Monday, August 5, 2013

What Makes Us Cry: Horror, Shockingly Simple

Sometimes all you need is a shadow.

I'd say that there is no other genre that arguably mixes more pieces of other genres together than horror. It's essentially a melting pot of tropes, actions, structures, and twists--all designed to produce a sensation that gets you to jolt or jump around in your seat. Horror is emotional manipulation taken to an extreme beyond what melodrama can produce. And it has had time enough over the past few centuries of its existence to have primed itself into a quite repeatable formula. However despite that the mechanism behind horror remains shockingly simple, no matter whatever ornamentation may be piled on top of it. There are several different types of Horror films but all are based on one central principal: catharsis. That is ultimately why I am including it here in the "What Makes Us Cry" series. As a genre it is obsessed with purging our emotions--but doing so through fear. As such the structure of a Horror film is that it has a tremendous build up to something and then there is a release that comes from a pay-off.

How this is employed in a Horror film can be seen in this simple scenario I've typed up:

Horror, the more dilapidated the better.
A lone female character going down into a creepy clutter-filled basement with a flashlight whose batteries are dying. As she descends the steps from the safe and comfortable suburban home we've already been introduced to and enters the cobwebbed, dusty, and dark unfinished basement, we watch with anticipation as she cautiously goes down the steps--a step squeaks unexpectedly. We know without her saying that she doesn't like to come down to the basement, and her frustration with the ineffective flashlight becomes palpable. Suddenly our heroine hears a rustling from the back of the basement. Curiosity getting the better of her she makes her way through a narrow pathway, her flashlight occassionaly illuminating a spider scuttling out of the scene, a dressmaker's dummy with a sheer fabric dress which our heroine took for another person for just a moment, and the shadows begin to grow taller. Suddenly the noise sounds again, closer. She thinks it comes from a locked chest, but she can't be sure. She kneels down and just as she's about to open the chest it bursts open and she screams.

Triangles... it's got to be triangles...
As you can see, the structure is extremely Aristotelian. You have an inciting moment that comes from our heroine entering the creepy basement, followed by a string of intensifying thrills and false alarms which eventually come together in a climatic suddenly jolt that releases the building tension that had been forming since she'd entered the basement in the first place. And that's the basic premise of how a horror film works--it's just a collection of several of these moments strung together building up to the largest of them all that comes close to the end. Horror films are extremely simple in terms of structure, focusing primarily on the first half of the structure of a plot, and tends to cop out on the latter half of a plot structure.

But if horror is such a catharsis oriented genre, why did I say it was a melting pot? Well, the melting pot aspects of this genre come from other elements not involved in its structure. It's like saying a soup may be based on the same broth as another, but that's discounting all the different spices, vegetables, meat, and herbs that have been added to give that broth flavor and substance. Ultimately then what you can say defines horror and separates it from tragedy proper is all the extra little frills and details it takes from other genres. In order to understand where all the thrills and chills came from, we need to look at horror's history.

I wonder what the horse is scared of...
The first horror stories can be found in the folk tales, legends, and ghost stories told by the lower caste of "folks". Thus horror begins as a "low brow" genre. Here is bare bones horror, without any frills. The basis obviously comes from tragedy as most of these legends or stories tell of angry spirits looking for revenge to those who killed them--essentially borrowing from the genre of the revenge tragedy. Often dealing with themes such as being unable to escape one's past, warnings against bad behavior, and explanations for why children perhaps shouldn't play too close to a raging waterfall, these early stories were designed to be gruesome, horrifying, and memorable--even in their simplicity. The best modern example of such legends would have to be The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (a story written in the style of a legend), which tells of the vengeful spirit of a Headless Hessian who at night rides through the forest looking for a head to replace his own. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow though is an example of early nineteenth century interest in preserving or emulating folk culture. Folk culture was seen as vanishing as the rise of the middle class and the disappearance of the peasants occurring throughout the nineteenth century. It's in this same vein that the Brothers Grimm collect their fairy tales many of which I would gladly throw in as part of the early examples of horror.

Beautiful, but deadly...
The renewed interest in Folk culture simultaneously sparked a renewed interest in romanticism and everything else medieval. However it wasn't the knight-errant romanticism of the medieval age, it instead transformed into the gothic romance that is so obsessed with death, decay, and dead bodies. It is from this genre horror gains its next influential part: the fleeing virgin. Gothic romances are all about how the fleeing virgin must be rescued by a prince of some sort from some sort of monstrous danger--later this would mutate into the fleeing virgin becoming obsessed and adoring of the monster pursuing her and thus you have the basic formula for how Twilight came into existence, but horror would borrow the earlier example of the fleeing virgin who is still terrified of the monster. For the most influential works of gothic romance read The Castle of Ortranto by Walpole or The Mysteries of Udolpho by Radcliffe. Both capture the spirit of the age of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century obsession with the gothic atmosphere. Dark ruined castles, desolate but beautiful landscapes, and danger possibly lurking around every corner. They're stories set in a sort of "fake historical period" meant to emulate a past that seems distant and yet tangible at the same time.

You never know what could be behind you...
The gothic eventually found its way to Hollywood (where horror now primarily resides) which comes into our next form of Horror, with the emergence of Classic Hollywood Horror films of the 1920s - 1940s. Universal Studios dominates this era with great monster films such as Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolfman, etc. This era of horror doesn't add much to the genre until RKO began competing with Universal and introduced a technique which resonates with the genre to this day. Due to tight budgets RKO horror films were made quite cheaply and often sparingly. Such films required that there be inventive ways of producing horror with the mantra "less is more". In such films the idea that monsters didn't necessarially have to be seen, only suggested, gave birth to a more psychological horror. The man behind these films Val Lewton, also managed to find another way for catharsis to be achieved after a build up by sometimes having the shock be delivered not by something explicit, but by something more innocent but sudden. He became so good at this effect it was named the Lewton Bus in honor of him. Lewton's psychologically influenced horror films were added to by Hitchcock over the course of the 1950 and 1960s--most especially with the film Psycho, which acts as a bridge between the RKO period and the post-Romero period to come.

They come back, they don't know why, but they do...
Horror returned to England for the 1950s and 1960s, where it gained color, camp, and a splash of blood by returning to its Gothic roots with Hammer films. However once that had run dry the Horror genre returned to America with an increased focus on violence and pushing the limits. Psycho challenged the genre by making it "okay" to kill off your lead halfway through the film, as well as to bring even more psychological explanations in as examples of true realistic horrors. There was a sense of trying to demystify the Horror genre by taking the magic out of it and making it more scientific in its focus. By the late 1960s and the 1970s we arrive at a time period where Horror takes on a bit of satire in adding in social commentary of the times (such as with Romero's Dawn of the Dead), and continues until this day to be a strong part of the genre. After achieving psychological perfection, Hollywood eventually jumped back into the film business, bringing back to life the supernatural into Horror, but it was a tempered supernatural blended with modern psychological terror as a film such as Rosemary's Baby gives example. After that you could say that today's horror genre hasn't changed much since 1978, but instead is simply repeating the formula established during that last period, only attempting to get more violent, more bloody, more satiric, more gory, more sexual, and more psychological.

Now that we have the history out of the way, let's talk about some common themes:

He's not quite dead, yet...
The Past will Rise Again!
Horror has always had a strong tie with the past in some form or another. Often times Horror is about a vengeful spirit of someone who was wronged in the past. In other instances it can be about those ignorant of or running away from their own past running smack into it. Only in Horror does the past come back and demand some kind of respect or fear.  There is always a price which the past asks us to pay, usually our lives, for daring to think we can "move forward" without taking account of our "roots".

As such Horror usually divides itself into two opinion camps--either it thinks the creations of the "modern world" are ignorant of the ancient evils they let loose like Pandora's Box, or what I'll term "Moral Horror". Horror in which the modern world is seen as something not necessarially so great to handle the horrors of the past which come a knocking every now and then. In these types of Horror films, there is usually some sort of breach of values for which characters are systematically punished for for the rest of the film. From this belief you get the old Horror rules that "anyone who has sex or does drugs and alcohol, will die". "Moral  Horror" is meant to scare you back into being good moral boys and girls through terror and fear. It's an emboldened past that demands respect and finds the modern world "atrocious" to behold, and thus responds atrociously to it.

Then there's "Modernist Horror" in which the past is seen as something demented or terrifying that we must run away from and escape, because it no longer reflects the world we live in. From this perspective of Horror, we get the idea that it's better to let "sleeping dogs lie", don't go digging it back up or it'll come back to haunt you. In this sense the modern world is seen as the sane world and the past the insane.

I wonder which left hand he'd
use more often...
It's the Future that petrifies me!
In this theme, Horror usually brings in scientific, alien, or technology fears of the future. It's usually more at home in the Science-Fiction umbrella, but there's enough similarities with Horror to bring it back into the fold. The future we seem headed for must be assumed to be a wasteland in the mind of this Horror genre. Factories pollute, leading to the creation of inhuman monsters ready to come and destroy us all. Man attempts to be God and thus creates life but having done so doesn't know what to do with what he's created. This theme is really an extension of "Moral Horror" in which fears about the path mankind is on are brought up, questioning what we're losing as we "modernize."

Not a living soul in sight...

Terrified on the Frontier

Horror, especially American horror stories, like to bring us to a country setting where we find ourselves face to face with an America that "modernism" has "passed by". There's just something quite fearful of the lonely abandon of a prairie or a corn field that just makes you look over your shoulder in fear. These kinds of horror settings bespeaks of a people who've not completely lost that sense of the "frontier nation" that it once was. Frontiers were desolate, lonely, and arguably scary places to live. You didn't know whether you would be killed by a mountain lion or a bear, or some other creature yet unknown to man. Although the surroundings have changed, the expectation that the "lonely frontier" is a "scary place to live" hasn't yet left the American national psyche. As such, Americans will always find lonely places in the country somewhat terrifying.

Do you know what lurks in the shadows?
Scared in the City
What can beat the loneliness of the frontier? How about the loneliness of being and insignificant person in a vast sea of a million other people. Here we return to the gothic urban environment first created by Victor Hugo and other Romantics of the 19th Century. The truly gruesome horror though coming from London, England as the ultimate gothic city. There's just something about walking amongst a somewhat busy street in the middle of a London fog at night which is at once lonely and terrifying. You never know if one of the hazy shadows in front of you could be the mass murderer who's killed several other people, or perhaps a beggar with a knife. There are of course more modern ways to approach terror in a city, with the gaps in light between street lights, the utter abandon of streets at night, and the wailing sound of police sirens not too far off.

Horror has had many phases and covers a wide range of fears, but one thing is always gives us, no matter what the subject may be is a sense of having purged our fears through shock and awe. And one thing we've learned is that it doesn't necessarially take much--the same effect can be achieved with relatively little frills, and done well. Ultimately Horror is about the catharsis we get from the set ups and pay offs and everything else is just icing on the cake.