Horror films can be profound fables of human nature and important works of art, yet many people dismiss them out of hand. ‘Horror and the Horror Film’ conveys a mature appreciation for horror films along with a comprehensive view of their narrative strategies, their relations to reality and fantasy and their cinematic power. The volume covers the horror film and its subgenres – such as the vampire movie – from 1896 to the present. It covers the entire genre by considering every kind of monster in it, including the human.
About the Author
Bruce F. Kawin is Professor of English and Film at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His books include ‘Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film’, ‘Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film’, ‘The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable’, ‘Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays’ and ‘How Movies Work’. He is also the co-author of ‘A Short History of the Movies’.
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Horror and the Horror Film
By Bruce F. Kawin
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 Bruce F. Kawin
All rights reserved.
The horror in a horror film is as essential as the West in a Western or the humor in a comedy. This book concentrates relentlessly on the nature and expression of horror, both in reality and in the cinema.
Horror films can be profound fables of human nature and important works of art, yet many people dismiss them out of hand, are too disgusted or frightened to watch them, or are simply reluctant to discuss them. One reason is that horror itself resists formulation and can be difficult and unpleasant to contemplate. The material is awful, a nightmare no one wants to come true. Horror can be filled with violence, cruelty and gore. It can scare us badly. It can be inexpressible, nameless. It can make us want to vomit. And it can be disturbing. The horror film can bring uncomfortably close the worst that could ever happen — to a character or to ourselves. It can explore forbidden aspects of human psychology. It can present dark beauty or sick fantasy. It can be sexist. It can be stupid. It can be badly produced. Arousing both terror and repugnance at once, it can be revolting in its moments of greatest power, when it shows us what we do and do not want to see. It can make us unable to express what we have seen. It can transgress and transcend limits. It can make the repellent, the terrifying and the creepy compelling. It can have the raw theatricality of a freak show. It can make a composition out of violence, blood and shadow, and can charge an image or a moment with the suspense and power of the unseen — with fear or awareness. It can offer a place for the fantastic and the uncanny to play, a place for monsters, lost places, things that cannot be, things from here and not from here. It can go to the limits of violent, insane human behavior, or it can open a way for the supernatural to intrude. It can put us in touch with old emotions and reactions: fight or flight, fear of the dark, the need for community.
It can give pleasure to feel how frightening and repulsive a scene is, how extreme, how expressive, and it can satisfy the critic and the fan in the viewer to appreciate how well it lives up to the potential of the genre. We want the film to shake us up, to thrill us, to show us wonders, to frighten us, to make us wince, to give us chills, to build tension in us and release it, to give us characters in terrible situations, to observe the imperatives of the genre (of which the most important is to be frightening) without being excessively formulaic, and to be unsettlingly familiar as well as original. For all the genre's use of formula and the repetition of figures and images that establish its traditions, the horror film has a license to be profoundly inventive and original. We are engaged with the genre for the blood and shock, the adrenaline and relief, the fantasies and creative leaps and more, but also for the powerful images and scenes that can arise in a world where nothing is impossible and horror must find visual expression. The range of the creative horror image is potentially endless. We may even need it and be drawn to it. The circle of civilization surrounds the fire where stories are told, with the dark at its back — even if the fire has become a screen.
The nightmare, playing out our deepest fears while we sleep, is a universal human experience. Horror films, which often include nightmares, are the nightmares of the cinema, but horror has been an important genre for millennia, in literature, folklore, and high and popular culture. Among the oldest written stories is the attempt to come to terms with death in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh; the Odyssey is full of monsters such as the giant, man-eating Cyclops; English literature finds its first monsters in Beowulf and includes the horrific blinding scene ("Out, vile jelly") in King Lear; children have long been told fantastic tales of wonder, danger and evil; sheets passed out at public executions went over the crimes in graphic detail; folk songs and ballads often made murder vivid and death an expressive state. Horror is old, an old concern and an old source for tales. It is far older than the Gothic novel, let alone science fiction (even though many literary critics and historians correctly observe that the codified genre of horror was a late arrival); it may even be said to have been part of the narrative arts before horror was given a name. How could it not be significant? Horror is part of our response to the world. It runs through and determines many of our oldest tales as well as our movies. Suspicions about the supernatural are as old as religion if not older, and the horror story may have begun there — or in some tale of an animal attack. The Devil is a creature of the imagination, but before him came — and he may be said to have been created to organize — a host of unknown things in the night as well as in nightmares.
Horror is a compound of terror and revulsion. Imagined horror provides entry to a made-up world — one that could be richly, fantastically imagined or dead-on realistic — where fears are heightened but can be mastered. In doing so, it accesses a core of fears we may share as humans, such as the fear of being attacked in the dark, as well as some fears that are specific to culture, such as the fear of water associated with the power of ghosts in many Japanese horror movies. It also calls on a vast range of the revolting, from guts to vermin, and much of the art has depended on making an image, a monster or an event both scary and repulsive. Above all, the horror film provides a way to conceptualize, give a shape to and deal with the evil and frightening. Some fears may be potential, lying dormant until a horror film arouses them; some may be created entirely by the movie, just as showers became frightening to many after Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, US) and some may be part of our daily, conscious experience. Evil, too, may be encountered in ordinary life or engendered in fiction, though in the movies it is often presented as a supernatural force or embodied in a supernatural being. It is also embodied, of course, in human characters who are fundamentally malicious, regardless of their sanity. Akin to the disgusting spectacle that may be hard to watch and that may frighten us as much as the idea, fact or face of evil, fear contributes to the art, look, coherence, intensity, range and overall project of the genre.
As a genre, the horror film is defined by its recurring elements (such as undeath, witches, or gross, bloody violence), by its attitudes toward those elements (such as that transgressing limits is dangerous) and by its goal: to frighten and revolt the audience. Analogously, one could say that the Western is defined by such recurring elements as gunfights, horses and the Western landscape, and an attitude that there is a proper time for violence, and the basic goal of dramatizing the conflicts of frontier life.
The major subgenres — films about monsters, supernatural monsters and humans — are based, as we shall see in Part II, on the nature of the threat, and so are the sub-subgenres. (The genre is, of course, the horror film.) Within the subgenre of the supernatural monster movie are the sub-subgenres of the ghost film, the zombie film and so on.
The determining effect of genre on versatile material is significant. For example, imagine a scene in which two young lovers decide to go swimming in a remote lake. They don't see anyone around, and they feel safe. But this is not a horror movie, so they are safe.
To define the core of the genre, it is important to take a look at the word and its history. "Horror," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, begins its career in English as a roughness or ruggedness; there is something uneven about it. It also means "a roughness or nauseousness of taste, such as to cause a shudder or thrill." Nausea remains part of the horror response, part of the definition — and so do the shudder and the thrill. Roughness and nausea are linked to disgust and revulsion, for horror often provokes a gut reaction as the belly tightens up in shock or turns over to vomit. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974, US), when Pam sees the horrific artwork made of bones and feathers, she vomits. "A horror" also means a shuddering or shivering, especially "as a symptom of disease," but in Latin the verb horrere — the source of "horror" — means to tremble, shiver, shake or shudder, not necessarily because of disease, but in some cases because of fear; it also means to loathe and to dread as well as to bristle, to stand on end as hair does, and to be rough. The hair-raising shudder is part of the term. The fullest and most lasting sense of the word is in place by the late fourteenth century: "a painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful." Beginning in the late fifteenth century it is also used to signify "a feeling of awe or reverent fear (without any suggestion of repugnance); a thrill of awe, or of imaginative fear," a usage that touches on the heights to which fear can lead the imagination, an important aesthetic consideration, which also provides a link with our sometimes ineffable response to the sublime. There it is: rough, nauseating, dreadful, frightening, hair-raising, repulsive, unspeakable, nameless, loathsome — an odd foundation on which to build an art.
Yet it is an art, one that depends on the successful evocation and manipulation of fascination, revulsion and fear, and that may present to us scenes and realms of fantastic, dangerous, uncanny beauty. A film with a particular monster or threat usually is built around a particular fear or set of fears, including the outright fear of the monster and what it can do, as well as of what it represents, evokes, symbolizes or implies. The vampire picture is built around the vampire, and the vampire comprises all the fears and horrors for which it provides a form, an embodiment: the horror of drinking blood, the fear of losing blood, the fear of contamination or infection, the fear of being bitten, the horror of wanting to drink blood, the fear of death and the horror of undeath. Or the fear might be in response to endangering some less tangible aspect of being or behavior that we value, such as our free will. Or it might be a response to something new that the film has shown or implied or triggered — a guide that leads us into the world of horror, as if into the dark. Fears can be grouped according to their objects: fear of the unknown (which includes death and the dark), fear of the self (one might turn into Mr Hyde) and the largest category, fear of others, which can range from the fear of a real snake — the sight or sound of which instantly activates the brain's amygdala, where feelings of anxiety appear, according to current research, to be stored — to the fear of an unreal vampire.
Taking It All In
Our eyes widen at the image of horror, taking it in, feeling awe at the awful. Those moments — when we must look at what we dread to imagine or think we cannot bear to see — are the pulse of the genre, moments of revelation and clarity. We are faced with the monster at the height of its power, the terrible event, the truth of the situation, the realized intuition, the threat that hid in the dark. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film rich in fundamental examples, such a horror moment comes when Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) hangs Pam (Teri McMinn) on a hook and then starts to saw up an earlier victim. Another comes when we see Sally's (Marilyn Burns) unbelieving look of shock, fear and revulsion when Grandpa (John Dugan) sucks her bleeding finger as if he were a baby, a scene perverse in its confusion of milk and blood. Her eyes wide but tightly focused on her finger in the old man's mouth, she offers one example of the look at horror (Figure 1). When watching this scene, it is almost impossible not to try and pull one's hand away. A more understated example of horror at its peak and the consciousness of it (in this case an aroused moral consciousness) comes in Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975, Italy/France) when the pianist sees the final torturous killings and silently jumps out of a window to her death.
There is an unforgettable horror moment in Black Sun 731 (T. F. Mou, 1987, China), better known as Men Behind the Sun, a PRC film, about the atrocities performed on Chinese prisoners during the Second World War by Japanese doctors in the Manchurian medical research facility, Unit 731. A woman has her hands and arms thawed in warm water after they have been frozen solid in a frostbite experiment. To demonstrate the destruction of tissue, a doctor suddenly strips the flesh off the woman's arms and hands down to the bone. The woman holds her skeletal arms in front of her and screams, her eyes wide open and staring at the bones and at the bag of flesh that hangs from one of her hands (Figure 2). We see the evidence and imagine the depths of the subjective horror she feels, but we also see her and her arms together as an objective horror, and thus we look at the spectacle two ways: with our own vision and with a vision mediated through the character who sees and reacts to it. This reacting figure recurs throughout the genre. In a horror scene, someone is usually looking at or screaming at or hiding from or intuiting the horror, giving the audience a character through whom to experience the fear, a way in.
Spectacle and Suggestion
Not every resonant horror moment has to be shocking. Many of the best scenes, and many considered the more artful, are subtle. It is not necessary to display the horrific event, or the monster or the violence on the screen, even though one of the advantages of the horror film in comparison to horror tales and literature is that it can show the monster, or whatever parts of the story can be rendered as images (although horror literature may have the advantage in imaginative or abstract power, like evoking disembodied fear). But what is shown to the audience may be not a gorging zombie but a creepy night wind in the trees, an image that has, in many stories and movies, been used to imply impending danger or a supernatural presence. The art of such a shot is not one of spectacle but one of suggestion.
Film can draw on either or both ways of conveying horror. For example, there are two sequential killing scenes in The Descent: Part 2 (Jon Harris, 2009, UK). In both cases a human is attacked by a monster in a cave. In the first scene, we see the spectacle of the monstrous humanoid taking a bite out of a man's neck, blood spurts and all. In the next scene, where a woman is apparently slashed to pieces, the monster is shown as a shadow on the cave wall, and the victim and her wounds are implied or evoked when blood splashes onto a flashlight. The sounds of both scenes are violent and keep the monsters and victims vividly present, but these sounds can still be divided according to their purpose in each scene: to make the shown wound more realistic or to evoke the unseen.
One of the first things to examine critically about a horror film is whether it depends more successfully on spectacle or on suggestion. Certainly there has been a tendency throughout the history of the horror film to increase the degree of spectacle and to make those visions of horror increasingly realistic, subject to the censorship and other expectations of the time. What cannot be shown must be implied, and much of the art of the horror film has developed as a means of suggesting — in shadows, for instance — what might be hidden in shadows.
It has long been recognized that the films Val Lewton produced at RKO offer superior examples of suggesting horror rather than directly, overtly presenting it. In Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942, US), for example, he avoided the onscreen transformations seen in the previous year's The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941, US), and in Cat People's pool scene it is clear that the cat-woman shredded the swimmer's robe in the offscreen locker room, but not whether she was a cat when she did it — an example of how suggestion can embrace ambiguity. A more run-of-the-mill but still effective use of suggestion can be found in Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960, UK), when a military official looks at the offscreen face of a man who has been burned. We can see from his reaction how bad the burns must be, but we do not see the burned face for ourselves. While the increasingly graphic sex and violence that began in the 1960s have led to a less restrained use of spectacle in the horror film, suggestion has continued to play a key role. In The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944, US), suggestion builds until the ghost is completely revealed and spectacle becomes more dominant, and much the same happens with the monster in the far later Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011, US).
Excerpted from Horror and the Horror Film by Bruce F. Kawin. Copyright © 2012 Bruce F. Kawin. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Preface; List of Figures; Part I. Approaching the Genre; 1. Horror; 2. The Monster at the Bedroom Window; 3. Fear in a Frame; Part II. Subgenres: The Book of Monsters; 4. Monsters; 5. Supernatural Monsters; 6. Humans; Part III. Related Genres; 7. Horror Comedy; 8. Horror Documentary; Notes; Films Cited; Selected Bibliography; Index
What People are Saying About This
“Just when I thought everything possible had already been written on horror films, along comes ‘Horror and the Horror Film’. Kawin’s book offers something more: it undertakes a ‘complete taxonomy’ of horror in order to show us what it is, how it works, why it compels us, and why we need it in our lives.” —William Costanzo, “The Journal of Media Literacy Education”
“If you’re going to talk about horror film, well, the conversation starts here. This is the kind of book that makes you realize your horror shelves are incomplete.” —Stephen Graham Jones, author of “Demon Theory”
“There is no one alive who has seen more horror cinema, read more widely on the subject, or thought more deeply about its form, function and meaning than Bruce Kawin. And there are few scholars who can convey their ideas with such clarity and grace. Every page of this indispensable book offers exhilarating insight not only into the major modes and preoccupations of the horror genre, but also into the complex workings and undying needs of the human imagination.” —Harold Schechter, author of “Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment”