Prologue: This is an essay I wrote for my College Writing course, on the topic of something has a cultural impact on the world around us. I chose horror films. This isn’t my best essay but it offers some very good points in my opinion.
Horror in Society
The limbs and blood are flying on the silver screen, maybe a girl is clutching your arm on your date, or maybe you’re just seeing this movie with friends for cheap scares. Regardless, after the gore, the exorcisms, the zombies, the monsters, and senseless murderers, you get up and walk out of the theatre talking about if it scared you or not. However, you don’t really look past that do you? You watched the movie for the violence, and action, not the themes behind it. Stop and look though, why was this movie made? Chances are that if it wasn’t made as the sixth or something installment in some gory franchise then it has a comment for you to think about. Horror movies have been around since the dawn of cinema, they are a staple in the movie going world to offer up comfort in times of distress, to indulge in times of safety. Horror, is a cultural and societal staple of the cinematic and normal world, offering up magnified and terrifying views towards the human population, psyche, and world issues.
The origin of horror starts with Nosferatu, when film was just beginning to form in the world, so it’s purpose was to mainly serve as an art film. With it’s roots in german expressionism it led the way for more films to explore ideas of the supernatural and odd as social commentary. In the book On Kubrick James Naremore discusses the effect of German Expressionism and gothic horror saying “…a good many horror films are ideologically reactionary. In this regard , we should also recall that some gothic fiction tends to express a latent, romanticized nostalgia for a lost aristocratic world, symbolized by ruined castles and old dark houses” (193). With Naremore’s deconstruction of the gothic and german expressionistic horror films, the importance of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in terms of their impact on society and their context. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari we get the testament from a man named Francis, the main character and one of the first examples of an untrustworthy narrator in film. This is one of the first contemporary takes on the pressures of modern society. In the film Francis views himself as a person whose wife was driven insane by a man named Dr. Caligari. While he also believes himself to be an upperclass citizen in the town, leading into the main themes of the film.
The movie focuses on the demented and often impractical views of society at the time, the obsession with being upperclass. The film brings itself towards these themes through the use of warped, dream like sets to bring the viewer to acknowledge the fact that what they’re witnessing on the silver screen is, in fact, a dream. The main aim of the film is to demonstrate the difficulties with the frustrations of middle class society in combination with ‘white collar pretensions’, essentially meaning the difficulty within the middle class with coming to terms with the jealousy of not being in the upper class or the difficulty with attempting to move up in society with difficulty. Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art: An Introduction discuss the films effectiveness through “The angular performances, heavy makeup, and distorted settings characteristic of German Expressionist cinema conveyed an ominous, supernatural atmosphere” ( 343). The acting shown through Dr. Caligari, Francis and Dr. Caligari’s silent assistant Cesare, is dream like and hard to understand in a realistic context further lending itself to the idea that the story Francis is weaving is one of incredulity and falsity. Knowing this the viewer begins to notice signs of how Francis was driven crazy. In the end we are shown the facts of how Francis’ story is a fabricated one when he is shown being taken through the hospital, and that he is in fact a member of the hospital driven mad by his own delusions of grandeur and psychotic visions. The viewer is ultimately left with the commentary on society of the difficulty and hardships of life in the middle class, especially with the pressure of high society to perform and do better when in reality we’re you stand is in general a perfectly fine place.
Moving further in time brings up the 70’s, which is one of the golden ages of the horror genre. With films such as Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, The Last House on the Left, Dawn of the Dead, and most importantly, Carrie. De Palma directed one of the most prolific horror movies of the seventies for it’s unadulterated look at the cruelty of human kind on those below them, through the scope of a teenage girl and her peers at a stereotypical high school. The plot of the film follows Carrie as she is bullied terrifyingly hard by her peers for being ugly and odd. Over the course of the film she discovers her power of telekinesis, while events get more positive for her until the bloody end when she snaps and destroys the town after one mean couple pours pigs blood on her after she wins prom queen. The telekinetic aspect of the film lends itself as a factor of the tragic revenge one can be led to inflict on the ones that are cruel to them. De Palma’s film is especially pertinent as with all horror movies it has a larger message and provides comfort to people, they’re able to relate to the situation even though it is ridiculously over the top. This is due to the fact that horror films cater to “…viewers who may be uncertain of their fundamental beliefs about the world and their identity.” (Bordwell and Thompson 344).
Carrie is one of the best commentaries on the actuality of society and identity with its themes of; overbearing religion, bullying and cruelty, revenge, and the overall cruelty of humanity. Through Sissy Spacek’s acting of a terrified teenage girl she displays the weak and beat down members of society and how they can crack after too much pressure. Spacek’s acting is as prevalent as the rest of the film, as Wes Craven (a horror master by himself) talks about how good horror films are made by changing “’We consciously took all the B movie conventions and stood them on their heads…so that just when you thought the shot would cut away it didn’t. Someone gets stabbed but then they get back up and start crawling…’”(Schneider 79). De Palma and Craven have this in common, by taking the standard endings of horror films and flipping them on their heads they’re able to make much more potent films. For example, when you expect the camera to cut away as the blood is spilling on Carrie it doesn’t, providing a better film. The film serves as a commentary on the less lucky members of society and how the upper class or privileged will crush down on them simply because they are weaker than them. Carrie also shows the power of religion on the vulnerable. With a religious fanatic of a mother Carrie has to suffer through the difficulty of being beaten down by the mad christian woman that is her mother. This is done to display the mad power of religion, while her peers represent the power and prevalence of the upper class over the lower class and beaten down members of society
Moving into modern day horror there is the Saw franchise. However the only film in the franchise that actually has a very valuable comment on society is the first film, then the films dissolved into a franchise of just gore with creative ways of chopping limbs off. The first Saw deals with a potent question. How far would one go to save their own life? The question is answered in the film through the fantastic, low budget, directing of James Wan. A claustrophobic and terrifying film of choices, that presents the viewer with that ultimate question. Saw is by far one of the best horror films to come out in a long time because of its “…genre-mixing and the give and take between audience tastes and filmmakers’s ambitions, the horror film has displayed the interplay of convention and innovation…” (344 Bordwell & Thompson). By doing this, and with the combination of putting his own unique twists on horror, James Wan brings one of the most important character studies in a long time. The film is a character study of people who have been doing the wrong things in life, and thus are either punished, or escape ‘Jigsaw’s’ traps and are reborn as new men or women. The plot of the film follows a doctor who has made numerous questionable calls on the survivability of patients, as well as cheating on his own wife, as well as the a man who follows people and take pictures of them for money. They both wake up in an abandoned bathroom with saws found near them and sets of specific instructions on how to escape. Their options include either body dismemberment or the killing of the other person in the room. The film comments on society’s often destructive and unsafe choices in life, which often lead to death or the destruction of their own body. What Jigsaw does, is take people who show no appreciation for the life they have and puts them in a situation (that often reflects what they’re doing in their life that is bad) where they have to choose between doing drastic things to save themselves or simply letting themselves die. The commentary that Saw offers is the fact life is not something to be thrown in the garbage because someone simply doesn’t care, but something to be cherished and taken care of.
To bring all of these together is to show how horror films have evolved throughout the years to create a gory picture of the problems and fears of millions of people in society. The reason that these three films stand as amazing pieces of horror cinema is that they all play into and offer opinions on things that people are worried about or scared of. They do this so as to get the viewers to listen, and see that their problems are foolish or that the problems are prolific and legendary as shown in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. All three films have specific themes to do with problems in society such as; the relevancy of one’s life as demonstrated in Saw, the destructive power of oppression in Carrie, and the overwhelming weight of the social ladder stigma in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. These films show the world the ugliness around them, in an over the top and beautiful way. Through Saw one should be able to see faults in their life, through Carrie one should be able to see the power of what one does to people, and through The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari one should learn to relax a little bit instead of going crazy over trying to be something they’re not. Horror movies are meant to scare and frighten but also to show the world that while there are still problems that one cannot fix, there are aspects of life that one can control and fix for themselves. Making the horror genre in an ironic gesture, one of the most comforting genres in film.
The horror genre is one of the single most prolific genres of the film industry. It comforts when down, and terrifies for fun. It shows the world an unclouded look at society and it’s flaws. The films Saw, Carrie, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, are just a few of the numerous examples of horror films that have guided and shown people how society truly is and it’s issues. Through horror, people are allowed to see the atrocities of people and the terrifying truth of situations within real life. By offering comments on society and it’s issues horror films are some of the most important pieces of cinema in the history of movies, due to the ways it shows the world it’s own flaws.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film art. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Print.
Film Art: An Introduction is a textbook that goes through the history of film and highlights techniques used in film. It dedicates whole chapters to different types of films such as horror. The book offers an unbiased opinion on all forms of film, from art films to experimental and normal hollywood films. The book offers a wide view of all subjects on film from lighting to cinematography thus making it an valuable asset to the techniques used in horror films.
Dewan, Shaila. “Do Horror Films Filter The Horrors of History?.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Oct. 2000. Web. 6 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/14/movies/do-horror-films-filter-the-horrors-of-history.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.
This short article offers up the opinion on horror films that they are one of the strongest ways for the problems with society to be filtered for people to notice them. The article brings up the fact that horror films are one of the best ways to display the difficulties with the problems in society. Thus, this was an important resource in backing up and helping formulate my viewpoints
Ebert , Roger . “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2013. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920>.
A good movie review for one of the films I researched proved super helpful in helping bring up points in the acting and sets of the film that helped display the films themes. The article basically sums up why the movie is a prolific film in cinema history.
Ebert , Roger . “Carrie.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2013. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/carrie-1976>.
The review of Carrie talks about it’s difficult topics and themes and brings up that it is one of the best cautionary tales about society and how we treat people. The review was helpful due to it’s unbiased view at the horror film.
Naremore, James. On Kubrick. London: British Film Institute, 2007. Print.
Naremore’s book about Stanley Kubrick’s unparalleled film making genius is obviously biased but offers up invaluable thoughts on the subject of gothic horror and german expressionism. Thus leading itself into one of the most resourceful books for referencing specific techniques and genres, as Stanley Kubrick was so inspired by parts of the classic horror genre.
Rhodes, Gary D.. Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana.. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2003. Print.
These essays offer up essential points on the necessity of B horror films. The essays all are biased towards supporting the horror genre but still offer up valid points on the use of horror in popular culture as opinion pieces on the problems with society, thus making it an important book in my research.