The Cambridge Dictionary defines horror movies as,
a film in which very frightening or unnatural things happen, for example dead people coming to life and people being murdered
Horror movies are designed to be scary, they are written and directed to elicit a fear response. Ever since human beings started to make movies, there have been horror movies.From movies such as Paranormal Activity which used society's fear of the unknown and the afterlife to Alien which played on the fear of hostile inhabitants of other planets and space exploration, it seems as though the writers are representing our common fears and exploiting it for a much more intense experience. Horror movies are a primitive enjoyment that a lot people are entertained by, however is there a reason why horror films are so scary? However are the writers playing to the audience's' fears? I believe that they are, here are some examples of why I think Horror movies tap into our fears and use this to scare us further, and why we love them for it!
Do Horror films represent society's fears? Are human beings designed to be scared by relative concepts, like, things that go bump in the night?
Here we will delve into that very question, and see if there are any parallels between society and the relative subject matter of horror films from that time.
What better way to start than by examining the classic horror icons and movies for these traits
When you think of a horror movie there are certain villains who come to mind. People like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and many more. The have become horror icons, due to their success at scaring audiences.
Michael Myers is a very good example of this concept. One of the reasons Michael Myers' is so terrifying is because of his mannerisms and his lack of emotion connection. Michael is almost always portrayed with an emotionless mask on his face, he moves very slowly but purposefully and he appears to be exceptionally strong. These are all common traits that describe Autism.
When Halloween first came to our screens in 1978 society was not as well informed as we are now. Anything that was not 'usual' was generally feared , and I believe that writers used this to their advantage and that this is why some horror films are more popular than others.
With the character of Michael Myers the writers have made his face emotionless which is a common characteristic of people with Autism, he has more strength than is expected which is another trait of Autism. The lack of empathy towards his own family is again another characteristic trait of Autism. This theory has been common with fans and is mentioned several times as an example of why Michael Myers acted the way he did.
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Modern day understanding would not find these traits scary, as we are more informed, however in 1978 very little was known about Autism and this has lead to one of the biggest names in horror.The writers have portrayed a character based on society's fear of the unknown and created a horror legend. Whether this was intentional or not is left for the viewer to decide.
However, a lot- if not all- of horror icons can be seen in this way.
For example the image above is instantly recognisable as Freddy Kreuger and his glove. This horror film is written and designed to play on the fear that even when we are asleep we are not safe. Human beings are naturally vulnerable when asleep and the Nightmare On Elm Street movies help to portray the fear of this very well. The premise of the movie is simple- a small town of angry parents discover that Freddy Krueger is , well let's just say he is a bad person, and they exact vigilante justice for his crimes. They burn him alive, hence the scarring on his face which is also a sinister trademark of his, and Freddy Krueger is no more. Or so they thought. Freddy comes back and starts terrorizing the children in the town-while they are asleep, and this is the fear that society has. That even when we are asleep we are not safe. Human beings defend their homes from intruders etc but they can not defend against their dreams. The writers help portray the lack of defensiveness brilliantly throughout the movie and it gives the audience a sense of fear. This sense of terror and fear has made Freddy Krueger a horror icon.
Another example of a horror icon being created through the use of a particular fear is Jason Vorhees, a young boy who was left to drown because his camp counsellors were too busy having sex to prevent the tragedy. Jason returns (eventually) and takes vengeance on the current camp counsellors and specifically couples engaged in sexual encounters. This plays on the fear that , in those days, having sex especially when a teenager was forbidden, taboo and not commonly accepted as 'usual' yet. By taking part in sexual activity they open themselves up for punishment as Jason gets to work with his machete.
The fear of consequence for taking part in something that society does not deem as okay leads to the murders at a camp, where you are supposedly safe. This fear of consequence and vulnerability is an ongoing fear that society has and this makes Jason Vorhees as relevant today as when he first aired onto our screens.
The Space Race
Horror movies have adapted throughout the years to adjust to the subjects of fear that are relevant to the viewing audience, for example the birth of the space Horrors. Films like Alien, is an example of a modern fear as mankind had not purposefully thought about inhabiting another planet. We have a fear of the unknown when finding a new planet to inhabit as it has now become a necessity for mankind to do so. And with this new need, Horror writers have a whole new area of fear - the fear of the unknown in space exploration. In Alien we see the consequences of finding another established organism. In the Alien movies mankind encounters an organism that is pure and perfect. It is an unspoken fear that society has regarding another life form being more superior to us and that seeking another planet has dire consequences.
This fear has been portrayed many times through films such as Event Horizon, Pandorum and is proof that this is an area of horror that writers can expand on for years to come.
Horror writers are no strangers to the fact that human beings as a species have primal, instinctive fears that horror films can play on. For example recently has been the birth of the 'found footage' horror, where events take a drastic turn for the worst.
Films like Paranormal Activity where there are strange things happening in the home and the couple sets up a camera to record the incidents and try to make sense of it all. The events depicted are instinctively scary because they are caused by a force that can not be seen nor explained. This plays on the instinctive fear of something that can not be seen but can cause harm to us. Films like Poltergeist, The Others and The Conjuring all focus on this fear, and their success clearly demonstrates that audiences respond to this type of fear inducing movie.
The original and remake of Stephen Kings IT , is another example of a movie playing to a primal fear. Coulrophobia is the official name for a phobia of clowns. It is a primal fear that many people have, making the horror movie more intense. The writers of the remake of IT have decided to try and intensify the horror experience by focusing on the clown aspect as well as the overall horror. A very good strategy as human beings have a strong dislike/distrust of things that appear human but are not. Clowns fit into this category. Also the fact that it is children who are targeted also plays to our fears as a society as children are generally thought of as 'safe' when it comes to grizzly happenings.
Then there are movies like Annabelle. Annabelle has quite a few reasons to cause fear. For example Annabelle is a doll that has almost realistic features. As I mentioned before human beings have a natural distrust/fear of things that appear human but are not. Annabelle is a movie based on the story that a doll was possessed with an extremely powerful demonic entity. This is all related to primal fears as demonic entities are in a category of things that can cause harm but can not be seen, which elicits a fear response. It is an 'innocent' toy, that is actually sinister, and this sends our distrust and fear of her into over drive, giving the audience a sense of fear surrounding her.Annabelle also tried to project herself as a little girl , however it was a ruse. This level of deception triggers our fear response. And this is what makes Annabelle such a great horror icon, as she is surely to become an icon .
After looking at the way that horror movies are more appealing to certain groups and are more relevant with audiences depending on the fear being intensified. For example the remake of Stephen King's IT has become a massive blockbuster due, in part, to the fear of clowns(coulrophobia) which a lot of society has. Therefore the types of horror movies that are popular, it is evident that writers are using our own fears to terrify audiences further. And this is a good thing. Human beings as a whole enjoy things that give us a slight fright. Some people enjoy more intense terror where as some people only like mild terror. For example going on a rollercoaster or doing a bungee jump causes the same effect as being scared by a movie. Writers have a lot of fear responses to use to captivate audiences and with horror movies there is no end to the amount of subjects that can be used to help terrify us. With horror movies adapting to include space horrors, which is an extremely relevant subject in today's society with the need to find another habitable planet, and classic concepts like the paranormal and the fear of clowns etc then the future holds some good prospects for horror fans.
What do you think? Do horror movies use our fears to intensify the experience? Please let me know in the comments below of any more examples of fear being used to intensify a movie or scare the audiences further , however that is all for now folks-Ciao!