The horror genre relies on primal fears – chaos, destruction, death. The imagery in which this fear is couched, however, is culturally-specific.
Each epoch has its distinct narrative and structure that brings meaning to the violence we, as human beings, instinctively fear. Through 100 years of existence of the genre, it is also the history of the 20th Century that is told. And what a frightful century it has been…
The Horror Genre Through the Ages
What makes for a good horror film? Being able to communicate a deep-rooted, instinctual fear using the structures of the everyday, political and cultural fears.
This infographic synthesizes the most lasting expressions of the horror genre and the main political crises of the time, revealing the profound correlation between the two:
The Specter of Totalitarianism (1930-1950)
The horror genre in the 1930s and 1940s centered around gigantic monsters. On a different scale than human beings, these titans could unleash havoc over cities – like King Kong in New York and Godzilla in Tokyo.
Importantly, all of the disasters that King Kong, Godzilla and Frankenstein cause are attributable to man. King Kong is brought back to New York for exhibition, Frankenstein is the product of a dubious scientific experiment, and Godzilla is a mutant unleashed by the radioactive fallout of American nuclear tests in the Pacific.
These figures and their genesis stories are akin to the rise totalitarian regimes and their leaders that would eventually culminate in World War II. Man’s quest to control social forces in the 1930s and 1940s is mirrored by attempts to tame natural forces in the horror genre at the time. Both leading to the same, dramatic conclusion: chaos, destruction and death on an unprecedented scale.
The Cold War Heats Up (1950-1955)
Two elements constitute the major innovation in the horror genre in the 1950s: the addition of elements of science-fiction and the narrative of the invasion.
The threat is seen as coming from the sky with abductions from extra-terrestrial beings – mirroring the fear of atomic warfare becoming a concrete possibility with the successful dropping of a nuclear bomb by Soviets in 1949. Releasing “the power of the sun,” the stellar weapon is substituted by inter-stellar beings in the horror genre.
The ultimate goal of these creatures from the cosmos: invasion – a much more tangible prospect following the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941). In the face of the threat, the USA comes to embody “Earth” and humanity in the face of alien oppression – signalling the hardening of political rhetoric between the US and the Soviet Union.
The horror genre gives a new shape to an existing fear structure introduced and exacerbated by the Cold War: the fear of a strike from above and of a takeover of American territory. Combining elements of science-fiction, the genre shows incredible prescience in seeing how the heating space-race – with the 1st successful launch of a satellite by the USSR – would continue well into the century and culminate in Reagan’s presidency with the ‘Star Wars’ project.
The Mass Society (1955-1970)
Hitchcock had a long and prolific career. But, at his peak, the “Master of Horror” came to epitomize the cultural malaise of the late 1950s and 1960s.
The post-war economic boom shifted the lives of Americans, profoundly transforming the structures of their lives. The ever-greater figures for car ownership, the development of the highway system uprooted the population, and the proportion of Americans living in suburban areas reaching to 1 in 3 by 1960 all attest to the magnitude of the shift.
Fraying the social fabric, these profound changes brought along new fears expressed in the work of Alfred Hitchcock: that of living in close proximity to complete strangers and not being able to read their intentions (Rear Window), that of being mistaken for someone else in a world where no one can confirm or refute one’s identity (North by NorthWest), and that of the family structure no longer following the natural order (The Birds).
The Shadow of Stagflation (1970-1989)
Horror in the 1970s and 1980s is a chronic of the familiar turned hostile. Through the tales of The Thing and The Shining, the known, comfortable figures of colleagues and the father/husband become transfigured into murderous beings.
Unknown forces take possession of the deepest certainties that the characters have in the unfamiliar settings of the Antarctic and the Overlook Hotel. This deceit mirrors the fear of collapse of an economic system that had yielded prodigious growth over the past 30 years.
It’s as though, by trying to go too far, too fast, a fatal regression had occurred. This dynamic is illustrated in The Fly, in which the main character successfully develops a teleportation device but is ultimately thwarted when a fly enters the experiment and its genome combines with his.
The successive economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s nourish the fear that old bearings have been perverted, and that no amount of work will ever fix a system bent on destruction as it chases us through the labyrinth of stagflation. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, indeed.
Post-Soviet Doubts (1989-2010)
The early 00s witnessed the revival of a staple of the horror genre: the zombie apocalypse movie. The structures that the zombie narrative rely on found a new resonance in the post-Soviet world.
The zombie movie typically starts in the most familiar setting, small town America, surrounded by friends and family. This peace and order is upset practically over-night with the outbreak of the pandemic. Spreading on a global scale, the virus topples governments and destroys civilization – reducing mankind to a state of nature where the rule is kill or be killed.
This complete collapse of the established order, precisely at the moment when it seemed the sturdiest, mirrors the fears borne out of the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, after the collapse of the USSR in 1989, America’s way of life was left without a nemesis – which led some to proclaim “the end of history”.
But with conflict brutally re-entering the lives of Americans, on American soil, using domestic flights, terror fever reached new heights. The fear that ordinary citizens could commit a suicide attack – an important part of the mechanism of terror – and inspire copycats to act materialized in the comeback of the zombie movie genre: the suicide bomber is the quintessential “walking dead” and each attack potentially inspiring new ones is illustrated by the metaphor of the uncontainable virus.
Furthermore, as the yet unknown terrorist threat doesn’t seem to promote any particular agenda: the goal appears not as the invasion of America but rather the brutish destruction of all life to be replaced by nothing: the archetypal zombie apocalypse.
Ecological Crisis (2004-2016)
The 2000s are also an era of innovation in the horror genre, with the ecological disaster movie forming a new sub-genre of its own.
Relying exactly on the political imagery used to describe the potential effects of global warming – the flooding of coastal cities – and with obvious political undertones, the genre is nonetheless imaginative in its use of the more latent fears behind global warming. After the initial biblical flood The Day After Tomorrow envisions a new ice age being the consequence of global warming to illustrate the freezing over of civilization. Sharknado illustrates the pressure brought on non-coastal regions by the influx of coastal populations when the sharks having taken Los Angeles after the flood are transported inland by a hurricane.
In the most elaborate scenario of the genre, The Happening illustrates the loss of agency of mankind over the environment it had tried to control as a transfer of agency: nature taking an active role in a last attempt to self-preserve by releasing a spore causing humans to commit suicide.
100 Years of Horror
The latest generation of horror films differs from its predecessors in one important way: it is acutely aware of the reliance on political fears that has always pervaded the genre – and indeed most of cinema. Unlike past generations of horror films that left the tension mostly unresolved – or only superficially so from the point of view of the plot – the ecological disaster genre actively tries to frighten society into adopting new, more sustainable patterns of behavior.
While this attempt may seem foolish – over-extending the boundaries of a genre reserved to popular entertainment into that of activist documentaries – it fully demonstrates the inherently political and cultural nature of the fears that have the greatest impact on the screen. In the words of Alfred Hitchcock:
“A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”