[On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock premiered his new film Psycho in New York. So to celebrate that anniversary, this week I’ve contextualized Psycho and other horror films, leading up to this crowd-sourced weekend post featuring the responses and nominations of fellow spooky story studiers—add yours in comments!]
Following up Monday’s post on Scream, the great Lito Velasco responds, “You really should see New Nightmare. Next to Scream 2 it is probably Wes' finest piece of cinema, overall.” He adds, “I also think Scream 4 is REALLY unfairly maligned and, given the lack of empathy we're currently seeing in society by and large, fairly ahead of its time—much like New Nightmare was.”
Following up Wednesday’s post on the Saw films, Sabrina writes, “Complete horror movie junkie and the saw series are legit one of my favorite simply due to the sheer creativity of the plot line as well as the traps.” She follows up, “In a way I do hope that some escape the traps but I still know that if they do they will only face a worse one afterwards. So sometimes it's better if they don’t. Ultimately they're handed their death in the manner it was written. For whatever reason they are there the traps seem to fit most of the cases and reasons. If it is their time to die then there’s really no escaping it. It's just a matter of how and when or how far along they have to go before their time comes.”
Sabrina also shares, “Not sure if it would be more horror or thriller category but the movie Population 436 is really good. It’s sort of a play on the short story ‘The Lottery’ but shows how alienated different towns and communities can be and how oblivious the world outside of it can be towards seeing what is really going on. Definitely worth the watch.”
Mark Lawton adds, “I can’t imagine most going into these movies without a taste for bloodlust. Sure, there have been movies where one roots for the bad guy: you’ve got your Ocean 11 types, but more on topic you wonder what nightmare Krueger will devise or how exactly the three foot tall Chucky will continue his spree. I admit, among friends I have concocted some Saw death traps. The appeal to me is how the punishment tries to fit the crime according to Kramer. I really dig the psychology of the movies. One man expecting life only to be stricken of it (two lives if you include the unborn baby). It’s why I keep going back to see them. Hell, I even had the video game for the PS2—yes it exists.”
Following up Friday’s post on xenophobic horror, Mark writes, “Don’t forget about Roth’s travelers in terror in The Green Inferno in the Amazon. Also in the horror abroad category are Wolf Creek in Australia, Turistas in Brazil, and the more recent Midsommar in Sweden.”
And Mark also highlights “Cabin in the Woods which is a complete satire of the way the world works. Drew Goddard’s inspiration was the fact that he grew up in a town that housed a facility that made nuclear weapons and how people went to work there every day making weapons going about their everyday lives. It adds so much to the horror genre and is completely original and unforgettable. I highly recommend it.”
Francesca Lewis writes, “One of my favorite interactions in any horror movie happens at the end of The Strangers when one of the victims asks the killers why they are doing this and one responds with, ‘because you were home.’ It’s a chilling line and I think it demonstrates that truly horrific events can be the result of happenstance—this couple just happened to be in the wrong place at the worst time. The killers didn’t necessarily have anything against these people specifically, but they had the desire to torture and kill and inflicted such horror on unsuspecting, innocent people. Although it’s just a movie, it makes me wonder if there are truly people out there who feel this way.”
Linda Patton Hoffman writes, “My friend Mark Miller wrote a wonderful book on Christopher Lee and Hammer movies. (Unfortunately, Mark passed away). He helped me understand that those films are important foundations of the horror genre.”
And responses to my request for other socially salient horror films:
John Buaas and Paul Daley both highlight Get Out, and Jeff Renye agrees that the film “seems pretty timely.”
Jeff also writes, “I also like the move The Endless. Lovecraftian shadow monsters and trapped in an ongoing awful loop of time seems right on the mark."
Melissa Kujala goes with The Purge.
Zeke Lee writes, “I just watched Midsommar, very unsettling.”
Lara Schwartz shares, “Ready or Not is a fantastic social commentary.”
Garrett Zecker highlights, “Sorry to Bother You, The Babadook, Requiem for a Dream, Get Out, and Us.”
Circe Goldenfyre shares, “Pontypool. Dawn of the Dead remake. If you can find it... Red, White and Blue.” She adds, “Caution: R, W & B is very graphic and horror in the sense of these people could be the girl/guys next door.”
R.J. Reibel nominates the “ending of Night of the Living Dead, especially given current events.”
Josh Eyler writes, “I once taught a course on horror films. They are usually of their time, but are amazing mirrors. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a direct commentary on the 1950s and McCarthyism. Night of the Living Dead is an amazing film about social unrest and racism in the 1960s. I could go on and on.”
Matt Ramsden adds, “Really zombie films kinda beat you over the head with societal critiques, especially Romero's work. I always felt that horror functions as a way we can talk about things we don't like to talk about. Yes, The Babadook is a monster movie, but it’s about grief. Yes, IT is about a clown, but it’s about trauma. The Witch is a historical horror but it’s about religious vs. familial obligation. The horror-y part is there, but it’s always about something.” Josh agrees, writing, “IT is a great example here, and I feel the recent movies did a better job than King's own book framing it as a story about trauma.”
Bryn Upton writes, “I had some stuff in my book if your library at Fitchburg has it (if not make them buy a few hundred copies 😂). A lot of the horror films of the 1970s seemed aimed at pushing back against the women’s movement. Lot of cautionary tales about women who are too independent or free or open to sex outside of marriage getting killed and hacked to pieces. There are plenty of horror films that appear to be trying to reinforce traditional gender roles.”
Paul Coleman responds, “Slumber Party Massacre 1 and 2 are great satires of this impulse, directly tying it to the driller killer's phallic weapon. (Directed by women, naturally.). A lot of cool feminist horror came out of that era too (Stepford Wives et al).” Paul adds, “Haneke's Funny Games gives its own answer to the prompt. It's scary, then it deconstructs itself and indicts you for watching it.”
Josh, Bryn, and I also had an interesting follow-up debate about which works are more sci-fi and which more horror, with Josh having an excellent last word: “I guess much of it depends on the goals of the work. The Thing, The Blob, Body Snatchers came out at a time when we were exploring space for the first time, and they comment on real fears people had about what might be out there. So is it a horror film that capitalizes on this specific fear or a sci-fi film that happens to be a bit scary?”
Nikolai Soudek writes, “There was an indie horror movie called Wendigo that came out in 2001, that dealt with class tensions between a man living in the boonies and the city family that moves into the house he was evicted from. It wasn't a great film, but it provided some food for thought. The cyberpunk movie Upgrade was kind of interesting, sort of a pulp version of Black Mirror.”
Tim McCaffrey notes, “The character of the mayor of Amity in Jaws is a stark portrayal of the choices and pressures that face politicians and the often horrible results of their decisions. Every year when I re-watch the movie, his character and his willingness to risk lives for the economy rings true to me. This years it seems particularly on the nose.”
My FSU colleague Collin Syfert shares this piece on cinematic zombies by his advisor Leah Ceccarelli.
Another FSU colleague, Kyle Moody, writes, “Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist (not the godawful show, please let it die) tells us a lot about who we are in close quarters. We break down into tribes, particularly when religion is used as justification for unspeakable acts. The ending also speaks to our fatalism, and actually outdoes the master!”
“Because this is [her] FAV topic,” AnneMarie Donahue shares a number of thoughts: “Snowpiercer is doing a marvelous job discussing the realities of extreme wealth hiding from problems they create (sort of a ‘Mask of the Red Death’ on a train...with cannibalism). The Purge obvi a nod to the war on ‘drugs or crime or poverty’ which is really war on poor people, which is weirdly being acted out lately. Nightmare on Elm Street, sins of the parents revisited on the children. Friday the 13th, unstoppable monster with no negotiation skills from which you can't escape (fate). Halloween, same. Anything by King is really about how people are the scariest fuckers around, and if they aren't evil they are just completely inept at protecting others and themselves. Us, nice to see black people in horror films. Antebellum—yeah, time travel SUCKS if you're not a white man. Actually I would put Antebellum as the scariest film I've ever seen. People walk around like ‘oh wouldn't it be cool to go back in time’ but they don't even hear their privilege when they say shit like that. If I went back in time? fuck, I'd be raped and murdered pretty quickly. And the guy would absolutely get away with it. The past in this country for most people fucking sucked.”
The super-talented voice actor, gamer, and genre enthusiast Liisa Lee writes, “First, some folks watch horror like they watch procedurals on tv...to see the bad guy get caught, or the evil doer get their due. The real world sees such a huge percentage of unjust and corrupt behavior go unpunished, while victims get mocked. Other folks...mostly men, mostly white men, use horror as a twisty magnifier of their own fears...and attempt to conquer them. A lot of times that fear is women. An ingrained toxic masculinity, that finds a dark justice in killing off the sexy ingenue (because being rejected or judged poorly is scary and society doesn’t teach men to communicate, let alone deal with rejection or emotion) or killing off the crone to vanquish female power and intelligence. There are so many more allegories and sociopolitical commentary and meanings behind well-crafted horror. We all want to feel invincible, or, that we’d be a plucky survivor who will fight back and win/escape evil people/kill the monster/defeat the thing, and live another day. I also see, through horror fan bases and their comment sections, a big presence of problematic people, who have a very angry, dark, antisocial, kill-happy mind set. (Mostly right-wing, white men.)” Liisa also highlights the work of “Del Howison, a dear friend who owns Dark Delicacies in Burbank. He’s also a writer, editor and teaches a master class at UCLA on horror. Find him on FaceBook or his shop and say hello. I’m sure he’ll have great insights for you. (And watching the comments on his posts, are the problematic examples I was talking about.)”
My fellow Saturday Evening Post writer Troy Brownfield shares his thoughts in a mini-Guest Post:
“I always look at horror films in three ways (in addition to whether or not I enjoyed them). I look at them for genre, the time in which they were made, and what the overall message or context might be. I do that with other movies, but I do it with horror in particular. Part of that is because I write it, and part of that is because I’ve formally studied it. In addition to reading A LOT about the genre (Robin Wood’s criticism, David J. Skal’s books, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, etc.), one of my professors was the great Sharon Russell; Doc Russell wrote The Stephen King Companion and authored great articles on the witch figure, vampires, and more.
Part of this is because (I believe anyway) that most horror filmmakers are trying to illustrate a larger point about society. Horror is a really flexible medium, but it’s also a chameleon; you can explore an issue without it seeming like you’re making an ‘issues’ film. I think it’s pretty obvious, for example, that John Carpenter is making numerous points about politics, the media, and consumerism in They Live, but he does it in a way that serves the story. Similarly, the original The Stepford Wives is just a super-dark satire on the women’s movement and how men treat women.
So, breaking it down:
Reading for genre: Does this film fit in a pre-existing genre? Does it stick to the conventional rules of that subgenre, does it invent new ones, or does it introduce unexplored areas of folklore? (Example: In Fright Night 2, Tracy Lin slays a vampire by shoving a rose in its mouth; roses were protection against vampires in some folklore, a fact she actually learns in the film by studying.) Can the film fit into more than one genre? (Example: Alien).
Time: Is the film contemporaneous with when it was made, or is it set in the (relative) past or future? Is setting of time used to make a particular point? Does that time articulate something about the theme? Why that period as opposed to another? (Example: Night of the Living Dead almost HAS to be about Vietnam.)
Theme/Context: Is there a larger point past the story itself? Is it subtle or overt? Why was that choice made? If it’s a remake, is it expressing different concerns than an earlier version, and why? (I’ve always been interested in King’s theory that horror is a Dionysian intrusion on Apollonian reality, and the ending is either a return to normalcy or a fall into chaos).
I’ve always thought that most horror stories are a reflection of some kind of human or social fear. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear for our children, fear of the future, etc. And those fears can be contextualized through a monster/villain/event that becomes an expression of those fears. I see The Amityville Horror as fear of financial ruin. In my short story collection, INHABITED, I tried to focus on one kind of fear in each story (in ‘Hunter’s Moon,’ it’s fear of falling victim to a predator; in ‘RomCom Ending,’ it’s really two, which are the fear of ending up alone and the fear of not really knowing someone you love; in ‘The Ongoing Problem of Haunted House Bedtime,’ it’s the figurative fear of something that’s literally under the bed; etc.). I’m working on a horror-adjacent novel right now that hits on a couple of bigger themes, one of which is how childhood trauma informs both the good and bad decisions we make as adults.”
Back to Ben, and I’ll give the last word on contemporary horror to one of our best historians, Rick Perlstein: “Fox and Friends.”
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Other horror films or stories you’d highlight?
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