WHY HORROR? (Preface)

My book exploring why we love horror so much is taking longer than I originally projected, but I thought I would share the preface with you. If you like the preface, then you’ll want to purchase the book when it releases! At the time of this posting, I am on Chapter 12.

PREFACE

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” (Ghost Face, Scream). There is something to be said about the measurable energy of an auditorium at the cinema when a crowd is energized for opening night of the latest horror film. Moreover, the same can be said about your own living rooms when gathered with friends to watch a horror movie on-demand or through a streaming service. We turn into quasi participants because of the strong physiological and emotional responses to the stimuli on screen. Best enjoyed in a group setting, these movies are the stuff of nightmares and fond memories!

The American horror film brings so many people of all ages together from a bevy of ethnic, cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds unlike any other single film genre. Spawning conventions, theme park events, inspiring indie and pop artists, the fandom of horror is incredibly diverse and stratified. While the science-fiction/fantasy fandom is large and vocal, it does not often display the level and degree of diversity that horror does both presently, in our culture, and has for more than a century. From the dawn of cinema, horror has been a staple for big studios and small production companies alike.

By analyzing horror films, we can learn a lot about our past, our present, and even our future. While film is largely a reflection of life, horror is the best cinematic mirror of all because it forces us to face our fears. The monster in a horror film, may just be the manifestation of a force or idea in the real world delivered to us through a terrifying cautionary tale.

Even when a bad horror movie gets released in theatres, the auditoriums are usually full on opening night–even through the weekend–before the numbers fall off, and that title is available on-demand in a few weeks. The influence of horror on our society is witnessed throughout the decades. A great example of this is seeing fans from across four decades all gathering in one place to watch 2018’s Halloween.

Unlike other critical and box office successes in recent years, this particular franchise boasted a 40 year old legacy that brought fans and spectators of all ages together. I remember sitting there in my seat, simply in awe at the sea of people and feeling a kinetic energy surge through my mind and body, especially when the Halloween theme music began to play. What other genre generates this?!?

In order to best explore why horror brings so many people together, we need to first look what the formula is for the American horror film and then at why we are attracted to it. From there, we can travel through the decades to learn how and why the horror film developed in the manner that it did.

Understanding what comprises the American horror film will support our exploration because it will create a theoretical framework through which we can analyze the popularity and fandom of horror. When I lecture on horror to my film studies and screenwriting students at the University of Tampa, where I’ve taught since 2016, I describe the makeup of the American horror film this way:

(Art movements of) German Expressionism + French Surrealism = horror’s aesthetic

(Writings of) Sigmund Freud + Edgar Allan Poe = horror’s content

At its root, all genre horror films can be traced back to these aforementioned elements and formulas. This chapter will focus on horror’s aesthetic, while the next chapter will focus on its content. 

Ask anyone, and the single most famous scene in all of cinema is the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, widely regarded as the most pivotal horror film in all cinema history. The aforementioned scene gains a greater eerie feel upon the close of the movie when the audience realizes that Norman has little to no control over his mind and actions.

The studio responsible for solidifying the horror film as a popular genre, and you could say is the parent of the American horror film is Universal Pictures. Not only is horror the most bankable genre of film, generally speaking, it is also one of the most fascinating to analyze because many horror films written in the classical sense are social metaphors.

Throughout this book, you’ll learn about the current events that preceded a particular movement in horror, and how those fears and anxieties were explored through characters and plots. For example, it was the space race of the mid 20th century that inspired many of the alien movies of the 1950s. And with the space race, came a fear of what lies beyond our atmosphere.

Although the “modern” horror film began with Psycho, horror was an influential genre and box office draw from the dawn of cinema. In fact, many of the characters you enjoy watching today in horror films has their first appearance in the early 1900s.

“Oh no, don’t go into that house!” “Watch out! He’s right behind you.” Some of the most memorable movies of all time are the horror films. They draw our eye’s attention to that which would otherwise repulse us in real life. At the same time, our own eyes are being threatened with disturbing or bizarre imagery.

But why does that which would repulse us in real life and that which is terrifying to behold, bring us together? That is what we are here to explore together! So join me as I lead you on a journey to dive deep into why horror brings us together.

From Nosferatu to (my favorite icon) Freddy Krueger and beyond, the American horror film continues to leave a huge footprint in our collective zeitgeist.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“It Comes at Night” movie review

The Doore of Red Death. A24’s highly anticipated horror film It Comes at Night by writer-director Trey Edward Shults looks beautiful and beckons for attention, but fails to live up to the storytelling and payoff of A24’s The Green Room. Another A24 film in the vein of It Comes at Night is 2016’s The Witch, which was ultimately a failed attempt to capture the magic of a horror/mystery film and leave audiences with too many unanswered questions. The only “terrifying ambiguity” (to quote The Huffington Post), in this film, is just how terrifying it is to realize you just dropped money on a film that works better for Netflix, and the ambiguity comes from the plethora of underdeveloped plot elements. Essentially, It Comes at Night reminds me of a bad M. Night Shyamalan film (before he made his outstanding comeback with The Visit and Split) and after the successes of The Sixth Sense and Lady in the Water. Like the aforementioned era of ehh Shyamalan films, the wind up is excellent but the delivery lacks any emotional impact and you’re left with realizing that you never truly cared about any one of the characters. Character development is lacking, and the third act is incredibly weak. However, there is something in particular that I find very interesting; and after reading other reviews, it seems to be something that has escaped most (if not all) the critics at this point. That is the striking similarities between this film and the timeless classic short story The Masque of Red Death by the brilliant Edgar Allan Poe. From the painting on the walls of the house depicting the bubonic plague to the ominous red door, there are quite a few parallels between It Comes at Night and The Masque of Red Death.

Nestled deep in the woods is a secluded boarded up house belonging to a family of three seeking refuge from an unknown threat. Whatever has caused this family to live off the grid and fend for their very survival is tasteless and odorless. Forced to wear gas masks whenever venturing out into the woods and even around their own home, the family is forced to take drastic measures to ensure there ability to avoid coming into direct contact with the disease. With only now way in or out of the house guarded by a red door, the family has stopped at nothing to protect themselves. One night, the family’s house is broken into and they must decide what to do with the man and his family. Having dispensed with courteousness and generosity in order to guard against any and all possible threats, the family must decide whether to listen to the man or kill him right then and there. Their decision will spark a fire that spreads into their deepest fears.

*spoiler alert* But, the analysis is fascinating.

Okay, now I know that the preceding paragraph describes what should be a brilliant horror film, but the problem lies in the greatly flawed poor storytelling, development, and realization. Lack of connection to any one of the characters is also partly responsible for the lackluster experience of watching this horror-thriller with a hint of mystery and dystopia. The only saving grace the film has is the connection to elements of Poe’s Masque of Red Death. For starters, the camera draws the audience’s (and diegetic POV) attention to a painting of a depiction of the bubonic plague (or black death). At first, I was puzzled as to why this painting. Then as I go through the movie, I realize why. Between the constant reference to and runtime spent on talking about and showing the red door, it hit me that this film reimagined Poe’s short story and set it in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic time and place. If you are unfamiliar with The Masque of Red Death, then I encourage you to read it or watch it on YouTube. It is allegory on the inevitability of death no matter how  hard you protect yourself, how much money you have, or how powerful you are. It also contains allusions to the seven deadly sins and the fate of those who party in the wake of mass death among a lower class of people. Although I find the short short to be a stronger narrative than Shults’ variation on this reimagination of the classic tale.

Both the short story and this film contain people hiding out in a fortress. Whereas The Masque of Red Death‘s Prince Prospero is held up ins abbey with his wealthy and noble friends while the red death is killing off the rest of the kingdom, A24’s It Comes at Night features a typical American family living off the land and secured in their rather tutor-looking mountain lodge. Like in Red Death, the family in It Comes receives an uninvited guest one night. Here’s where we see some difference. In Poe’s story, the guest is dressed to attend the masquerade ball and in this film, the guest attempts to break into the home. Although both stories take different approaches to the second act, once thing is in common. And that is the taking in of an outsider. All through the second act, there are hints at something not being right–a constant uneasiness. That apprehension and anxiety regarding the unknown works in the respective stories favors. The emotional impact and psychological payoff differs between the short story and film. Yes, the endings are very similar but feel incredibly different. You’ll just have to read The Masque of Red Death and watch It Comes at Night to know for yourself.

If you’re searching for a thriller to watch this weekend, as it is rain in many parts of the country, then perhaps you should watch Universal Pictures’ The Mummy instead. However, if you are curious about how well It Comes at Night parallels Poe’s short story, this definitely check it out. Not entirely sure why it’s rated R, but in case that’s important to you. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm, “well, there it is.”