cheesy sequels; and of course the final girl. The final girl is the last person alive to deal with the villain. She is usually the opposite of every other person in the movie. While the wild teens are off doing drugs and having sex, the final girl is saying no, and rebuffing a prospective boyfriend’s advances. She is seen as strong, smart, and virtuous. The first final girl was Sally Hardesty in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After her, there are other iconic lone survivors including Laurie Strode in Halloween, Alice from Friday the 13th, and Nancy Thompson in Nightmare on Elm Street.  Some say the final girl trope is a misogynistic approach to writing horror. Slasher movies were just gaining their popularity in the 80’s, and since then, studies have shown that a nod to the final girl confirm how adults viewed young people in society at the time. Teens were viewed as rotten and audiences got pleasure from seeing the hooligans meet their end. The final girl has since developed over the past thirty years into a character that is no longer shamed for having sex or enjoying the same indulgences as her counterparts. The movie Scream was a game changer for the horror genre and the final girl.  Wes Craven’s masterpiece broke all of the Slasher film rules and is credited for breathing new life into the horror movie brand. Scream was one of the highest grossing horror films and was successful with the critics. The characters were well versed in the rules of horror. As events happened in the movie, they applied those rules to figure out what was next. Their knowledge of the genre is what makes the movie different. There are no unsuspecting teens wondering what is going on around them. The audience is made aware of this early on in the movie when main character Sidney Prescott is speaking to Ghostface on the phone. She claims her dislike for horror is due to “some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.”  This was a breath of fresh air for audiences that were used to seeing clueless teens being picked off one by one. Sidney Prescott rebelled against the final girl rules as well. Sidney was a virgin but chose to have sex with her boyfriend. This is usually a death sentence for a character. She does the opposite of what other females in Slasher movies would do as well. She locks doors and chooses safer routes to get away from the killer. Scream has had many sequels, just like any good Slasher movie. Further, the success of Scream led to other satisfying but less successful movies like I Know What You did Last Summer, and Urban Legend.

3.       Found Footage
Found Footage are movies where a substantial amount of video is filmed on handheld cameras, much akin to the cheesy family home video of your first birthday that takes a sinister turn. The 2007, Spanish movie [REC] scared me beyond belief. A reporter is tasked with shadowing a fire department into an apartment building which gets barricaded after a woman is infected with a virus. The claustrophobic feeling as the camera searched the dark for some sort of answers was petrifying. Found Footage movies can nauseate and frustrate. Nauseate because of the camera’s constate movements and frustrate because you cannot see what is going on outside of the camera’s view. The events outside the view of the camera can make the imagination run wild with supposition which is sometimes creepier than what is going on in the actual shot. The 1999 movie that put Found Footage on the map was The Blair Witch Project. I did not find it nearly as unsettling as [REC]; however, there is something to be said about the dangers that lurk in the outreaches of unexplored forests. The movie let the audience feel the fear that the characters felt. No one could figure out if there was something out in the woods or if the campers were just feeding off of each other’s fears. The Blair Witch Project, just like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, marketed itself as based on real events. Many wondered if the video footage from the movie was real. One of the stars, Michael Williams said his family got condolence letters when missing posters, used to advertise the movie, were released. After the success of The Blair Witch Project, many other Found Footage films have been made. These continue to make big bucks for Hollywood. One movie worth mentioning, that I have not seen, is Paranormal Activity. The critics did not like it, however, on a starting budget of $15,000, the movie grossed $193 million worldwide. Paramount went on to make three sequels which garnered the same results. Found Footage movies are still very popular to this day. 

Final thoughts: True Crime Podcasts
A form of horror that is bone chilling and fairly new on the scene are True Crime podcasts. Podcasts began to root themselves in the mid 2000’s but have recently taken center stage. True Crime podcasts are the new water cooler topic for many. True crime stories about murder, missing loved ones, killing children, and so much more are scary because they are based on real crimes. Many of the podcasters research their work using a plethora of hair-raising evidence and shocking interviews. A good podcaster can tell a story that creates the same feelings as a good horror movie. My favorite true crime series, To Live and Die in L.A., still haunts me even though it has been months since I have finished the podcast. The host, Neil Strauss, takes the listeners through real time events and as he gets new information, his reactions are sometimes devastating. You quickly learn that he is invested in the families, and occasionally feels sorry for the killer. Listeners get closure in the last episode when it is finally revealed who killed 21-year-old Adea Shabani. Strauss’ investigative methods and empathy remind me of Detective David Miller in the movie Se7en. It is a roller coaster ride for Strauss, and he takes his audience on the ride with him. I still think about this case, which I firmly believe is the goal of any good true crime podcaster. Many of them hope that the attention brought to unsolved cases will help families get some sort of closure. The stories can be gory and disturbing while the ones that make you sick to your stomach are the stories involving children. True crime podcast listeners quickly learn that these stories hit close to home. Some of my favorite true crime podcasts are Crime Junkies, True Crime Garage, Up and Vanished, and Cold. True Crime could be considered unconventional horror; however, when the feelings of shock, abhorrence, and terror are the same feelings you would get watching a good scary movie, could True Crime eventually be a sister to the horror genre?

Horror will continue to be a huge market for Hollywood, and I could not be more excited about the future of the genre. The Witch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Heredity seem to be where horror is headed. These movies have fared well at the box office. The writers leave the endings up to the imagination of the viewer and this approach has resulted in mixed reviews from the critics. History has shown when there is a slump in the market, someone comes along to begin anew, and thus reinvigorates the horror genre. Maybe these new intellectual horror movies will be the wave of the future.

Further Reading:

For a comprehensive history of the horror genre through the decades: Horror Film History
For a list of the scariest horror movies: Reader’s Digest Scariest Movies
List of popular true crime podcasts: 35 Best True Crime
[My Halloween series starts Monday,
PS. Thoughts on and responses to Ariella’s post?]

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