Sunday, March 22, 2009

A critical examination of the horror genre and its conventions in the construction of a framework for its study.

The horror genre can be traced back to as far as the 1900’s. It has been the focus of many studies conducted by film academics for the better part of a century. Yet, many questions pertaining to this category of film still remain with us to this day. What element or convergence of elements, distinguish a title as horror? Why do some titles stand the test of time while others fade into obscurity? Where do the boundaries of horror start and end? These are all questions that have plagued horror academia from its very beginnings, and still do to this very day. This study hopes to provide some insight into the horror genre and unveil its underlying principles such that this information may aid in answering these questions. To do so we propose the study of the horror genre within the confines of a framework based on four key aspects of genre studies. Initially we will examine the underlying visual motifs of the genre in an attempt to identify what part they play in positioning a film within the horror genre. Next further critical analysis of the structural conventions of the genre will be put under close scrutiny and their relevance to the genre examined. Furthermore the ideological conventions that underpin the genre will be looked at and their relationship to the genre. Finally the genre will be looked at from the perspective of audiences through a psychoanalytical approach in order to ascertain the existence of a unique identifier within the genre. In so doing we will have formed a framework for identifying horror films and also establishing reasons why some are more successful than others; while setting clear boundaries for the horror genre. Thus by identifying the underlying paradigms and principles that underpin the horror genre, we hope to gain a better appreciation for the genre and provide further insight into the successful construction of films within it.
The horror genre continues to be a pervasive and all the more difficult creature to pin down and define for academics – mainly because of its dynamic and constantly changing nature. Horror has been a pivotal source of inspiration for film makers for the better part of a century – and continues to be to this day. The 1930’s and the creation of films such as Dracula and Frankenstein heralded the beginnings of the genre. However as Weaver (1952) notes within the space of 10 years the horror genre had been brought to its knees with its over-saturation of recycled characters and themes. Had it not been for the emergence of the ‘Creature Feature’ in the 1950’s the horror genre would have come to extinction. Thankfully horror quickly adapted and changed, reacting to the changing currents and developments underpinning society – mainly the aftermath of World War 2. “Zombies, werewolves, and mummies were replaced by mammoth insects and alien beings.”(Weaver.I et al 1952, pp.34)Movies such as ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ became the bread and butter of any horror fan of the day.
By the 1960s with film regulators having relaxed classification rules - a whole new type of horror emerged – ‘Gore Films’. While the 30’s and 40’s had frowned upon shots of blood and dismemberment, the gore films of the 60’s reveled in them. Movies such as ‘Blood Feast’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ gained notoriety and became cult successes.
However in 1960 one film would change the direction of horror unlike any who had come before it and leave a wake in its passing that would reverberate well into its future – in fact to this very day. Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock – recognized by some as the father of post-modern horror – heralded the emergence of the “slasher flick” – and it has been with us ever since. Although it may have taken a further 10 years for its movement to gain pace – what quickly followed in the 70’s and 80’s was a succession of spin offs such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Nightmare on Elm St – to name but a few. However the 90’s documented the slow down in horror trends – to this day very few titles that can be said to have changed the face of horror can be named. In fact what can be observed is ‘Problematically, the horror genre has no clearly defined boundaries, and overlaps with aspects of science fiction and fantasy genres.”(Wells.P 2000, p.7) It is because of this emerging trend that the need for a framework in identifying and distinguishing a film as belonging to the horror genre is needed now more than ever. Films have been around for the better part of a century – but what elements do we use in distinguishing and categorizing a film as a horror and distinguishing it from its peers?
Many have argued that the visual elements and motifs that are associated with the horror genre are what separate them from their peers in other genres. Werewolves, monsters, aliens, ghosts, castles – these are what spring to mind when one mentions a horror film. It can be argued that essentially all films are at the script level the same. They are all trying to express an idea/moral/premise – and hence at this level genre does not exist at all. Hence it is the visual embellishments and motifs one associates with the horror genre that the screenwriter uses in visualizing their ideas – that are responsible for a film being placed in the horror genre. This point of view may also account for the reason why so many films can be placed in several genres at the same time – for instance Alien (1979) is by all accounts a sci-fi film but it is also widely recognized as a horror film.
However if we accept this argument then we are forced to place films such as House of Frankenstein (1944), Nightmare Castle (1966), and the more recent Beetle Juice (1988) - which as (Grant & Barry, K 1977, p.125) puts it are “…nothing more than a stringing together of every horror cliché from dark castles and mad scientists to the return of the dead to terrorize the living” – but which are nevertheless accepted by the majority of people as comedies within the realm of horror. Furthermore, its may be true that many horror films do in fact contain visuals such as those cited above but there are quite a few films in recent history that don’t contain any of these visual horror cliché’s but have nonetheless been called horror films. For instance films such as The Kremlin Letter (1970) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) contain visuals to a lesser extent but are regarded as horror films nonetheless. Their mere acceptance into the horror genre and the existence of what can be termed psychological horror goes against the argument that visuals are unique identifiers of the horror genre. Visuals are merely motifs that help differentiate as (Wells.P 2000, p.26) puts it “Frankenstein’s monster from Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), or the zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) from Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs (1991).” They may be used in supporting the horror genre but are by themselves not unique to it.
Some sources have even gone so far as to cite the use of mise en scene that is specific to the horror genre as a unique identifier of it. Mise en scene refers to the design aspects of film; it includes everything from the camera – its arrangement and movement, sets, props, actors, and costumes to the very lighting. As Dick & Bernard (2005) states “the conventions of low-key lighting, shadowy surfaces, dissolve transformations …” (Dick & Bernard, F 2005) were established as far back as the 30’s and 40’s, the use of contrasting colors and muted color palettes was soon adopted in the 50’s and continues to this very day. However what Dick & Bernard (2005) and others of the same opinion don’t acknowledge is the use of these tools of cinema in other films which do not belong to the horror genre at all. Films such as even the recent Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Fight Club (1999) – both well acknowledged dramas in their own right and even the prized crime thriller of 1995 - Seven; all of these films also employ mise en scene qualities which are wrongly attributed only to the horror genre. Examples such as these only go further in supporting the argument that visuals and mise en scene which are attributed to the horror genre are also seen in other genre and are not unique to it – thus although they may to some extent help in inducing the feeling of horror, they are in themselves not unique to the genre nor wholly responsible for this emotional response.
Although our examination of the visual motifs of the horror genre have revealed that they play a role in it to an extent and thus must be considered in identifying a film within it - we are forced to look deeper in our discussion of the horror genre. For an explanation of what it is that is unique to horror and defines it as a genre in and of itself we must look beyond a visual explanation and pursue a structural oriented study of the genre.
Many academics believe that there are structural elements and conventions which can be used in defining a film as horror. For instance Stephen (2004) cites Modleski who refers to the use of “open-ended narratives, minimal plot and character development, and (relatedly) the difficulty of audience identification with undeveloped and unlikable characters” (Stephen, P 2004, p.88) as elements that are common to post-modern horror films – and by post modern he refers to post-60’s horror flicks. However by a simple inspection of movies from the post-60’s period it is quite easy to identify many a film that are not within the horror genre and still adopt many of these conventions. McKee (1999, p.57) identifies many films, most recognizably Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Faces(1968) – both of which are not horror films, in fact far from it. Both these films nevertheless have all the qualities that Modleski cites as elements of the modern horror. They are minimalist in plot, they both have disagreeable characters and furthermore employ the use of open endings – so can we call these two films horror? I would say not. However one cant help but notice that there do exist some similarities in structure between some horror films – for example, The Thing (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Blob (1958) all share similar narrative structures. Stephen (2004, p.88) cites Tudor who lays out the narrative structure of these films: a violent disruption of normality occurs, the story revolves around peoples ineffective methods of stopping the representation of this disorder before finally employ some form of knowledge/violence in stopping this threat and restoring normality and order. However what Tudor describes has been interpreted wrongly – what is described is not so much the conventions that horror films share but rather the principles that are adopted by any scriptwriter in their craft in writing a story. With reference to McKee (1999) and Aronson (2000); all scripts employ principles in storytelling – one of the crucial principles being the introduction of an element that breaks down normality, which opens way to a struggle between disorder and normality and finally a resolution in the form of normality or otherwise. The elements described by Stephen (2004) are not unique to the horror genre – far from it – they are in fact employed in every genre and story – one need only examine any film in any genre and they will find the same conventions. Furthermore, by constructing a definition of horror based on such a rigid framework of rules rather than principles – we risk placing a formula on the construction of a horror film. And sure enough referring to the success of franchises such as the popular Friday the 13th series – a series which is quite formulaic by design - may give support to the argument of structure. However this series must be considered with respect to the myriad of flops that have copied and duplicated its structure but have to this day not reached the notoriety that Friday the 13th has received – one need only look at movies such as Prom Night (1980), The Prowler (1981) and Maniac (1980) as evidence of this. Furthermore it must be noted that Friday the 13th’s structure was based on the less popular Halloween franchise – so how do we account for one being more successful than the other – it is evident there is more to it than just structure. However we must stop here and make something quite clear – success or failure aren’t a measure of genre; good or bad, success or failure – films are still categorized into genres – what we are doing is bringing attention to the fact that many of the most high-profile horror films have distinctive structures; when copied they don’t yield the same results. Furthermore it can be argued that not all films in the horror genre possess the same structural elements. In fact on examination of the movie Psycho (1960) – a very high profile horror film – we find “in terms of genre icons and plot patterns, Psycho would seem to be more a crime film than a work of horror.” (Grant & Barry, K 1977, p.127) Other films such as the Kremlin Letter (1970) also differ wildly from the structure employed in the common horror film – so how do we account for these films and label them as horror if we use structure as a unique identifier of horror films? We cant, in fact the existence of such films leads us to conclude “perfect characterizations, plots with no loose ends, the perfect rendering of atmosphere, elegant camera work or editing may offer the possibility of evoking horror, but by themselves are secondary to its creation.” (Grant & Barry, K 1977, p.130)
With respect to the earlier argument put forward – It is true that films are at their very foundations the expression of an idea/premise which acts as social commentary. However it is how we categorize the subject matter that these ideas concern themselves with – which gives strength to genre – rather than the visual motifs used in expressing them nor the structure in presenting them. In our examination of the genre we must be careful not to neglect the ideas/premises that underlie the visual and structural elements of horror films – as these may in fact yield the reason why a film is categorized as a horror and if not – at the very least point us in the right direction by way of elimination.
Underpinning the visual and structural aspects of any film are ideas and themes - it is these that give a film its narrative. So how can we say one film is a piece of horror while another is a comedy? The answer lies in what aspects of the human condition that these ideas/premises target and on what topics they make social commentary. Hence, it is because a film concerns itself with societies and humanities underlying fears and tribulations that is it called a work of ‘horror’ and distinguished from its peers in other genres. All other aspects – visual and structural are merely tools in the expression of the underlying principles of the film. For example David Cronenberg referring to his work on the movie The Brood (1979) said: “It is a clear projection of my feelings about divorce; violent possessive emotions, and the decaying nature of what were once highly positive feelings of love and desire” (Wells.P 2000, p.18)It is evident, that Cronenbergs film dealt with issues of a personal nature – but there are many films which also offer social commentary on problems faced by society as a whole also. As Welles (2000) states “cannibalism, for example, used as a metaphor in 1970s horror to expose the ways in which a capitalist economic order ‘feeds off’ the less powerful and socially mobile, or 1980s AIDS anxieties in teen-vampire pictures like Near Dark (1987) and The Lost Boys (1987)”. (Wells.P 2000, p.20) These examples clearly outline the existence of undercurrents of ideas and premises upon which sit the horror genres structures and visual motifs.
However, although its evident by looking at these examples that horror films do in fact contain underlying ideas and premises that guide their overall visual and structural elements – one cant but question – aren’t the ideas stated by Cronenberg and the social commentaries offered on the issues of AIDS and capitalist economic disorder by movies in the 70’s and 80’s referred to earlier; the same ideas that are examined by films in the non-horror genre? For example Wall Street (1987) is a movie that clearly deals with the issues of capitalism and social class struggles – but is in no way visual, structural or idealistically a horror film. So can ideals stand on their own as a unique identifier of a film as a piece of horror – without its visual and structural elements being considered? I would say not, for many films also deal with the same issues presented in many horror films – but do so in the context of comedy or drama.
One question the underlying ideology of the horror film may account for is – why some horror films fail the test of time while others do not. This phenomenon may be accounted by the fact that certain horror films offer commentary on ideas that are relevant to the era that they were made in; while others offered commentary on more sustainable ideas dealing with common struggles faced by humanity in all ages and societies – i.e. issues that are common to humans as a whole rather than being bi-products of the societies they live in at a certain time in history.
Nevertheless, a film which possesses all the visual, structural and idealistic aspects that contribute to the construction of a horror film – may fall short of ensuring its success or recognition within the horror genre, if it fails to do one thing – provoke emotion. And in the case of a horror film – evoke an emotion of horror and terror. As Mast (1992) puts it so delicately “Genres are determined not by plot-elements so much as by attitudes towards plot-elements” (Mast, G 1992, p.551). One may argue that once the visual, structural and idealistic aspects are lined up correctly, that they guarantee this state – but as can be seen with respect to the films stated previously and the points made that this is evidently not the case. Hence to merely abandon our study of the genre at this point would cripple any chance of building a framework for the horror genre. As Grant & Barry (1977) says “To analyze horror films is to examine them in term of the causes and effects, the links that exist between them and the world that surrounds them, between mechanisms within them and mechanisms within us.” (Grant & Barry, K 1977, p.132) Thus far we’ve only examined the horror text but have done so at the expense of the second variable in any communication medium – that of the audience. You may have a great film, but if an audience does not respond to its content – it is nothing if not useless. So what aspects of a horror film are needed in triggering emotions of fear and terror within an audience? What underpins these emotions? Unfortunately the scope of this study does not allow room for segway into the realm of media studies and psychoanalytical studies – specifically examining the audience-text relationship, reception studies and the emotional and psychological aspects within audiences that lend themselves to being used as triggers for horror. Thus we must confine ourselves to targeted surveys of audience and observations made by previous academics who have had the luxury of reading further into these broad areas of study. This should not however impede out efforts in revealing that emotional response to a film is a factor in identifying a film as horror.
Welles (2000) states “Horror texts are grounded in the reproduction and creation of the emotion of fear which arises from these conditions.” (Wells.P 2000, p.11) Hence we can deduce from this that what we term as horror must create an emotion of fear within us – hence the use of visual motifs and structures must be checked against their emotional responses and directed by them in the construction of a horror film. Furthermore the subject matter and ideas that underpin the horror genre must also be relevant to the audience and connect with their internal fears. These are elements that come to play in the construction of a horror film – but can equally be used in the identification of one. Furthermore, the mere fact that the way in which we categorize films into genres itself shows that as an audience we are truly emotion based creatures – we have divided films by the very emotional responses they trigger within us. However, what is of concern is that – what may induce fear in one person may not in another – and the underlying reason behind this may very well hold the answer to a unique identifier for the horror genre. For instance in a survey conducted by Welles (2000) on four separate age groups (16-25, 25-40, 40-55, 55-80) all of which were chosen with issues of ethnicity, gender and social background taken into account – it was found that all the different age groups reacted differently to the chosen films in the study. All groups were asked a series of questions concerning their opinions on the horror genre – their most frightening moment from a horror film, the reasons for wanting to watch horror films and so on. The surveys results reflected that different age groups reacted differently to horror movies and had different motivations for watching them. For instance the 16-25 year-old group were more prone to watching movies made during their lifetime and surprisingly watched the films more so for their ‘gore’ and ‘comedic’ qualities as well as special effects rather than the feelings of fear or terror they were tailored to induce within audiences. It was found this groups motivation for viewing the movies had a direct correlation to how extreme, exaggerated and ‘bloody’ the events taking place within the movies were – rather than the actual narrative or horror response expected from them. This in itself goes quite far in refuting claims that horror films must induce horror and fear in their audiences if they are to be termed horror. However as the audience aged it was found that this reveling in the excesses and gore offered up by the genre as a motivation for watching it were slowly replaced by a serious longing for and appreciation of the fear that these movies incited within audiences. Furthermore there was a direct correlation between the audiences age and the movies year of production – i.e. the 55-80 crowd referred to movies from the 20’s-40’s while 16-25’s referred to movies from the 70’s and 90’s. This evidence shows that audiences are quite varied in their motivations for watching horror films and also that there exists a direct correlation to audiences’ motivations and fears and the context in which they watch these movies. For instance slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s – which were incited by the rise in serial killings at the time - were not found to be as relevant to the older generations – presumably because they had not exposed to these fears – and so were less likely to react to them. This may also further explain the reason why some movies are found to withstand the test of time while others are not. Many horror films concern themselves with current events and the fears that those events induce in audiences – this is a common marketing ploy. However certain movies stand out from the pack when they tap into fears which are separate from current events and are common in all humans – for instance the fear of death – this fear is there whether the year if 1930 or 1990.
Unfortunately a great many analysts and psychoanalysts have studies human emotion and fear – Freud, Julia Kristeva, James Twitchell and Robin Wood are but a handful of the most influential in these areas. And although all cite certain fears which may offer insight into emotional triggers of horror – fear or death, fear of the unknown, fear of others - none have thus far agreed on which are common to everyone nor the reasons why they exist. Even the widely read author Stephen King quotes ten key fears that underpin most horror writing – citing “fear of the dark, ‘squishy’ things, deformity, snakes, rats, closed-in spaces, insects, death itself, other people, and fear for someone else.” (Wells.P 2000, p.11) Its evident having examines these various sources that psychoanalysts cants agree on which fears are triggers for creating horror within audiences. However this is of little concern to us – what we have observed is that the emotional response of fear is a requisite in horror films – the group studies are direct proof of this - how this emotion is produced is not relevant in our study of categorizing a film within the horror genre.
With respect to the above body of evidence we have examined the horror genre and the films contained therein from four different perspectives. We have examined horror films from the point of view of visual motifs and found that although visual motifs and clichés found within the genre do play a part in the classification of a film as a horror, they are themselves not unique to the genre and as such cant be used on their own as a unique identifier. In fact the existence of films which are categorized as psychological horror and also the existence of films which use visual motifs that are iconic in the horror genre for the creation of comedy were indicators that visual motifs weren't always the reasons for calling a film a horror. Thus we found that in certain horror films visual motifs played a greater role in the creation of horror while it others it took a smaller and less intense role. From here our studies turned to examining the genre from the perspective of structure and mise-en-scene and we also found that although conventions did exist within the genre in the use of these tools that they were not unique to the genre either – but nevertheless valuable tools in the creation of horror. We found structure was repeated in some franchises and looked as though it was a reason for their success however on comparison with other less successful horror franchises we found that there was more to it than just the structure – and that this was merely a tool used by scriptwriters in fashioning their stories around a skeleton and wasn't unique to the horror genre at all but nevertheless played a pivotal role in its story telling. As a result of our short comings in finding a unique identifier through these perspectives we were then forced to examine the underlying ideals and premises that were the foundation for stories on which the visual motifs, mise-en-scene and structure were built. We here also came up short in finding a unique identifier but nevertheless found that ideas and specifically ideas dealing with human fears were very important to the effectiveness of a film within the genre and its inclusion within its sphere. By examining the underlying moral and idea base of horror movies we found that they were geared to dealing with the human condition and its fears; but that this was not enough and that these premises needed to relate to the current fears within its audiences if they were to be successful in their utilization. Furthermore we answered the question of why some horror films stood the test of time while others did not – some films were deemed to contain subject matter/idea that was universal to human beings and not aimed at transitory fears associated with a society and its current social and political upheavals. To some extent we proved that there was no single identifier that was unique to the genre but rather that its individual parts that when combined in the right way, such that they were in support of each other and transfixed with a clear vision were the key elements that made up a horror film. However to conclude this without having examined the final avenue for a possible unique identifier would have been folly. Thus, our study turned to looking at the horror genre from the perspective of audiences and although the scope of this study could not delve into the specifics of psychoanalytical theories with respect to the human emotional condition – nevertheless we were able to make a connection between the creation of fear having a part to play in horror films. We also identified that the context in which films were watched and the ideals that they dealt with were required to be relevant to the time if they were to have the required effect in creating horror within audiences. By a thorough examination of a group of subjects that were separated by their age demographics we quickly ascertained it was not always the emotional response that audiences were after – in fact young people were found to look for the effects more so than reveling in fear related emotions that are associated with the horror genre. We also saw from this that horror films benefited from the utilization of resources from all these four areas of study in meeting their goals as works of horror. However after all our studies we could not come to one single distinctive attribute within the horror genre that could account for and be used as unique identifier in categorizing a film within the sphere of the horror genre. What we were able to find through a logical method of elimination – that no such quality that was distinctive to the horror genre exists. In fact we can conclude now that in order to identify a film as a piece of horror one is required to study the film individually from all four perspectives and with respect to the context under which it is being received by the audience in order to ascertain if in fact it is truly a work of horror. Hence through studying the conventions of the genre and the many issues surrounding it we were able to form a framework for its study – this would require any academic in forming clear and comprehensive conclusions about the genre to examine it from all four points of view as well as the conditions of the society in which it is being received. Only having done so – can an academic say that they have considered all the variables within this communication medium I.e. the text, the audience as well as the environment of the texts reception and examined them from all relevant points of view in coming to a clear and concise opinion of a film and the reasons why and how it fits into the horror genre.

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