American American Essay Film Horror Horror Modern

American Horrors

Essays on the Modern American Horror Film

Since the release of Rosemary's Baby in 1968, the American horror film has become one of the most diverse, commercially successful, widely discussed, and culturally significant film genres. Drawing on a wide range of critical methods---from close textual readings and structuralist genre criticism to psychoanalytical, feminist, and ideological analyses---the authors examine individual films, directors, and subgenres.

In this collection of twelve essays, Gregory Waller balances detailed studies of both popular films (Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, and Halloween) and particularly problematic films (Don't Look Now and Eyes of Laura Mars) with discussions of such central thematic preoccupations as the genre's representation of violence and female victims, its reflexivity and playfulness, and its ongoing redefinition of the monstrous and the normal.

In addition, American Horrors includes a filmography of movies and telefilms and an annotated bibliography of books and articles about horror since 1968.

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Ms. Clover argued that this was one of the few film genres that regularly asked male audiences to identify with a triumphant female protagonist. It gave teenage boys license to indulge a gender-bending fantasy that was, she wrote, “unapproved for adult males.”

While these scholars argued that horror taps into positive emotions that are otherwise repressed, other psychoanalytic theories saw horror in the opposite light: as a safe and cathartic way to deal with darker feelings. In his 1980 essay “The Aesthetics of Fright,” the critic Morris Dickstein described horror as a “routinized way of playing with death, like going on the roller coaster.”

But not all theories of horror have been psychoanalytic, trading on notions of repression and release. In 1990 the philosopher Noël Carroll, a staunch critic of the psychoanalytic approach, published “The Philosophy of Horror,” in which he proposed that the pleasure of horror movies is due not to whatever psychic substratum the monster represents, but rather to the peculiar curiosity it inspires.

The defining characteristic of the monster, Mr. Carroll argued, is that it’s hard to classify, categorically incomplete or contradictory, or just generally hard to understand. The monster in the “Frankenstein” series, for instance, is what Mr. Carroll called a “fusion figure,” made of spare parts, including different brains. The horror is rooted in the unknown, but this strangeness also sparks curiosity and fascination. Horror plots are often constructed to emphasize the mystery of the nature of the monster. Most of “The Exorcist,” for example, is taken up with the intricate detective work of a mother trying to figure out what is wrong with her daughter.

One virtue of Mr. Carroll’s theory is that it captures the paradoxical nature of horror’s allure: the very oddity that makes monsters repulsive is precisely what makes them attractive.

In today’s age of increasingly explicit cinematic violence, the scholarly focus has gravitated to the basic pleasures of gore. In “The Naked and the Undead,” Cynthia Freeland, a feminist critic who teaches philosophy at the University of Houston, argues that certain kinds of graphic violence are so skillfully theatrical that they evoke a “perverse sublime.” Their far-fetched extremity also gives the audience the distance needed to relish the bloodbaths. Ms. Freeland cites the ghoulishly over-the-top scenes in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” including a sparks-flying chain saw duel between the masked killer Leatherface and a vamping Dennis Hopper that, just to make things more interesting, adds a hatchet and grenade into the mix.

In an essay that will be published later this year in “The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film,” Adam Lowenstein, an associate professor in English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, also emphasizes the aesthetic of horror. For him, meticulous camerawork, pacing and artful splatter are a kind of carefully staged showmanship that the audience appreciates as pure performance. He calls it “spectacle horror.” When Laurie Strode discovers a trio of dead bodies in “Halloween” — one emerging swinging from a closet, another from a cabinet — it’s a highly staged sequence in which the director, John Carpenter, is “quite literally pulling the strings on this series of attractions,” Mr. Lowenstein writes.

What are we to make of all these theories? Now that horror is a standard feature of the mainstream cultural menu, the genre has increasingly become like any other where craft and beauty are drawing cards. But what will always distinguish horror is its unique capacity to make us tremble. And it’s unlikely that any single theory will ever entirely explain that appeal, for fear is as personal and subjective as beauty.

To be sure, the psychoanalytic approach, drawing as it does on feelings and impulses born early in childhood, captures something important; adults forget just how terrifying being a small child can be. But children also adapt quickly, and not all frights are unpleasant: peekaboo, after all, is one of the first games any child plays, and “Hansel and Gretel” introduces readers to cannibalism before inviting them to celebrate the burning of a witch.

If getting scared is one of our first pleasures, then maybe horror movies are just a reminder of how much fun we used to have.

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