Horror Didn’t Change, We Did
I was watching an interesting documentary that was (kinda) about beloved horror and sci-fi collectible pioneer when something he said stuck with me. It was an audio interview about his feelings on where the horror genre was heading and he was very clear that he was not a fan of the overt violence and gore and missed the bygone era of suggestion over graphicness. This struck me because it’s hard to argue with the fact that horror films have gotten really graphic and really overt. We really have lost the ‘innocence’ that horror films once had. Only…were they ever that innocent?
It was funny because an extra on the documentary disc about Uncle Forry featured the trailer for the William Castle chiller House on Haunted Hill, a film that features a hanging, a severed head and even shows a woman with a noose around her neck and hanging on the poster. This was a film from 1959. Sure, those things are not nearly as graphic as what we see in even some PG-13 films but that isn’t exactly playing coy. Look back further and you find that Tod Browning’s seminal Freaks had to be altered because the end of the film was seen as too graphic. Even the Universal classics, though implicit in violence, were so macabre and strange that people were aghast by what they were seeing. What I am saying is that horror didn’t change – we did.
There is no doubt that there is an art to making an effective horror film. There are very few ‘classic’ horror films and only a few more films that are beloved yet not classic. We like to think that in the ‘hey-day’ things were more innocent and nuanced but the fact was that Dracula was still about a man entering young women’s rooms at night and sucking their lifeforce from their throats. Frankenstein was still about a man creating life from disparate parts of dead criminals. The Invisible Man was implicitly salacious. We can go on and on. Things took a turn in the ‘60s and got bloodier and more overt in their violence because times were changing. Television was keeping more people home and after two world wars and a Korean conflict and suddenly people were a little harder because the world seemed a lot less friendly. People want horror to reflect reality, to varying degrees, because they want to see that horror can be overcome and defeated, even if just temporarily. Now not everything, ever horror, can be overcome, sometimes we lose, but there is even value there. But values and standards change. The way we see the world changes. It doesn’t mean that a less graphic storytelling is less effective at all but that things do evolve over time. Classical has given way to pop music, heavy metal, hip-hop, and on and on. Everything evolves to varying degrees. The problem is not that horror has gotten more graphic but that there are not as many options any longer. I am not a fan of PG-13 horror (mainly because most of it is terribly pandering and trite) but at least it gives younger people an option and it gives people who don’t want to see eye gougings and eviscerations an option. Variety is a wonderful thing.
It isn’t that horror became nastier but that it is reflecting a bleaker outlook on the world. We are not as fascinated by supernatural monsters and romantic terrors because we know that the world can be a cruel, cold place and that you sometimes have to reflect that awfulness to overcome it. Horror is meant to be upsetting and jarring though. It’s not meant to be a safe genre. It’s meant to challenge us. Whether we are up for that challenge, and whether we like where the film and story takes us is a wholly separate issue.
So yes, horror changed, horror became a little more violent, a little more gruesome, and a little more jaded but that’s because the culture became those things and for something to be relevant it needs to reflect the culture, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. I will always be a fan of films and stories that don’t need to paint the world with blood but do understand that times change, and so will that times Art.
And like it or not, horror, if done well, is Art.