Have you ever voluntarily subjected yourself to nightmares?
You might ask what kind of masochistic human would ever do that to themselves, but the surprising answer you’d find is a lot of seemingly very normal people.
If you enjoy horror films, then you know what I’m talking about.
I was exposed to and fell madly in love with the art of horror at an age that was probably inappropriately young.
I devoured any and all horror films made available to me through the wonderful world of cable television and my mother’s sizable collection of VHS tapes, from The Shining to The Hills Have Eyes.
I am still obsessed today with the dark allure of such films as The Babadook and It Comes at Night. I’m constantly asked “Why?” by everyone, including my friends, who I drag along with me to the once a semester campus horror movie, and my film professor, who cautiously encourages my fixation.
People are constantly curious.
My answers are usually something like “I have no idea” or “I’m just weird, I guess.”
But, considering that the horror film industry has been consistently growing in popularity since its inception at the end of the 19th century, there must be a reasonable explanation.
Theories abound as to why a great number of humans gladly trade money for the experience of subjecting themselves to the dark and sadistic visual storytelling of the horror film industry.
Studies have shown that the adrenaline produced by being scared witless is enough to keep some people coming back for more, but even more popular is the notion that horror films allow audiences to explore the forbidden side of their humanity in a safe and socially acceptable manner.
However, neither of these explanations have ever been satisfactory for me.
True, yes, but there’s always been something more.
You have to understand that I’m an English major; I’m the kind of person that starts analyzing the final scene before the credits roll.
And I’ve always been attracted to a certain kind of horror film, the kind that allows for some type of analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good slasher or “monster that goes bump in the night” horror film, but they often leave little to be said.
Instead, films that never fully identify their monster, fail to answer certain questions about circumstances, or end ambiguously leave more to the imagination in both an utterly terrifying and fascinating way.
Because the monster is an entity constructed by the human imagination—even if some do bear semblance to real life figures—the monster must therefore be representative of something else.
I devoured any and all horror films made available to me through the wonderful world of cable television and my mother’s sizable collection of VHS tapes.
If we go back to classic films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which has been called the first psychoanalytic thriller, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which easily lines up with the societal anxieties about communism during the Cold War, a pattern of cultural relevance and critical commentary begins to emerge.
This pattern has persisted and continued to evolve throughout the history of the horror film industry.
This genre, arguably more than any other, acts as a sort of cultural gauge of the prominent fears of any given era.
Horror often criticizes not only society, but itself in the process, making it the most fruitful film genre in terms of social commentary.
If you want evidence, you only have to look at some of the most popular horror films of the last few years, from the clear commentary on the prevalence of STD’s in today’s society of It Follows and the sharp-witted account of racism in America of Get Out to the heartbreaking and terrifying look at grief and mental illness in The Babadook.
While there’s obviously still a consistent supply of straightforward blood and gore or monster under the bed, classic genre horror films that are enjoyable (if only for the adrenaline), there is an abundance of clever and astute critical social commentaries in horror film media today.
These films offer an explanation for why a generation disillusioned by so much of the society around them can be so engrossed with a genre that speaks directly to that disquietude.