I still know what you did last era

Life may mirror art, but horror movies do just the opposite by telling us something about history

Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of A History of Horror and a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska, said horror films tend to reflect the times in which they are made.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of A History of Horror and a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska, said horror films tend to reflect the times in which they are made.

The world can be a daunting place—turning on the news frequently means facing a plethora of real-life horrors—so it seems somewhat ironic that with such a multitude of terrors, people still willingly watch horror movies on a regular basis.

Horror films offer a sort of looking glass into periods of social unrest and the fears that accompany these times; they reflect historical traumas as they offer a means for people to make sense of uneasy times. Horror films adapt and alter according to current contexts and thus present a sort of historical chronology—they implicitly present the apprehensions of society from particular timeframes. Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of A History of Horror and a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska, said genres of every movie, not just horror films, reflect political values of its time.

Dixon said musicals flourished during World War I because they were escapist, but consequently died once the war ended. Whatever’s on the horizon, essentially is played out in comedy, dramas, westerns and other types of genres. For example, Dixon said the 1952 film High Noon is a political western because it’s an implicit attack on McCarthyism.

“Films are transformative in a sense,” he said, adding that horror movies often go through three distinct phases.

The first phase is origin, said Dixon.

“It’s essentially universal horror, like that of the original Frankenstein,” he said. “The second phase is baroque, which is The House of Frankenstein, and the final phase is parody.” Dixon said once the horror film reaches parody, it needs to be rebooted. That entails restarting values, concepts and concerns as well as making it relevant to the era.

Dixon said he thinks that what has been called torture-porn—much like that of the Saw series—is now completely gone. “I think that people are now looking for literal horror. Films like Fear Me Not and Paranormal Activity are good examples of this,” he said. “They’re films with minimum amount of violence and gore you can create compelling horror stories. What I see in the future of films is less gore and more intelligence.”

Dixon said people watch horror movies because they want to confront horror but without risk. They can leave the auditorium or just go for the ride, which gives them a sense of immortality, a sense that it’s happening to someone else but not themselves. In a sense, Dixon said, they can confront their worst fears without confronting them at all. “People are dying left and right but you survive; it’s basically a thrill ride but also a rite of passage that you can come through intact.”

Adam Lowenstein, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film also writes about the connections between history and horror flicks.

“One reason that there is this intrinsic connection between horror movies and history is because history is often horrible,” he said. “Fredric Jameson says, ‘History is what hurts’ and I tend to agree with that—history often presents us with situations that are very difficult to come to terms with,” he said, adding that horror films help teach people about important and traumatic moments throughout history.

Lowenstein said people are still living through an extraordinary phenomenon of American horror films that present remakes from the 1970s and 1980s, indicating the appetite for horror isn’t gone and that there’s a sense of nostalgia about the current horror industry. “The remakes are searching for that relevance,” he said. “A good example of a remake is The Hills Have Eyes which was originally a 1977 film by Wes Craven—and was done quite effectively.” Lowenstein said Canadian fimmaker David Cronenberg’s work reconfigures historical traumas from other films into his own.

“Cronenberg’s films don’t necessarily seem like they are very connected to moments of historical trauma; rather, his films are interested in shocking and unsettling the viewer but still has connections to films that do invest in historical moments. For example, Cronenberg’s 1975 film Shivers is in many ways a sort of reimagining of Night of The Living Dead—what is interesting is that in Cronenberg’s film, upsetting issues like the Vietnam war don’t make it into the film directly—but insofar as they are offered as problems that were always already there.

Lowenstein said Shivers ends with a group of residents in an apartment building infected with parasites unleashing themselves into the city of Montreal. Whereas in Night of Living Dead the conflict is contained, in Shivers it’s just beginning, which creates a more confrontational relationship with the audience.

Lowenstein said he doesn’t think many people choose to go to horror movies to see the political underpinnings, but go to horror movies as a means to be scared in a pleasant way or an unpleasant way.

“Living our everyday lives often feels like we are disconnected from history,” he said. “These things seem far away and distant from us—but when we go to be entertained in a way that we are made uncomfortable—it makes sense that our desires or even guilt about our place in the everyday world and disconnection from history would come out. These are the things viewers would be invested in without realizing it. Horror has to come from somewhere and more I think it is coming from the world we live in rather than an imaginary place.”

Films from the past often seem more like fables rather than reflections of historical traumas. It’s probably people’s ability to ignore these underpinnings that allow them an ease with which to engage in these films.

Horror films are enticing because they offer a means for people to cope with their greatest fears—people are, for the most part, unaware that they are toying with their societal anxieties whilst watching these films. This is largely because they face them in a confined way without having to truly acknowledge their existence.

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