By Michael Dodd
Frightening the audience is the fundamental goal of the horror film but it can be a difficult and intricate feat to pull off. Shocks and surprises can make the cinema-goer jump in their seat, but in order to truly terrify the viewer and send them home still shivering at what they just witnessed, the filmmaker has to go deeper. True horror comes from what terrifies us in our everyday lives.
Throughout its history Hollywood has consistently produced horror trends that capture and put into sharp focus what the American movie-going public is most afraid of. Often what takes place on the big screen embellishes and reinforces these fears, but the cinematic trends are always rooted in already existing terrors. In the inter-war years when the United States took on an isolationist policy, the trope of the American protagonist finding him or herself in danger on foreign soil became the norm, as evidenced by such titles of the period as White Zombie (1932). Such was the prevalence of this plot technique that it effectively reworked non-American stories and moulded them to fit the trope, turning British characters into Americans and having them menaced by a distinctly foreign entity like Dracula.
With the onset of the Cold War and growing discomfort over destructive scientific research, the pulp elements of the American horror market began to churn out creature features that explored how far this malevolent experimentation would go, and what sort of consequences it would unleash. Perhaps the best known of these titles was The Fly released in 1958, a bluntly disturbing warning against mankind’s inventive and explorative nature whose message was that by using our intelligence and modern technology in the wrong way, we may propel ourselves backward to a more bestial form.
There was more Cold War symbolism. When the United States was gripped by a so called “red scare” in the 1950s and McCarthyism dominated the political landscape, the movies provided more close-to-home tension. Don Siegel’s 1956 masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most multifaceted horror films ever made. Simultaneously exploiting the contemporary fear of infiltration by undesirable elements as well as a burgeoning concern over homeland totalitarianism in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious communist witch hunt, it may be the clearest window into the American psyche that horror cinema has ever provided.
In the 1970s and 1980s America was gripped by an epidemic of serial killings that saw names like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez burned into the public consciousness. It can come as no surprise that during this period the most popular style of horror was the Slasher movie. The names of Bundy, Gacy and Ramirez were joined in America’s collective psyche by those of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, who though sometimes outlandish shared key traits with their real life counterparts: an apparent lack of human conscience, an appetite for young victims and, most frightening of all, they seemed unstoppable.
By the end of the twentieth century horror had modernised its ability to be all-encompassing in expressing the fears of American society. The Blair Witch Project (1999) carried a simple yet powerful message about the future. In an age where anyone can film whatever they like, horror needn’t be a cinematic expression of what terrifies the cinema-goer, it can simply be the medium through which terrors captured by the average American can be showcased. The found-footage phenomenon would continue into the twenty-first century.
It is clear that the American horror movie has a lineage of identifying the worries and fears of the contemporary viewing public and utilising them for the fullest, most pure terror. So when an unprecedented event rocked the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, history dictated that American horror cinema would explore the subsequent fears that it brought about.
The path which the American horror movie would follow after 9/11 however does not at first glance appear to conform to history. Just as this tragedy affected politics, war and even aspects of the way we live our lives, so September 11th had an impact on the Hollywood horror film, but rather than showcasing and examining the fears of the post-9/11 United States, American horror has seemingly suffered a kind of regression. Whereas previous widely held fears have spawned a plethora of contemporary scary movies imbued with themes taken directly from what spooked the public, the 2001 terrorist attacks appear to have been too traumatic to attract such focus. Instead, the business of scaring the movie-going American audience has largely been dedicated to revisiting the scares of old. A remake culture has been in practice for much of this young century, and for all intents and purposes 9/11 seems to have been responsible.
In the next part of this article we will explore how 9/11 is not only arguably responsible for the recent spate of American horror remakes, but for the tone and content of these re-imaginings as well. We will also determine whether American horror cinema has explored post-9/11 fears, and to what extent.
Michael Dodd is a film critic for the magazine.