Cyclical Scares

how hollywood has handled horror and formed our fears


Fear-based entertainment is incredibly counterintuitive. The reason fear exists is to trigger a response in our brain that saves us from a range of unpleasant experiences—from being chastised by a parent to being mauled by a tiger. It is very difficult to pinpoint when in time the stomach-dropping adrenaline associated with fear became something sought out for amusement, but since then, people have flocked to theatres and spent enormous amounts of money for a mode of entertainment that is both thrilling and chilling, without any end in sight.

Thelonia Saunders / Kitsch Art Editor
Thelonia Saunders / Kitsch Art Editor

John P. Hess of Filmmaker IQ describes horror as a genre that has a “recognizable pattern that happens again and again,” a pattern that has come to be known as a series of “horror cycles.” These cycles represent trends in the genre as a whole, or sub-genres that draw from past trends, or completely new revolutions in horror. They are essentially ribbons that can be used to tie together horror movies from a particular time period. Looking at the content of these cycles, from supernatural animal-human hybrids to psychotic killers, it becomes clear that if film is at all representative of reality, humans are really only afraid of one thing: aberrant people with monstrous characteristics.

The first cycle in the history of scary movies comes from German expressionist film and is referred to as the Gothic cycle, primarily because of the creepy, Adams family-esque architecture used in the settings. Although many have described Le Manoir du Diable, a 1896 French film, as being the first horror film, some of the scenes, like when the devil’s cohort pokes the hero in the butt, seem intended to evoke humor rather than fear. In my opinion, the 1920 German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is truly the first horror film: the ghoulish villain is deathly pale with dark shadows around his eyes and the damsel’s distress is chilling, even in the over-the-top pantomime form of the day. German filmmakers continued to produce scary movies similar to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for several years. However, in 1925, due to the economic instability caused by WWI, these German studios were absorbed by Hollywood, the enormous entertainment machine that had just begun to flourish internationally.

Around this time, many German expressionist filmmakers immigrated to the United States to keep their jobs after Universal Studios purchased their intellectual property rights. As a result, Gothic horror started to take off in popularity and monster movies became hits in the horror world. Gothic fiction novels, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, were adapted into films, re-adapted, and turned into sequels. However, this outburst of hit monster movies eventually moved past its peak and entered into a downward spiral. But the death of this horror cycle allowed for the birth of a different style of film. In order to guarantee continued success, the thrills of horror films became increasingly exaggerated until they eventually led to movies that were easy pickings for parodies.

The monster movie parodies of the twenties and thirties gave way to a cycle of psychological horror. Beyond the realm of B-movies and smaller studios, RKO studios began making movies that generated a scare not by exposing the protagonists and viewers to a vicious monster, but by building a mood of fear and tension. One of the first examples of this is a movie called Cat People, produced by Val Lewton. (A perfect example of masochistically seeking fear in the movies, Lewton actually had a phobia of cats.) The horror of Cat People depends most on the building up of good, old-fashioned Freudian fear in the mind of the protagonist, who is driven to villainy by her own psychological self-manipulation. Only the last 20 minutes of the movie include typical horror scenes with violence or confrontation, while most of the 90 minutes are spent on suspense-building exposition and backstory.

This cycle of horror in which moviemakers played mind-games with the audience eventually died down, but would return to the screen in the sixties. In between those two cycles, the Cold War put the “nuclear boogie man” at the forefront of everyone’s minds and the horror of the late forties and early fifties reflected that. This period began what Hess calls the “Pulp Science Fiction” cycle, in which aliens and mutant monsters would descend on cities to destroy and terrorize. Although similar to the Gothic cycle, as audiences watched monsters attack and the thrill came as much from the make-up and costuming as it did from the strategic use of silence and sound, this Sci-Fi cycle moved past the well-known terror tales set in medieval mansions. By trading in the old narratives, writers for these new horror films gave themselves room to imagine newer, scarier plots.

As aforementioned, psychological horror returned in full (read: greater) force in the sixties with the great, iconic Alfred Hitchcock. In 1960, Psycho became the first motion picture to communicate to studios that horror was a genre worth pursuing, a genre that could generate real revenue. This realization, combined with the lifting of the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code, which censored profanity, sex, and drugs, among other things, broadened the freedom and popularity of the horror genre. Psycho and similar horror movies of its time changed the game of horror by bringing the monsters closer to home. The character of Norman Bates in Psycho is scary, not because he has claws or sucks blood for sustenance, but because he is a normal man on the outside, hiding a monstrous mental aberration on the inside. This type of psychological horror doesn’t let the audience leave their fear behind in the theatre, instead allowing the chilling paranoia to linger and follow them home in the dark.

The lifting of the Motion Picture Production Code not only allowed for serious consideration of the horror genre, but also led to an increase in the variety of and temporal difference between cycles. As we look at the end of the sixties and into the seventies, it becomes unproductive to discuss horror cycles linearly because their beginnings overlap and their subjects diverge. In England in the seventies, Hammer Film Productions picked up the Gothic horror cycle left behind by Universal studios, making remakes and sequels to all the old classics. Although these productions of The Mummy, The Curse of Frankenstein, and Dracula flared up and died out, from the ashes of this cycle came the epitome of Gothic horror parodies: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fully embracing the gay liberation movement that was swelling at that time, Rocky Horror included an attractive gold speedo-wearing Frankenstein character, sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing aliens, and innocent fiancés—all trapped in a classic Gothic mansion.

Other notable cycles in the history of horror include the Edgar Allan Poe cycle, produced and directed by Roger Corman. These movies, cranked out over a few years in the mid-sixties, pandered to the public’s desire for blood and boobs. Beautiful, bloody Barbara Steele in The Pit and the Pendulum and comatose Myrna Fahey in House of Usher provided the beauty while the strange sicknesses and torture chambers provided the gore. These films represent the appeal that horror has for the independent filmmaker; they have low production costs and can be relatively formulaic without sacrificing success. Another parallel cycle in the sixties and seventies is the occult horror cycle. After exhausting monsters and mind games, filmmakers returned to the subject of the earliest proto-horror: the devil and his demons. Movies like The Exorcist (said to be one of the best occult horror films of all time) made use of special effects to visually capture a grotesque perversion of the human body in a way that had not yet been achieved, even with the numerous human-to-monster transformations that populated the genre in the past.

In more recent years, the horror cycles following the occult cycle appear to be created by cinephiles and film students inspired by the decades of horror films that preceded them. As a result, the subject matter varies widely, although still stylistically influenced by previous topics. For example, Jaws and the subsequent “shark horror” subgenre, drew from the psychological thrillers of the forties (except, by the seventies, people had realized sharks were scarier than cats). In Jaws, Spielberg created such a powerful atmosphere of fear surrounding the shark that even today the soundtrack of this film is virtually synonymous with “scary movie.” The movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie was hugely influenced by the occult cycle, but its use of teenagers made it the beginning of an annoying-teen horror trend that manifested itself strongly in the nineties and early 21st century. Alien and the 1982 remake of The Thing revamped the pulp science fiction cycle of the fifties, taking it leaps further with the special effects of the decade and launching a very popular sci-fi horror cycle.

In relation to eighties horror, one iconic horror movie that is virtually impossible to categorize is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Although clearly informed by the regular-Jack-psycho-killer horror that began with Psycho as well as some occult horror (re: the old woman’s decaying corpse), The Shining is stylistically an entity of its own. The uncanny setting of an empty labyrinth of a hotel and the close shots of Jack Nicholson’s face as he mentally deteriorates are just two of the countless aspects of Kubrick’s filmmaking that set this movie apart in the world of horror.

Yet another horror phenomenon is the slasher movie. The slasher style begins with the archetypal Texas Chainsaw Massacre: low-budget, but with enough gore and raw acting to hook anyone with a penchant for horror. Halloween, made a few years after Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1978, was the first in a series of Hitchcock-inspired, low-budget slasher films. This movie drastically changed the face of horror by bringing the monster to suburbia and beginning the “terror in the backyard” formula for subgenre. By the nineties, the slasher had arrived at the end of its cycle, with self-referential borderline parodic slashers like Scream in 1996 and I Know What You Did Last Summer in 1997. However, the slasher did experience a breath of new life beginning in 2004, with the ultra-gory torture movie franchise Saw.

In terms of classifying modern movie making, identifying a single cycle in our day and age is virtually impossible; all of the money and technology funneled into the industry allows moviemakers to tell and retell virtually any story they choose. In 2013, movies that fit into every possible horror subgenre were released, spanning from Gothic vampires, to slashers, to slasher parodies. One trend does stand out, however, and it will probably come to define our decade for future students of horror film: zombie horror, the trend that has been plaguing theatres and TV screens for the past decade. We have seen countless zombie and medical pandemic movies, beginning with 28 Days Later in early 2002, and continuing with the recent 2013 blockbuster World War Z, as well as the epic AMC series The Walking Dead. The fear of zombie apocalypse is characteristic of modern horror, but we know it won’t last. Soon directors will choose another dark avenue to corral our fears and manipulate our minds, and we will pay them handsomely to do it.

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