From graveyard ghosts to elevated horror: A Hollywood evolution - Hindustan Times
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From graveyard ghosts to elevated horror: A Hollywood evolution

Oct 30, 2021 07:28 PM IST

For decades, horror on the big screen relied on easily vanquished ghouls that represented our deepest fears, couched in comfy metaphor. Today’s elevated horror is stripped of comfort and pretence. The monsters are us, our way of life, and the systems we are inextricably locked into as they crumble.

Much of mainstream cinema hinges on the what-if. What if love at first sight were real? What if heroes never died? What if a troubled family could find its way back together?

Some of the earliest horror films in Hollywood play on the fear of the non-conformist. Dracula was a foreigner with a very unusual way of life. Frankenstein (1931; top left) was hubris and genius run amok. By the ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers were as likely to see their increasingly fractured society as a source of monstrosity, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; left). What’s being called elevated horror today (Squid Game, 2021 and US, 2019) brings the audience face to face with the most extreme reaches of racism, capitalism, patriarchy, stripped of metaphor and often the sense of a resolution. PREMIUM
Some of the earliest horror films in Hollywood play on the fear of the non-conformist. Dracula was a foreigner with a very unusual way of life. Frankenstein (1931; top left) was hubris and genius run amok. By the ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers were as likely to see their increasingly fractured society as a source of monstrosity, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; left). What’s being called elevated horror today (Squid Game, 2021 and US, 2019) brings the audience face to face with the most extreme reaches of racism, capitalism, patriarchy, stripped of metaphor and often the sense of a resolution.

Most movies keep that happy ending in sight throughout. It’s part of the pact that cinema makes with its audience : that the world it offers an escape into will be more pleasurable than the world that waits outside the theatre doors.

Horror turns that pact on its head. It harks back to our earliest tales, the ones etched on cave walls and in other dark places. It allows the audience to tap into some of our most primal fears (of the other, the unknown, of death, of each other and of ourselves), but in relative safety, cloaked in metaphor and cushioned by the knowledge that the worst will soon be over, and we will have survived.

What’s being called elevated horror in Hollywood today (think of films such as Parasite, US, Get Out, Hereditary and Candyman) turns that pact on its head too. There may be survivors but there is no end. The horror is inside but it’s also what’s outside the theatre doors.

Racism, capitalism, patriarchy, killer cops.

It’s us and what we’ve become. Stripped of metaphor, of control, of the what-if.

***

It wasn’t always so. “If we look at early mythology, we’ve always constructed fearful ‘others’, and they were often beings who had some control over our life or could create difficulty for us,” says Kendall Phillips, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, New York. Phillips has spent decades researching controversy and conflict in popular culture. He’s written books on the horror genre that include A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema; Controversial Cinema: The Films that Outraged America; and Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture.

“Even in the earliest cave paintings, the animals are often monstrous and terrifying. The mythological gods were both awesome and terrifying. We as humans, living a kind of precarious existence in a world full of dangers, needed somehow to make sense of those dangers, so we turned them into stories. Made them a little more controllable. And we could use those stories to teach the next generation how to be respectful of the world full of danger.”

Some of these bogeymen haven’t changed. Some have changed dramatically.

Some of the earliest horror films in Hollywood played on a fear that has remained persistent through most of recorded history: the fear of the non-conformist. The films Dracula and Frankenstein were both released in 1931. Dracula was a foreigner with a very unusual way of life , threatening to corrupt the righteous. Frankenstein was an internal threat, of our own creation, a misfit born of a combination of hubris and rampant genius, meant to hold promise for Man but turning into something that can’t b controlled.

The obvious metaphors for life in the industrial age are a reason both tales — originally written by Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley in 1897 and 1818 respectively — have retained their sense of timelessness. Once Man began to turn cities into metropolises and the whole world into a giant factory, the threats we were posing to the pre-industrial way of life became both undeniable and unalterable.

By the ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers were seeing the seemingly weak and frail nuclear family as a source of monstrosity too, as in The Omen (1976).
By the ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers were seeing the seemingly weak and frail nuclear family as a source of monstrosity too, as in The Omen (1976).

 

“I would say the core to the definition of horror is that it is some type of narrative or symbolic engagement, some type of media focused on the creation and examination of fears, internal and external,” Phillips says. “When horror films are really effective, they don’t just say, here’s the monster, but they really ask us to look into the eyes of the monster, and ask, why is it that this is threatening? Why am I afraid of this? And in some ways to ask us to see from the point of view of the monster, how they got to where they were.”

***

Not all Hollywood’s ghouls have great depth and prescience. Some just have immense staying power. There are always going to be ghosts and assorted undead creatures; people possessed by evil spirits; a killer in the woods; an evil toy; flesh-eating creatures from a nether- or other-world, all of which play on our fundamental fears of death and the beyond, regret, guilt, the unknown.

It’s the monsters that morph with a changing society that make for the most interesting stories. As far back as 1945, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the movie based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 story of a man whose features remain unchanged for decades but whose hideous misdeeds are reflected in a portrait, served as a metaphor for what was seen as the growing hypocrisy, vanity and self-centeredness of the insulated upper classes.

By the 1960s, new kinds of psychological and internal conflicts were being reflected on the screen, mirroring the failures of a modernising society that left the individual alone, isolated, unmoored. Horror films such as Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) reflected fears about how society was changing, how rapidly it was changing, and about “the inherent weakness of the nuclear family,” says Phillips. Even when evil is at the door, “the people within can’t work together”.

The threats in elevated horror are systemic, faceless. In Parasite (2019), the monster is every person with more than they need, and the capitalist system that lets them keep it.
The threats in elevated horror are systemic, faceless. In Parasite (2019), the monster is every person with more than they need, and the capitalist system that lets them keep it.

 

“Things became more complicated as we moved into the ’60s and ’70s, where filmmakers were as likely to see the traditional family as a source of monstrosity.” Think of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Omen (1976), The Stepford Wives (1975).

***

Going back to scary tales teaching young people how to survive in a world full of dangers, what’s another word for that? Conformity. And horror is a genre that lets you show young people what happens to those who don’t listen.

“Enforcement of conformity is definitely a deep part of horror, especially in the American context. Americans are much more anxious about sex than violence. So even in those earliest films, after Dracula is killed at the end, the two main romantic partners, Jonathan and Mina are together and he carries her up the stairs and the wedding bells are ringing. The audience feels, oh good, the happy family is back together,” Phillips says. “We’re happy the same at the end of Frankenstein too as Dr Frankenstein announces that he’s going to be married. And so there’s very much a deep-seated root of traditional heterosexual normative marital relations as the norm. And the monster is often threatening that core norm.”

Down to the slasher films of the 1980s and ’90s, the first youngsters to be killed off would typically be those who’d snuck off, often slightly high, to have sex. The final girl, the audience surrogate and eventual survivor, tended to be the most virginal of the lot.

***

Elevated horror, the term being used for the genre-breaching, cliche-defying horror films emerging from Hollywood in recent years, brings the audience face to face with the monsters among us and within us. But in place of comfy metaphor, these are tales lit up by anger and accusation, often devoid of hope.

In The Purge series of films (2013-), a crime-free future US celebrates an annual holiday in which all crime is legal for 12 hours. “I do feel we are in the middle of what I would call the third golden age of horror, for the sheer variety of films... and the diversity of voices,” says Kendall Phillips, author of works on horror and professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, New York.
In The Purge series of films (2013-), a crime-free future US celebrates an annual holiday in which all crime is legal for 12 hours. “I do feel we are in the middle of what I would call the third golden age of horror, for the sheer variety of films... and the diversity of voices,” says Kendall Phillips, author of works on horror and professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, New York.

In the movie US (2019), a black family is attacked by lookalikes. In Get Out (2017), a young black man visits his white girlfriend’s childhood home and ends up battling her family and community for his life. Both were directed by black filmmaker Jordan Peele.

In Parasite (2019), the Korean film that was the first non-English winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, the monster is every person with more than they need, and the capitalist system that lets them keep it. Squid Game, also South Korean, plays on the same theme but with arguably more savagery; here the person exists in a system so monstrous that the individual has no value, even to themselves, except in relation to what they own or can wrest from others.

“I do feel we are in the middle of what I would call the third golden age of horror. The first was the 1930s, the second in the 1980s, with films that combined the work of people such as Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick. And I think this is the third for the sheer variety of films capturing audiences, being successful, engaging people in political conversations, focusing on the diversity of voices, giving importance to subjects of mental health,” Phillips says.

“In the 2014 film The Babadook, a single mother’s grief for her dead husband becomes the monster, and the victim is her six-year-old son. In Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), the demon is patriarchy. In The Purge series, it’s society again. The films tell the story of a seemingly normal, crime-free America in the near-future. But it’s a dystopian world where the country celebrates an annual national holiday known as the Purge, a day in which all crime, including murder, becomes legal for a 12-hour period.”

In the black filmmaker Nia DaCosta’s 2021 Candyman, it is the police, eventually — once the sign that it was over and all would be well — who are the monsters, perpetuating a monstrous system.

This sense of an overarching threat that exists among us, in Phillips’s opinion, comes from the realisation that the systems we thought we could trust, systems that we are now inextricably locked into, are broken or are breaking down.

So if you want to be entertained this Halloween, pick the undead creatures lurching from the crypts, or the slasher in the woods. But if you want to really be scared, pick from the list above, and be prepared to come face to face with monsters it is up to you to help slay. Or is it?

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