The Horror Genre

21/07/2023

  It is surely the case that no genre, except perhaps comedy, produces such an astonishing number of sub-genres as horror. There is the monster movie, the slasher movie, the haunted house film, body horror, werewolf, vampire, cannibal and zombie movies, splatter movies, torture porn and demon child films. 

    People might not know what horror is, but they know what they like, and often want a particular sub-division of it. We may also note viewers like a particular sub-genre at a certain time. This doesn’t mean a horror sub-genre is narrowly historical but suggests horror can be preoccupied with one sub-genre over another at a given moment. As Robin Wood said during the seventies. “Five recurrent motifs (frequently interlinked) dominate the American (or American-influenced) horror film from the early ’60s to the present." (An Introduction to the American Horror Film) Wood saw the schizophrenic personality initiated by Psycho, with subsequent examples including HomicidalSisters and Schizo); cannibalism (Night of the Living DeadRaw Meat [Death Line], FrightmareThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Satanism (initially Rosemary’s Baby, but also The ExorcistThe AntichristThe Omen; the monstrous child (Rosemary’s BabyThe ExorcistNight of the Living DeadIt’s AliveThe Omen and others. Wood also noted the revenge of nature (initiated by The Birds, also Night of the LepusFrogsSquirm." 

           In the thirties, it seemed monster movies were of import, with Frankenstein and King Kong helping to define the genre. But the King Kong remake in 1976 was a big-budget flop, with the horror film much more interested in possession, while also moving towards a fascination with the slasher film. The biggest horror box-office successes of the 70s were The ExorcistAlienThe Amityville Horror, and The Omen, followed by slasher films Halloween and Friday the 13th. But then we might think of the biggest horror success of all, Jaws, which Ian Freer claims is an aquatic monster movie. And isn’t Alien a monster movie in space? Perhaps the monster movie was still doing ok, but only if it had become transformed and camouflaged, absorbed into a more realistic aesthetic, like Jaws, or a science fiction concept, like Alien

     We can make other claims more confidently. The slasher may still continue well into the 2020s, but it was a sub-genre that became defined and successful in the late seventies, with Halloween and Friday the 13th popular enough to produce several sequels and numerous rip-offs: The Toolbox MurdersManiacThe FanSchizoidThe New York Ripper. It went big-budget with Dressed to Kill in 1980, made for $6.5 US dollars, more than ten times the budget of Friday the 13th, 20 times larger than Halloween. Torture porn was a vicious sub-genre in the early-to-mid 2000s, with SawHostel and French variations including High Tension and Martyrs. Haunted house films have been long-established, but with The Amityville Horror, The Shining and Poltergeist, they became very big-box-office, with all three, as of 1985, in the top ten horror financial successes of all time. (Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror) None of these were very gory during a period when horror had become very gruesome indeed. This was, after all, the era of the slasher film and the splatter movie, with high body counts when you include too the burgeoning presence of body horror, a sub-genre almost created by Canadian David Cronenberg but then picked up on by Clive Barker (Hellraiser) Stuart Gordon (Re-animator) and others. 

       The presence of such films was possible because of developments in make-up work. The slasher and especially the splatter movie and body horror needed vivid effects, and were reliant as much on the quality of the make-up artists as the skill of the filmmaker. The slasher film could probably still get away with relying on more traditional devices like hard cutting, point-of-view shots and a strident string score (as Friday the 13th did) but it still had to earn its keep with a bit of goriness: an axe in the face, a blade from below piercing a body while poor Kevin Bacon is lying in bed. In the splatter, the make-up work was the thing. All those low-budget Italian horrors like Zombie Flesh EatersCannibal Ferox and The Beyond usually lacked the budget and perhaps the talent to match what was going on in the States, where make-up people Rob Bottin (The Thing) Tom Savini (Day of the Dead), Rick Baker (Videodrome), Dick Smith (Scanners), were making the unimaginable very imaginable. Nevertheless, the Italian directors helped define the sub-genre.

        If we have noticed that sub-genres have golden moments that nevertheless stretch far beyond that period in time, sub-genres also segue into other sub-genres but sometimes not without resentment. The splatter, slasher, torture porn, zombie and body horror films have close similarities based on the explicit; haunted house films, vampire movies, and films with twins and evil children are more likely to be implicit. This doesn’t mean there won’t be explicit violence in a vampire film or a haunted house movie, but if a critic is inclined to say that such violence in the latter is gratuitous then that will rest on the sub-generic assumptions — that its purpose is as an implicit rather than explicit horror. After the release of The Thing, John Carpenter said, “they say it's too graphic, that I've gone too far, and that surprised me. I think the film is not that graphic if you compare it with other movies.” (DeseretNews) The question is what one compares it to and many presumably saw Carpenter making a film closer to his earlier The Fog, evident in the way both films open with an atmospheric use of the milieu. But later, Carpenter moves closer to body horror when we see the damage the Thing of the title can do, and bodies are opened up and the shape-shifting capacity of the Thing becomes manifest. The movie starts to possess the yuckiness of a zombie film while people have expected a work that plays up the isolation and fear inherent in the film’s Antarctic setting. This needn’t mean Carpenter was wrong to make it much more of a splatterfest than Halloween, which is itself far less explicit than later slasher films like Friday the 13th, but perhaps the same criticisms wouldn’t have been made had he openly made a zombie movie. 

  It would make sense that people who like vampire films may not like zombie flicks, and vice versa. One lends itself to the aristocratic and the erotic; the other to an exploration of the sub-proletariat through the gory. Director of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and others, George A. Romero has always been clear that the zombies, whom he calls ghouls, are part of class warfare, saying “we were all '60s guys…We actually lived in that farmhouse. We bathed in the river and talked bullshit every night. What we talked about mostly was revolution. In my mind that is what all the Dead films are about.” (Irish Times) The vampire film is often about people protecting their aristocratic blood quite literally by sucking the life out of others. A central trope in vampire fiction is luring the unsuspecting to grand abodes where the hero or heroine will then be victim to an unwanted blood transfusion. Whether it is Terence Fisher’s Dracula, or Francis Coppola’s version, whether it is Dreyer’s Vampyr, or Murnau or Herzog’s Nosferatu, characters are drawn to salubrious dwellings, castles or mansions, however dilapidated or isolated they may be. This is old money, but rather than wealth that is handed down from generation to generation as the poor are exploited financially; it is blood the vampires seek to continue living. 

    Vampire films are atmospheric as zombie films are explicit but that needn’t be an absolute claim, only a general rule that helps us to understand that even though they are both central to the horror genre, they may function quite distinctly. Here we might wonder where the werewolf film sits. If the vampire film is aristocratic; the zombie film sub-proletariat, then the werewolf movie is usually rustic. It isn’t in the urban environment the central character in American Werewolf in London becomes lycanthropic, even if it is in the English capital where much of the action will take place. In Dog Soldiers it is in the Scottish highlands, and in The Howling, it is mainly set in a country retreat. The werewolf film can also be grisly, with a wolf rather like a zombie lacking the discriminatory dimension of a vampire. The Count just wants to suck your blood; the zombie and werewolf wish to tear you apart. 

      Two aspects worth thinking about before we conclude this all-too-brief account of horror film, are representational demand and emotional affect. One reason why critics often denigrate the excessive aspects of horror is that the film sacrifices the capacity for the imagination to think the worst by replacing it with an example of what it perceives are our most horrible imaginings. A comment from a filmmaker very far from horror can help us here. Robert Bresson insists that a sound invokes an image but an image doesn’t invoke a sound. Many a horror filmmaker has comprehended how important sound effects and music can be in suggesting to the viewer the presence of a horror that they don’t see, and probably Jaws remains the textbook example of a film that benefits not at all from the full presence of the shark. It is the fin and the music that bring the shark to life; its rubbery manifestation might make it float on water but it doesn’t quite float cinematically: it can't quite convince us of its horror. Yet this isn’t to insist on horror films adopting the implicit. Cronenberg works like VideodromeScanners and The Fly would be weaker works without their special effects. When a director like Cronenberg is fascinated by the workings of the body how can they not insist on showing us the viscera? Equally, if a zombie film wants to show us the rabid need to tear others apart, is it for the discreet to insist that the filmmaker ought to do so with taste and nuance? 

   The question is whether the representational demands meet the emotional expectation. One of the dangers with the explicit is that the viewer may imagine more terribly what the film makes categorical. This might work better when what is shown is unimaginable and this is vital to Cronenberg’s aesthetic: showing us heads explode or videos disappearing into people’s abdomens. Disgust, as Julian Hanich explores, in 'A Poetics of Cinematic Disgust', is a valid creative option, and perhaps all the more so when the director wants us to imagine anew. A shark, however, can easily be imagined because it has so often been represented. It is a problem if the shark we see on screen looks so much more inauthentic than many we have seen in documentaries and elsewhere. 

   Secondly, the danger with the explicit is that in time what can seem cutting edge will become bluntly outdated: AvatarThe Mummy Returns and some of the later Star Wars films are often invoked. Sometimes, too, the effects so take over the film’s theme that it is hard to find the film’s proper focus. In Poltergeist there is an interesting story about real estate and burial grounds but the effects take over to the detriment of this exploration, a tale about a suburban dad who is living the Reaganite dream (he is reading a Reagan biography in bed), and is deemed a whiz at flogging houses. But he is ignorant about how these properties are built on the cheap. The haunting aspect of this haunted house gives way to gee-whiz special effects, suggesting, as has been claimed, that this is more Steven Spielberg (the producer) than Tobe Hooper (the director).

    The issue then is not how graphic or subtle the film is but what will reveal or smother the film’s intent. Some might insist that if horror is a genre there to scare the life out of us, then that doesn’t mean all horrors must do so in a similar way. If one accepts that horror film is a broad church, then sub-genres are a little like denominations and may need to be comprehended in the specifics of the loyalty demanded. It makes sense that people may love a zombie film and have little time for vampire movies and the reverse, and why someone who wants gore will be disappointed with a couple of puncture holes in the neck when the entire head could be torn off? Equally, those watching Us for example will wish that it toned down the violent action in the middle of the film and focused more on the intricate story it tells about doppelgangers. The double, as Freud well-noted, is an uncanny theme, but when a director starts to utilise canny action scenes to grab the viewer it can seem like the film has lost its way. One of the advantages of thinking the sub-generic is that it allows us to understand better a film’s intentions and the viewer’s expectations. Thinking of the genre as a whole can blind us to the specific representational demands and the affectively pertinent. After all, why has horror become so broad if it is only supposed to create images and feelings so narrow? 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Horror Genre

It is surely the case that no genre, except perhaps comedy, produces such an astonishing number of sub-genres as horror. There is the monster movie, the slasher movie, the haunted house film, body horror, werewolf, vampire, cannibal and zombie movies, splatter movies, torture porn and demon child films.

People might not know what horror is, but they know what they like, and often want a particular sub-division of it. We may also note viewers like a particular sub-genre at a certain time. This doesn't mean a horror sub-genre is narrowly historical but suggests horror can be preoccupied with one sub-genre over another at a given moment. As Robin Wood said during the seventies. "Five recurrent motifs (frequently interlinked) dominate the American (or American-influenced) horror film from the early '60s to the present. (An Introduction to the American Horror Film) Wood saw the schizophrenic personality initiated by Psycho, with subsequent examples including Homicidal, Sisters and Schizo); cannibalism (Night of the Living Dead, Raw Meat [Death Line], Frightmare, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Satanism (initially Rosemary's Baby, but also The Exorcist, The Antichrist, The Omen; the monstrous child (Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, It's Alive, The Omen and others. Wood also noted the revenge of nature (initiated by The Birds, also Night of the Lepus, Frogs; Squirm.

In the thirties, it seemed monster movies were of import, with Frankenstein and King Kong helping to define the genre. But the King Kong remake in 1976 was a big-budget flop, with the horror film much more interested in possession, while also moving towards a fascination with the slasher film. The biggest horror box-office successes of the 70s were The Exorcist, Alien, The Amityville Horror, and The Omen, followed by slasher films Halloween and Friday the 13th. But then we might think of the biggest horror success of all, Jaws, which Ian Freer claims is an aquatic monster movie. And isn't Alien a monster movie in space? Perhaps the monster movie was still doing ok, but only if it had become transformed and camouflaged, absorbed into a more realistic aesthetic, like Jaws, or a science fiction concept, like Alien.

We can make other claims more confidently. The slasher may still continue well into the 2020s, but it was a sub-genre that became defined and successful in the late seventies, with Halloween and Friday the 13th popular enough to produce several sequels and numerous rip-offs: The Toolbox Murders, Maniac, The Fan, Schizoid, The New York Ripper. It went big-budget with Dressed to Kill in 1980, made for $6.5 US dollars, more than ten times the budget of Friday the 13th, 20 times larger than Halloween. Torture porn was a vicious sub-genre in the early-to-mid 2000s, with Saw, Hostel and French variations including High Tension and Martyrs. Haunted house films have been long-established, but with The Amityville Horror, The Shining and Poltergeist, they became very big-box-office, with all three, as of 1985, in the top ten horror financial successes of all time. (Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror) None of these were very gory during a period when horror had become very gruesome indeed. This was, after all, the era of the slasher film and the splatter movie, with high body counts when you include too the burgeoning presence of body horror, a sub-genre almost created by Canadian David Cronenberg but then picked up on by Clive Barker (Hellraiser) Stuart Gordon (Re-animator) and others.

The presence of such films was possible because of developments in make-up work. The slasher and especially the splatter movie and body horror needed vivid effects, and were reliant as much on the quality of the make-up artists as the skill of the filmmaker. The slasher film could probably still get away with relying on more traditional devices like hard cutting, point-of-view shots and a strident string score (as Friday the 13th did) but it still had to earn its keep with a bit of goriness: an axe in the face, a blade from below piercing a body while poor Kevin Bacon is lying in bed. In the splatter, the make-up work was the thing. All those low-budget Italian horrors like Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cannibal Ferox and The Beyond usually lacked the budget and perhaps the talent to match what was going on in the States, where make-up people Rob Bottin (The Thing) Tom Savini (Day of the Dead), Rick Baker (Videodrome), Dick Smith (Scanners), were making the unimaginable very imaginable. Nevertheless, the Italian directors helped define the sub-genre.

If we have noticed that sub-genres have golden moments that nevertheless stretch far beyond that period in time, sub-genres also segue into other sub-genres but sometimes not without resentment. The splatter, slasher, torture porn, zombie and body horror films have close similarities based on the explicit; haunted house films, vampire movies, and films with twins and evil children are more likely to be implicit. This doesn't mean there won't be explicit violence in a vampire film or a haunted house movie, but if a critic is inclined to say that such violence in the latter is gratuitous then that will rest on the sub-generic assumptions that its purpose is as an implicit rather than explicit horror. After the release of The Thing, John Carpenter said, "they say it's too graphic, that I've gone too far, and that surprised me. I think the film is not that graphic if you compare it with other movies." (DeseretNews) The question is what one compares it to and many presumably saw Carpenter making a film closer to his earlier The Fog, evident in the way both films open with an atmospheric use of the milieu. But later, Carpenter moves closer to body horror when we see the damage the Thing of the title can do, and bodies are opened up and the shape-shifting capacity of the Thing becomes manifest. The movie starts to possess the yuckiness of a zombie film while people have expected a work that plays up the isolation and fear inherent in the film's Antarctic setting. This needn't mean Carpenter was wrong to make it much more of a splatterfest than Halloween, which is itself far less explicit than later slasher films like Friday the 13th, but perhaps the same criticisms wouldn't have been made had he openly made a zombie movie.

It would make sense that people who like vampire films may not like zombie flicks, and vice versa. One lends itself to the aristocratic and the erotic; the other to an exploration of the sub-proletariat through the gory. Director of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and others, George A. Romero has always been clear that the zombies, whom he calls ghouls, are part of class warfare, saying "we were all '60s guys...We actually lived in that farmhouse. We bathed in the river and talked bullshit every night. What we talked about mostly was revolution. In my mind that is what all the Dead films are about." (Irish Times) The vampire film is often about people protecting their aristocratic blood quite literally by sucking the life out of others. A central trope in vampire fiction is luring the unsuspecting to grand abodes where the hero or heroine will then be victim to an unwanted blood transfusion. Whether it is Terence Fisher's Dracula, or Francis Coppola's version, whether it is Dreyer's Vampyr, or Murnau or Herzog's Nosferatu, characters are drawn to salubrious dwellings, castles or mansions, however dilapidated or isolated they may be. This is old money, but rather than wealth that is handed down from generation to generation as the poor are exploited financially; it is blood the vampires seek to continue living.

Vampire films are atmospheric as zombie films are explicit but that needn't be an absolute claim, only a general rule that helps us to understand that even though they are both central to the horror genre, they may function quite distinctly. Here we might wonder where the werewolf film sits. If the vampire film is aristocratic; the zombie film sub-proletariat, then the werewolf movie is usually rustic. It isn't in the urban environment the central character in American Werewolf in London becomes lycanthropic, even if it is in the English capital where much of the action will take place. In Dog Soldiers it is in the Scottish highlands, and in The Howling, it is mainly set in a country retreat. The werewolf film can also be grisly, with a wolf rather like a zombie lacking the discriminatory dimension of a vampire. The Count just wants to suck your blood; the zombie and werewolf wish to tear you apart.

Two aspects worth thinking about before we conclude this all-too-brief account of horror film, are representational demand and emotional affect. One reason why critics often denigrate the excessive aspects of horror is that the film sacrifices the capacity for the imagination to think the worst by replacing it with an example of what it perceives are our most horrible imaginings. A comment from a filmmaker very far from horror can help us here. Robert Bresson insists that a sound invokes an image but an image doesn't invoke a sound. Many a horror filmmaker has comprehended how important sound effects and music can be in suggesting to the viewer the presence of a horror that they don't see, and probably Jaws remains the textbook example of a film that benefits not at all from the full presence of the shark. It is the fin and the music that bring the shark to life; its rubbery manifestation might make it float on water but it doesn't quite float cinematically: it can't quite convince us of its horror. Yet this isn't to insist on horror films adopting the implicit. Cronenberg works like Videodrome, Scanners and The Fly would be weaker works without their special effects. When a director like Cronenberg is fascinated by the workings of the body how can they not insist on showing us the viscera? Equally, if a zombie film wants to show us the rabid need to tear others apart, is it for the discreet to insist that the filmmaker ought to do so with taste and nuance?

The question is whether the representational demands meet the emotional expectation. One of the dangers with the explicit is that the viewer may imagine more terribly what the film makes categorical. This might work better when what is shown is unimaginable and this is vital to Cronenberg's aesthetic: showing us heads explode or videos disappearing into people's abdomens. Disgust, as Julian Hanich explores, in 'A Poetics of Cinematic Disgust', is a valid creative option, and perhaps all the more so when the director wants us to imagine anew. A shark, however, can easily be imagined because it has so often been represented. It is a problem if the shark we see on screen looks so much more inauthentic than many we have seen in documentaries and elsewhere.

Secondly, the danger with the explicit is that in time what can seem cutting edge will become bluntly outdated: Avatar, The Mummy Returns and some of the later Star Wars films are often invoked. Sometimes, too, the effects so take over the film's theme that it is hard to find the film's proper focus. In Poltergeist there is an interesting story about real estate and burial grounds but the effects take over to the detriment of this exploration, a tale about a suburban dad who is living the Reaganite dream (he is reading a Reagan biography in bed), and is deemed a whiz at flogging houses. But he is ignorant about how these properties are built on the cheap. The haunting aspect of this haunted house gives way to gee-whiz special effects, suggesting, as has been claimed, that this is more Steven Spielberg (the producer) than Tobe Hooper (the director).

The issue then is not how graphic or subtle the film is but what will reveal or smother the film's intent. Some might insist that if horror is a genre there to scare the life out of us, then that doesn't mean all horrors must do so in a similar way. If one accepts that horror film is a broad church, then sub-genres are a little like denominations and may need to be comprehended in the specifics of the loyalty demanded. It makes sense that people may love a zombie film and have little time for vampire movies and the reverse, and why someone who wants gore will be disappointed with a couple of puncture holes in the neck when the entire head could be torn off? Equally, those watching Us for example will wish that it toned down the violent action in the middle of the film and focused more on the intricate story it tells about doppelgangers. The double, as Freud well-noted, is an uncanny theme, but when a director starts to utilise canny action scenes to grab the viewer it can seem like the film has lost its way. One of the advantages of thinking the sub-generic is that it allows us to understand better a film's intentions and the viewer's expectations. Thinking of the genre as a whole can blind us to the specific representational demands and the affectively pertinent. After all, why has horror become so broad if it is only supposed to create images and feelings so narrow?


© Tony McKibbin