|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.|
|Triangles... it's got to be triangles...|
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...|
|Beautiful, but deadly...|
|You never know what could be behind you...|
|They come back, they don't know why, but they do...|
Now that we have the history out of the way, let's talk about some common themes:
|He's not quite dead, yet...|
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...
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?|
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.