Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Evolution of Horror

Watching horror movies has become something of a pastime for my wife and I, featuring day-long marathons featuring different types of Horror. Due to a combination of our own desensitized views to violence and our disdain for the American cinema, we’ve found ourselves watching foreign horror films, and being genuinely scared by what we saw! This of course led me to think of how our own genre has evolved over the years, of how each generation contributed and how each generation’s idea of terror seemed to take on drastic changes. And from the early years of silent cinema to today’s surround sound theaters with 3-D effects, the changes have been so profound that the entire method in which terror was delivered had changed, forced to mostly by our own collective experiences and with the technology.

Just look at what my great-grandfather would have watched in the theaters during the early twentieth century: The Golem (1920), a film about a Jewish construct that saves his creators, only to turn on them in a predictable (by today’s standards) fashion.  The Cabinet of Dr. Calrigari (1919), a film where the monster is an evil scientist; the whole film warped by the point of view coming from the films narrator, with all of the scenery and people taking on wholly unsettling visages, And of course, Nosferatu (1922), the primordial ooze that the evolution of the Vampire crawled from; a classic tale of suspense where the monster feeds on the living and exists in a mockery of life, just like the other two films of the day. (the Golem being made from clay and refusing to go back into non-being once his purpose is fulfilled, the Mad Scientist seemingly completely separate from his more caring human side by his increasingly sadistic actions).
To that generation, fear was seen through the lens of the unknown, as they’d never had such a marvel as cinema before. Ghost stories and books were all they had to fuel their imaginations. This is why these first films were so effective at driving a new stake of fear into the viewer’s heart: it was something you could feel something you could touch… and it could touch you back. Ghosts and demons were rarely so viable in that regard due to their intangibility and inability to affect the world around them, and the idea of any kind of undead that is commonplace today didn’t emerge for nearly thirty more years (though the seed of that foul flower was planted in 1921 by H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West-Reanimator, a short story published in 1921).
During the following two decades, as the art of cinema improved technologically, so did our morbid curiosity of what exactly we could create with this new visual art. Frankenstein and Dracula (1931) were made around the same time with similar budgets, based off of the classic stories we know and love. Frankenstein was scary to our forefathers as it was a slap in the face of God. Dracula, like Nosferatu, preyed on our religious fears of old and used our newfound fears of the tangible to truly strike a chord with viewers, who screamed with delight as Lugosi maniacally laughed every few minutes before slaying yet another hapless victim.
The state of our fears remained relatively the same for the next decade, until the events and horrors of World War II were unveiled to us all worldwide. Between the concentration camps, the Manchurian purge and the dropping of atomic bombs, we’d never actually been so shocked visually.
This of course hardened us as a people, and sadly forced the horror genre to reinvent itself. Audiences everywhere were no longer afraid of looming shadows or shambling giants the horrors of war and the ravages of man having dulled our collective sense of fear, leaving a whole in our hearts where the terrors we so feared years ago were no longer something that elicited fear, so much as bemusement. We needed a new breed of monsters to terrify us, and with the advent of nuclear technology, so with it came our new nightmares. The terror of atomic weapons and radiation brought a flood of ideas about mutants and the possibility of strange and exotic monsters, creating films such as the Fly, Them! and Godzilla.
The 1950’s also bore the birth of our fear about what lies beyond the stars, as speculation of the occurrence in Roswell, New Mexico in June of 1947 had finally gained enough traction to make it to the silver screen. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) truly shocked audiences with how utterly defenseless we were from such alien beings.  Audiences had grown accustomed by now to the idea of the different evils that could be faced, either through religion or through war. Aliens were affected by neither of these, which made them all the more horrifying.
With the Vietnam War and the Cold War looming over our collective shoulders, the birth of what I would say is today’s common strain of horror came spewing forth from our collective nightmares in an engorged, and bloody, mess. Gore, gore, gore and more gore. Cheap Shock scares, scenes were the unexpected would leap from the shadows, came to us from the renowned Alfred Hitchcock from films like Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). With this new cinematic tool in hand, Hitchcock and others (like Romero) were able to subtly add a new element to the genre, a brief flirtation of genuine horror that not only heightened suspense, but made the plot move in a far smoother manner.
Night of the Living Dead (1967),  a combination of Frankenstein, Dracula and cheap shock thrills, spawned forth the Zombie genre; a genre (de)composed of monsters that are a mockery of life and feast upon the living, which in turn makes more of them. While very vulnerable to almost any form of attack, their lack of basic needs allowed them to stalk up behind you quietly, and leap out from the shadows in a blur of teeth and gore that left viewers too terrified to walk the streets at night.
The rest, as I loathe saying, is history, and recent history at that. These various films showcase what exactly terrified us throughout the twentieth century, and show us how we’ve stumbled into the meat grinder movies of today. With the success of cheap scares and the shock value of blood, cinema has had to up the ante every decade or so to keep movie-goers attention, going from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Exorcist of the 1970’s (both films of raw carnage and profanity) to countless slasher films of the 1980’s and 1990’s. This fine genre has been tainted with a foulness that not even a horror enthusiast can enjoy ironically.
Thankfully, with every hundred or so terrifyingly awful gore-filled films, we get one gem that floats amongst the blood; which brings us to the crossroads of our evolution in horror. With the dime-a-dozen torture and blood films, we get the rare movie that brings back the fears our grandparents held, fears that we cannot touch or see of fight. Possession movies, as well as hauntings, have become huge in the past decade as we discover within ourselves saying “Oh Lord, how could I fight that?” while every single one of us knows how to handle a zombie apocalypse without even batting an eyelash.
History repeats itself, dear readers, and thankfully I am alive to see what I hope to be the revival of horror and fear. I look to you as well to help me on my dream, by seeking that which terrifies you, and seeking it out. Go and see the grotesque and shock films, but also go and see the films that are truly a positive addition to our ever changing genre, the few works of art that are made every year. Show those that make the movies what we truly value; for our desire of the art of the scare to come back to us. Should we merely reward the movie studios for mediocre work and gallons of fake blood, the quality movies will merely be forgotten as they lie covered in the blood of the charnel house films. Either way, be certain to remember that while you may think you’ve seen it all, odds are a new terror is lurking around the corner in the mind of some twisted writer.

Sweet Dreams… 

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