www.curriculum-press.co.uk Number 015
Horror Films: Creating and Reflecting Fear
The aim of this Factsheet is to provide an overview of the horror Three different mis en scene – all recognisable as codes of horror:
genre in terms of: the gothic mansion (The Others: 2001), a suburban house
• The problems in attempting to deal with horror as a single (Halloween: 1978) and an isolated rural location (The Descent: 2005).
• Audience pleasures created by the genre Chandler says that texts are grouped by genre when they have a
• The methods used to attempt to create fear number of ‘shared characteristics’. Given the variety of
• The importance of context in the analysing horror texts characteristics that could identify a text as horror, this approach is
The content of this factsheet is suitable for A2 Level studies of not wholly useful when attempting to define the genre. However,
the genre. the one thing that all horrors share to a greater or lesser extent is the
audience reaction they are trying to generate. All horrors are
constructed in an attempt to scare the target audience.
Horror – Not a single genre
The most common way to consider genre is through the identification
of its most commonly used visual and aural characteristics. These Activity: Being Scared: A pleasurable experience?
characteristics, sometimes called iconographies or codes and What pleasures do you think the genre offer its audience?
conventions, are used by media audiences to identify the genre of Why is being scared so pleasurable?
text being accessed. Once recognised, these iconographies ‘frame
the audience’s expectation’ (Chandler) of the type of story the text Uses and gratification theory offers some possible pleasures
will tell and the way the story will be constructed. The horror genre that might be experienced when watching horror films. For
can be considered in this way and there are some iconographies example,
that are often associated with horror films. • Identification
Activity • Diversion
Make a list of the codes and conventions that you associate • Escapism
with the horror genre. Would all these conventions appear in • Social Interaction
all horror texts or does your list contain conventions from
different types (sub genre) of horror? However, horror offers more than just these simple pleasures.
The following does not offer all the potential pleasures offered
Within the general term ‘horror’ there exist many different sub-genres. to audiences by horror – you may have had other equally
Some horror films are dark and gothic and include iconographies valid experiences and ideas. It is worth considering how
such as large country houses and misty graveyards. Some horrors horrors you are studying may provide some (or all) of the
are set in a familiar suburban location – perhaps a high school or a following:
suburban town whilst other have an isolated rural location. The
different sub genres of horror may appear on the surface to have • Physical effects – adrenaline etc - the visceral
little in common in their mise en scene. • Empathy
• Intrigue/mystery/suspense/problem solving (Enigma)
• Catharsis/Vicarious experience
• Perception of anti-mainstream activity / sub cultural
• Exploration of taboo subjects
• Preparation for death
• Playing out cultural/personal fears
• Confirmation of dominant ideologies and values
• Masochism (&/or sadism)
• A sense of community / belonging
• Communicating repressed desires
• ‘Acting out’ – challenging enforced values and repressions
015. Horror Films: Creating and Reflecting Fear Media Studies
Horrors Create Fear More recently still in Underworld Image 5
There are many techniques used by horror films to attempt to scare (2003) (image 5) the vampire is
the audience. Some are relatively simple to identify such as the use represented with some similar
of atmospheric music or sounds to create a feeling of unease or characteristics to the ones of
uncertainty. Jump cuts in editing, camera techniques like extreme previous eras, but there have
close-ups and low key lighting can create a similar impression. All been some significant changes.
sub-genres of horror use a range of deliberate media language
choices to promote the appropriate audience response for the text.
It is a good idea to think carefully and note the way that texts you
are analysing are using media language choices to attempt to
frighten the audience.
However, horror films have been around for a long time and when
watching texts from other eras often we, as modern audiences, find
that horrors loose their impact. Clearly then, creating fear is more What are the most significant differences you can identify
than just a collection of eerie and creepy media language choices. between the most modern representation of a vampire and the
In addition, audiences get bored. Whilst it is important for a genre older ones? Why do you think the modern representation is
to be recognisable from its use of iconographies, if these codes and the way it is?
conventions are overused, audiences may find the genre too
predictable and clichéd. One of the main challenges that film makers
have to deal with is how to find a middle ground between a Horrors tap into cultural fears
recognisable genre text and one that offers something new and In addition to the audience needing changes to genre codes to
unique to its audience. maintain its interest, society changes. Different eras have different
ideas and values and experience different problems, fears and
An Example – Vampires concerns. Successful horror films are ones that tap into specific
Image 1 cultural fears and exploit them to meet the needs of the genre.
The vampire is a familiar monster in
horror films. Nosferatu (1922) (image 1)
The best way to create fear for the audience in a horror text is to
is an early example of a vampire and the
play on the fears that already exist. Tudor identifies this as he says
monster has been made to look rat-like.
that horrors provide a ‘monstrous threat’ and this threat is ‘based
on notions…from the producing society’. Horror films won’t meet
their primary objective of scaring the audience if they do not in
nosferatu.jpg some way represent the fears of the people watching them.
Different Monsters for Different Fears
Image 2 A useful way to identify the type of fears being identified by horror
texts is for analyse the monsters within the films.
By the 1931, however (image 2), the
vampire in Dracula is represented as a Neale identified that horror texts have different types of monster.
sophisticated, aristocratic figure. The monster is the source of the fear.
bela_lugosi_as_dracula_75.jpg • The External Monster – an
outsider. The external monster
will be one who comes from
‘somewhere else’ and brings the
threat to a community.
Image 3 Vampire films are good examples
In the 1990s (image 3 and 4) both of this as traditionally they come
visual ideas of the vampire are used from Transylvania and were
in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In shown terrorising a British
each version of the vampire some community.
similarities are shared, such as the
elongated teeth (we need to know he They are outsiders as they are
is a vampire after all), but these images not (and never can be) members http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/
show how the representation has Image 4 of the community and they pic/54/039_13061~Christopher-Lee-
changed throughout the history of invade a previously safe and
the genre. peaceful environment.
Image 3 http:/www.the_lucards.blogger.com.br/
Image 4 http://www.hobrad.com/oldman.jpg
015. Horror Films: Creating and Reflecting Fear Media Studies
• The Man-made Monster – man’s Scream (1996) – the monstrous
creation. The archetypal man-made monster boyfriend – apparently a good guy
can be found in Frankenstein (1931). but in fact a psychologically
deranged killer. He was shown to be
A collection of body parts is put together a product of bad parenting and a
and Dr Frankenstein brings the creature to culture which has access to too
life. The creature then brings death and much media violence
danger to the community. Like the vampire http://www.moviepropking.com/billy2.jpg
he could never be part of the community,
the difference is, he is a creation of a member
of the community. http://nalts.files.wordpress.com/2006/07/frankenstein.jpg Saw III (2006) – a monstrous
hospital orderly dishing out
• The Internal Monster – man gone wrong. gruesome punishment for people
Here the monster is human. who he perceives are morally
lacking in an shallow, selfish world
The human may come from within the http://www.worstpreviews.com/images/
community but they are thinking or behaving
in a way that creates a threat from the inside.
The archetype for this kind of monster is Different Locations for Different Fears
Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). He is a mild Early horror often used distant locations for their settings. Typically,
mannered ‘boy next door’ character on the monster movies and Hammer Horror was based on the middle
surface but the film reveals that he is European world of the fairy tale which distanced the audience even
murderously insane. http://content.answers.com/main/content/wp/en/e/ed/ further from the monster. The Victorian era was a common setting
Normanbates.jpg for early horror too, whereas today, most horror tends to be set
close to home (with an American bias in Hollywood films) and in
Some monsters have traits of more than one of Neale’s categories.
mundane environments such as high schools, suburban homes
Frankenstein’s monster for example is ‘man made’ but when he goes
and university campuses. This reflects the close proximity of the
to the village he brings in violence and death as an ‘outsider’ to the
internal monster – many modern horror monsters are school friends
community. Norman Bates is an internal monster but the implication
or people we could meet at any time. These familiar locations bring
is that his flawed psychology has been caused by bad mothering.
the horror closer to the audience.
This way of looking at the monster in horror can be very useful. In Some modern horror, especially since the late 1960s, uses a
the first half of the 20th Century the external monster dominated the countryside location for its setting. A common plot deals with a
genre. Vampires, mummies and ghosts are outsiders who threaten group of town dwellers who find themselves stranded in the
communities. There were early examples of the man-made monster countryside. Here they can meet all manner of monsters
during this period and this is often where horror and sci fi intersect. • external monsters in the caves in The Descent (2005) or in the
In these films, scientific advancements often backfired and created woods in The Blair Witch Project (1999)
monsters from giant insects to deadly robots. This convention of • man made monsters in The Hills Have Eyes (1977/2006)
horror became more dominant in the post-war period. It is often • internal monsters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974/2003)
observed that these monsters can be seen to represent specific
cultural fears of the time. For example: The rural location is often used to symbolise a wild and dangerous
• The threat of invasion generated by global political uncertainty place where monsters can stay hidden. Modern horror often uses
between the two wars (1918-1939) is reflected in the external this location to show what dangers exist outside the safety of the
monster civilised towns and cities where most of us live.
• The fear of the way science could be used in a destructive way Conclusion
in the post war ‘atomic-age’ (post 1945) after the dropping of Whatever the monster represents and wherever the monster is
nuclear weapons on Japan at the end of World War II reflected located, ‘normality is threatened by the monster’ (Wood). Horror
in the man made monster texts can be seen as metaphors for things perceived as different or
The idea of the internal monster dominates modern horror. The shift outside the cultural norms. The monsters are ‘difference made flesh’
away from the external to the internal may allow us to identify some according to Cohen and this difference can be ‘cultural, political,
of the fears and preoccupations that dominate contemporary racial, economic [or] sexual’ (Cohen).
• World War II demonstrated that mankind was capable of By analysing the types of monsters presented to us in horror texts
horrific acts, for example, the genocide of the Holocaust. and identifying what fears they represent we can identify the
Rather than fearing outsiders, this has caused the culture to behaviours and ideas that the producing culture perceived as
fear other humans – even those within their own communities different, frightening or that represented the ‘abnormal’. This
• Since the 1950s, public understanding of psychology has approach is far more useful than a simple media language
increased, particularly what has been known as ‘abnormal identification of horror conventions as it allows you to analyse the
psychology’ – adding to the culture’s fear of other people values and ideologies presented by the text and can give you an
within the community who could look ‘just like us’ but think insight into the context of production.
and behave in dangerous ways
• Modern society has become less actively religious. ‘Evil’ is Acknowledgements: This Media Studies Factsheet was researched and written by Steph Hendry
Curriculum Press. Bank House, 105 King Street, Wellington, TF1 1NU. Media Factsheets may be copied free
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