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