The Evolution and Conventions ofHORROR By Luke Thomas
Introduction to HorrorSince the dawn of thinking, Ghost stories and myths would oftenbe told to strike fear into the heart of the listener. Horror as agenre though originated maturely in literature and the arts inaround the 1600’s, with Gothic Horror being one of the mostpopular genres with the public, despite the critics and scholarsof the time demoting the genre as sensationalist nonsense,particularly due to the books and the plays content being verysexual and blasphemous by the times standards. This createsparallels with Horror films in the modern day, being very popularwith the public but never really becoming critically acclaimed(except in a few rare circumstances) by any of the critics and thebourgeoisie thinkers behind them. It could be that in 200 yearsfilms like Nightmare on Elm Street may have an elitist spotalongside Shakespeares Hamlet.
Early HorrorHorror in films originated mainly in the1920s with silent films, notablyNosferatu, based on Bram Stokers horrornovel Dracula, and The Hunchback ofNotre Dame. By the advent of Sound incinema in the 30s, audiences wereparticularly interested in the classicUniversal Monsters series. This seriesincludes Frankenstein, Dracula, TheWolfman, Creature from the BlackLagoon, The Mummy and The InvisibleMan. These, whilst tame by todaysstandards, were contextually terrifying for a30s audience and are now consideredgenuinely iconic to the Horror Industry.
Hammer HorrorOver in Britain, Hammer Horrors were capturing the publicsimagination. Made from the mid-1950s until the 1970s, theseoften sensationalized the original Universal Monster series, butwith a lower budget and more gore and blood. Typical staplesof the Hammer Series were Peter Cushing, who appearedmainly as the hero and who made further appearances outsidethis series as General Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars film,and Christopher Lee, who appeared as several villains and isknown outside this series for his work as Count Dooku in theStar Wars franchise, Saruman in the Lord of the Ringsfranchise and various appearances in Tim Burtons films. TheHammer Horror series started in 1957 with the film The Curseof Frankenstein. Critics claimed the film was “Depressing anddegrading for anyone who loves the cinema” but despite thesenegative reviews the film was popular with the public. This filmthen started a run of sequels and similar films, all of whichgarnered public acclaim but were never taken seriously byreviewers. This series ended in 1974, when Tobe Hopersseminal American slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,which broke conventions by being ultra violent for a horror filmat the time. Hammer horrors just couldn’t compete, and despitean increase in sex and gore in their films, they quickly went outof fashion. The final Hammer horror of this era was TheLegend of the 7 Golden Vampires, which met little to no criticalor public notice. Hammer has recently made a resurgence inlower budget modern horror films, notable works being Womanin Black and Let Me In.
Slasher Films and their ConventionsSlasher Films came along in the 1970s, in the new wave of violent horror films afterthe quite campy and cheesy Universal and Hammer Horrors. A Slasher Film is asubgenre of the typical horror film, involving an often psychopathic and mysteriouskiller who often has a supernatural background. There are other characters in the film,but more often than not, particularly in a franchise, these are just pawns in the seriesthat are built up just to be killed by the antihero villain. The deaths in the series areoften very violent, but are that unrealistic and over the top that they becomehumorous to a modern audience. The cliché characters in slasher’s is a group ofteenagers, comprising of the archetypical jock, clown, courtesan, scholar and thevirgin. Out of all of these, the virgin is often the one left alive at the end of the film(Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday 13th, Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street,Halloween etc.). These cliché characters and roles are often parodied in variousformats, particularly in the cartoon series Scooby Doo, which contains most of thesestock characters, and recent Horror film Cabin in the Woods, which plays on all thesestock characters as part of a government conspiracy that these characters must besacrificed through horror film clichés to keep an angry God dormant.Cliché settings are often a mysterious cabin or house belonging to one of thecharacters rich uncle/ relative (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, Cabin in theWoods, Last House on the Left remake etc.) or a normally safe area, like a normalhouse or street or town, which the murderer invades (Saw, Scream, Nightmare onElm Street etc.)
Notable Slasher Horror Films Psycho (1960) (1974) Childs Play (1988) Peeping Tom Halloween (1960) (1978) Scream (1996) The Last House Friday the 13th I Know What You on the Left (1980) Did Last Summer (1972) (1997) Prom Night The Texas (1980) Freddy Vs. Jason Chainsaw (2003) Massacre (1974) Nightmare on Elm Street Black Christmas (1984)
Psycho“We all go a little crazy sometimes”Norman BatesPsycho could be counted as one of the firstSlasher films before the exploitive cinema of the1970s. It was directed by the acclaimed directorAlfred Hitchcock, and was widely released in1960. Famous for the classic murder scene ofJanet Leigh (The mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, ahorror staple of the 1970s in Halloween) in theshower scene, which has entered popularculture as an iconic standard for Horrors tomatch up to.Conventions- Psychopathic killer (NormanBates), femme fatale (Janet Leigh), amysterious house setting (Bates Motel) andseveral poorly received sequels.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre “Get her Grandpa, Get her!” The Hitchhiker If Psycho originated the “Slasher” genre, this certainly started the long line of exploitive slasher horrors, particularly popular in the 1970s and 80s. This also started the masked murderer cliché, with one of the major antagonists wearing Human skin. It was banned for years and because of this gained infamy for the violence involved. Conventions- Masked murderer (Leatherface), hillbillies, torture, graphic depictions of violence, backwards location and a house belonging to one of the main characters. Also, this is one of the first that used the tagline “based on a true story”. It also, like most popular horror films, had a long streak of bad sequels
Nightmare on Elm Street“Welcome to prime time, bitch”Freddy KruegerThis film (and subsequent sequels) were the first tocombine very violent slashers with black comedy. Thisalso started the idea of the villain acting as an anti herowith his unique look and quotable humour. The gimmickwithin this series is that the murders happen within thedream world, allowing some very vibrant and surrealdeath sequences, such as pulling all the veins out of oneof his victims and using him as a marionette puppet anduntil he throws him off a large building. This is one of thefirst films by the famous Horror director Wes Craven, whowent on to direct The Last House on The Left, The HillsHave Eyes and The Scream series. He also directedWes Cravens New Nightmare, which had the enigmaticFreddy Krueger coming after the actors from the firstNightmare on Elm Street film, including RobertEnglund, who plays Freddy.Conventions- Iconic Anti-hero Murderer (FreddyKrueger), Usually calm setting holding somethingevil, teenage heroes, virgin survives, graphic depictionsof violence and the poorly received sequels and remake
Scream“What’s your favourite Scary Movie?”GhostfaceScream was one of the first significant slasher films foraround 10 years. One of the reasons for its vast popularity isits self deprecating humour, mocking itself and the slashergenre as a whole, and how the cast and setting plays out tostereotypes, like an episode of Scooby Doo. We have thestock characters, the virgin, the clown, the creep, the nerd,the whore and then the useless cop and the teensbackstory. One thing that differentiates this from otherslashers is the fact that the audience is always guessing asto who the murderer is, as Randy says in the film“Everyone’s a Suspect”. The gimmick of this murderer is thathe murders his victims using a game based on Horror filmtrivia. The murderer also murders his victims following “Therules” of horror films, e.g. the virgin survivingConventions- Masked murderer (Ghostface), teenageheroes, Mysterious house in the middle of nowherebelonging to one of the characters, The horror film rules,graphic depictions of violence
Psychological Horrors and its ConventionsPsychological horror is one of the most popular Horror sub-genres. Unlike slashers and Hammer Horrors, it is harder toclassify a Psychological as to when it originated and when itspopularity rose or fell. Psychological Horror has actuallyremained nearly consistently popular with audiences and criticsalike. Often Psychological horrors are listed as thrillers as well.Conventions of a Psychological horror are a lot broader andharder to categorize than a Hammer or Slasher, which havetypical conventions to work to. But there is often an unstable orpsychotic main character, who may give us as the audience awarped sense of what is really happening or make us questionour own morality. A good Psychological horror should get insideyour head and make you question every angle that the film ismaking. Locations often include a hospital/ mental hospital or aprison. These settings make to have interesting characterstudies of insane characters.
Silence of the Lambs“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with somefava beans and a nice chianti.”Hannibal LecterBy the 90’s the over the top Slasher films of the 80’s were goingout of fashion, the public didn’t want exploitation but insteadwanted a riveting story. The Hannibal books, by the writerThomas Harris, had previously attempted to be translated tofilm with the film Manhunter, but this gathered very little profit atthe box office and failed to capture the audiences imagination.So in 1992 Silence of the Lambs was released with AnthonyHopkins as the enigmatic anti-hero Hannibal Lecter. This hitaudiences hard, a masked murderer like a typical slasher villain,but with humanity and genuine method in his madness.Somehow the audience can connect with him despite him beingtruly evil. This is possibly the true horror in this film, that he canget inside your head as he gets inside Clarice’s. This is alsointeresting as it has 2 villains; Lecter and the cross dressingpsychopath Buffalo Bill.Conventions- Masked Murderer, clever storyline, virginalwoman lead, sequels, setting- mental hospital, Buffalo Billstorture house, Polices involvement
Saw“Hello Michael, I want to play a game…”JigsawAfter watching the penultimate scene in Mad Max,where Max chains a murderer to a car that is leakingpetrol, and says “To cut through your chains will take 20minutes, to cut through your arm will take 10 minutes,the car will explode in 15 minutes. Your choice” JamesWan and Leigh Whannell decided that this idea could beexpanded into a whole film. And so one of the mostpopular franchises of the 21st Century was born. It playsout a lot like a play, with only one major setting, adilapidated bathroom. Two strangers are chained toeither side of the bathroom, and are asked to do theimpossible; to cut through their own feet or kill eachother to escape the room. This film was and still is brutalfor it’s pessimistic portrayal of violence and themes ofvoyeurism, and the idea that you may have to do theimpossible and destroy yourself to live.Conventions- Murderer with a stylistic puppet and iconiccharacter as the face of the murders, psychologicaltorture, graphic depictions of violence and selfmutilation, themes of self destruction and voyeurism anda string of poorly received sequels
Shutter Island“Which would be worse - to live as amonster? Or to die as a good man?”Teddy DanielsShutter Island is a good example of aPsychological Horror that is hard to classifyas to whether it is a Horror or Thriller, as itcontains conventions from both. It details adetectives investigation of the shadyShutter Island, an island for the insane, ashis realization due to his investigation ofthe Islands files that there is a patientmissing.Conventions- Insane central character,hospital setting, Clever storyline, twistending, police involvement
The Modern Horrors ConventionsAs with all films, horror has evolved from early Hammer Monster horror andslashers. Particularly popular horror films now are “Real footage” films.These are usually cheaper to make and contain a more realistic shockvalue, and play on the idea of safe environments becoming dangerous(Such as Paranormal Activity, a nice house becoming haunted). Thereseems to be an air of voyeurism in modern films, so instead of beingexplicitly violent we as the audience get the chance to view the murders inreal time, as if we are watching real murders happening on screen.Because of this we have a Stanislavskian feel towards the product; itcreates such a feeling of verisimilitude that we are absorbed into the actionand convince ourselves that it is real.The most popular horror films currently are psychological horrors and ghostfilms. Notable popular horror films made recently include the ParanormalActivity franchise, Insidious, Sinister and The Pact. The reasoning for thesetypes of films becoming popular could be due to a rise in technology sincethe 80’s, exploitive and over the top cinema has gone out of fashion andmore sinister and suspenseful films have taken over the public imagination.Unfortunately now there is a lot less humour in Horror Films, and survivorsare now very rare.