Since the dawn of storytelling, the narrative has been a predictable indicator of societal values and attitudes. Social and technological conditions shape society’s collective consciousness, which ultimately bears upon the stories writers and filmmakers tell. Common to all horror narratives is some form of evil or “monster”, but this “monster” is constantly re-defined and re-represented with each cultural or societal development (Wells, 8). So, we can view the history of the horror film genre as a veritable chronicle of social anxieties in the 20th and early 21st century. How, then, can we predict what form our monsters will take in future waves of horror?
Because horror is culturally shaped, its future relies on society’s response to current and imminent cultural conditions. To intelligently predict thematic patterns in future horror narratives, we should examine existing and emerging societal anxieties and how they might translate on-screen. Since the evolution of horror has shown cyclical tendencies, we ought to we’d be wise to explore how past social anxieties have been portrayed.
The Genesis of Spook Tales
European folktales and 19th century gothic literature formed the basis of “spook tales” in early 20th century horror. The popularity of 19th century “spirit photography” influenced how German Expressionist filmmakers applied new film technology (Wilson). Favoring emotion over realism, these silent films assumed a twisted, dreamlike tone and relied on augmented visuals, with emphasis on light and shadow, stark makeup, and irregular camera angles (DiMare, 965). 1920s Expressionist canons exemplars like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu resonated with post-World War I German audiences who were sought escape while coping with bleak economic and political climates.
Depression and Progress
The rise of Nazism in the 1930s prompted many German filmmakers to emigrate to the U.S., where their Expressionist styles infused Hollywood. Classic 1930s “monster movies” (King Kong, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula) provided escape for Depression-era audiences. The exoticness of the monsters underscored isolationist attitudes marking America’s pre-World War II mentality. The Machine Age prompted fears of technology perverting and abusing nature, while ; the discovery of King Tut’s tomb helped gave popularize to the horror trope of the mummy (Wilson).
Of course, sound was a game changer. The advent of “talkies” lent a whole new dimension to horror film. Sound technology enabled filmmakers to augment sensations that were nonexistent in silent film. The echo of footsteps, a monster’s howl, or a suspenseful musical score could yield unprecedented dramatic effects.
Later, war-inspired paranoia began to rear its head in American cinema. We start to see wolf iconography – a common metaphor for Hitler’s Germany (Skal, 70) – emerging in 1940s horror, and the Cold War 1950s were marked by fear of scientific progress gone awry and the threat of invasion by an “outsider” (Turitz). Aliens and mutants abounded in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Blob, and a plethora of B-movies in Technicolor and 3D. And Japan, still reeling from nuclear attacks, produced released Godzilla, quite the obvious metaphor for American atomic weapons. (Rafferty).
The Motion Picture Production Code that governed 20th century Hollywood suppressed sexuality, gore, and other taboos in film. When the popularity of television seemed an impending threat started to threaten cinema revenue, the Code was phased out to protect the medium. Simultaneously, counter-culture started to challenge our social mores (Wilson). Hence, the ‘60s gave us more irreverent horror, from Psycho to Rosemary’s Baby to Night of the Living Dead. Psycho depicted a new type of violence and latent drive to punish sexual desire, and broke all sorts of rules (Premarital sex! Nudity! Toilets on screen!); Rosemary’s Baby kindled a fascination of with the Occult, inspiring later classics like The Omen and The Exorcist. Night of the Living Dead introduced new levels of gore while critiquing capitalist society.
Cynicism and grim economic times inspired a shift to horror realism in the 1970s. Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre both introduced evil figures who could actually conceivably exist, reflecting a general mistrust of society. In an era when real-life serial killers like Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy were making headlines in mass media, , a new brand of monster had entered the public consciousness.
Clichés and Irony
In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween ushered in the era of indestructible slasher villains. who cannot be destroyed. Michael Myers, Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees and Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger marked an era of gory gratuitous indulgence of in the ‘80s. And since these mystical killers couldn’t die, there were sequels and copycats a-plenty and ad nauseam. By the 1990s, splatter films were officially played out.
In 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream was the first to capitalize on the public’s exhaustion with horror clichés (Turitz). By acknowledging the hackneyed and formulaic, Scream successfully related to audiences with irony and humor, and is partially credited with revitalizing the horror genre. I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend followed.
Scream’s self-referential approach used irony and amusing predictability to appeal to jaded horror audiences: Wes Craven’s “Scream” – Rules for Surviving a Horror Film
Post-Millennial Attitudes and Technologies
After a lull in horror releases immediately following 9/11, the Final Destination franchise appealed to reflected public fears related to related to the randomness and inescapability of death (Wilson). Apocalypse films like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and War of the Worlds, and scores of zombie pictures spoke to fears of biological warfare and/or mass annihilation. Improved CGI technologies made far-fetched scenarios more visually compelling and believable. Torture porns Saw and Hostel tapped into public curiosities of torture by military and terrorist groups, for the first time being captured, and shared, and viewed with on social media. Torture porn’s already visceral imagery was further enhanced by the latest HD technology (Wilson).
What Is and What May Be
A longitudinal look at the recurring themes in horror can help us forecast its future. Current issues like a struggling economy, terrorism, and global warming would logically continue to translate into post-apocalyptic themes in cinema for as long as these concerns persist. We might also look to emerging trends like increasing globalization and the growing compulsion to constantly be connected. Logical responses to globalization would show a decline in fear of the “outsider”, but more fear of the power of network effects – the dangers of connectedness. Viruses, zombies, and other quick proliferation of death or evil would be expected themes. Meanwhile, growing obsession with constant connection – the perpetual need to “check-in” – might trigger content related to fears of isolation or being stranded. (Gravity, anyone?) We might also look out for a rise in Orwellian themes as privacy and information security concerns intensify.
The Past is the Future
Whatever themes prevail, they’ll likely be a resurgence of some past motif, if not a remix of several. Thematic repetitions work because they’re usually still novel to young people who typify horror audiences. Hideo Nakata, director of Japanese horror hit Ringu, predicts that whatever the social climate, the future of horror will always be “what kind of story and horror expressions will look fresh to young audience’s eyes.” (Turitz). Novelty and paranoia will ultimately coalesce to form the next chapter of the American horror story.
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Rafferty, Terrence. “The Monster That Morphed Into a Metaphor.” New York Times 2 May 2004: n. pag. New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web.
Skal, David J. “The Horrors of War.” The Horror Film. Ed. Stephen Prince. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. 70-72. Google Books. Google. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.
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Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower, 2000. Print.
Wilson, Karina. “The Silent Era of Horror Movies.” Horror Film History.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.