Real World Influence in the Horror Genre
Monsters in horror films come in all varieties—masked killers, power-hungry demons, animals that are stronger than they should be and have a taste for human flesh. We fear them because they’re not like us, because they’re stronger than us, because they don’t care about hurting us—or often they even want to hurt us. Whether the monster is a man chasing a girl with a knife or a ghost slamming doors on the family that just moved in, they’re threatening our ability to control our own lives.
We might not always consider exactly why monsters are scary to us. Horror theorists in the past have suggested several reasons, including evolutionary instinct. Literature and media scholar Mathias Clasen wrote about how fears might arise to protect us from danger. A person in a mask, for example, might spark unease because we’re unable to identify emotions in their expression to prepare for a potential attack.
Dan Heffner, executive producer of the Saw franchise, noted how incorporating common fears can go a long way in ramping up a horror scare. He pointed specifically to a needle pit used in one of Jigsaw’s traps in Saw II.
“The fact is that at least half the population has a fear of needles and syringes,” Heffner said. “[The needle pit] was probably one of the most talked about traps that we had in the franchise because it played into people’s everyday fears, and that’s what we tried to do throughout.”
The Saw films differ from other horror movies in that much of the violence occurs off-screen. Although Jigsaw is in the room with Adam Stanheight and Dr. Lawrence Gordon right from the beginning of the first film, the audience is unaware, and his presence is not the driving threat. In films where the monster’s physical presence is the threat, however, the horror genre has a history of playing on harmful stereotypes.
Christopher Matusiak, associate professor in the Literatures in English department at Ithaca College, has taught a Literature of Horror course since fall of 2019. He agreed that the evolutionary perspective is one persuasive explanation of the effectiveness of monsters.
Matusiak also added another well-known theory by film critic Robin Wood, the idea that the monster is scary to us because it’s “other” in some way: “It’s not necessarily intentional, but the things that are monstrous tend to have inscribed in them the things that we don’t want to admit about ourselves.”
This theory helps explain why it’s common to see a horror film where the villain has a stigmatized condition or disability, or they’re a member of a marginalized group. Take Hitchcock’s film Psycho (1960), which uses Norman Bates’ mental illness as the final shocking reveal. Mental illness is a common mechanism to “other” horror villains to this day, as you might notice with films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016), the main antagonist of which is a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID).
“The highly imaginative and often really exaggerated or hyperbolic nature of the monster is a metaphor,” Matusiak said. “You can adapt or appropriate metaphors for all kinds of different rhetorical purposes and ideological purposes.”
When privileged groups have historically held the power in media-making, it makes sense that their perspective of “other” would point to characteristics of marginalized identities.
You could argue that these fears come from a lack of understanding. Still, horror fiction aligning qualities that stray from the privileged norm with evil and danger seems to make the genre rife with fuel for stigmas and oppression.
After the release of Split in 2016, for example, CNN reported that many Americans with DID were upset by the portrayal of the condition, especially highlighting that people with DID are rarely violent. The film showed an extreme case, and when members of the DID community asked for more accurate information on the condition to accompany the film, creators did not reply. Unless viewers conduct research on their own, they’re left with an incomplete picture that reinforces stigmas attached to mental illness.
At the same time, horror is increasingly becoming a place where inequality and injustice can be explored. Jordan Peele has spoken about working on Get Out (2017) at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death, when Black Lives Matter protests started picking up more media attention.
“I wanted to make a film that acknowledges neglect and inaction in the face of the real race monster,” Peele said to the New York Times in 2017. “In the process, I wanted to give a horror movie to everyone, but really to Black audiences, who are loyal horror fans.”
On horror fans, Heffner pointed out a significant statistic: “The audience for Saw was always eighteen to twenty-five, more heavily women than men, and I always found that very interesting.”
With a young audience and a capacity to take on strong emotions and difficult topics, horror is definitely a genre with the opportunity to create change.
When Matusiak started teaching the Literature of Horror course, he wanted to shift away from horror classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He said that reading literature and watching films by a more diverse group of contemporary creators has been instrumental in curating a more nuanced perspective of the horror monster.
“The major arc of horror so far that we’ve been able to chart is that there was always a thrill in the otherness of the monster, and we’ve always had a mixed reaction to it,” Matusiak said. “But we’re really in our present moment in horror, indulging in an almost glorification of the monster because we recognize ourselves in it…We recognize the kinds of damage we would like to do to a system that’s deeply unjust.”
Matusiak does provide students with content warnings, but he’s noticed that, compared to other courses he teaches, Literature of Horror is a classroom environment where students are more eager to expose themselves to difficult, serious subjects. He thinks this attitude can be a good thing.
“I genuinely, genuinely believe it’s healthy not to ignore the things that trouble you, but rather to try to study them face on,” Matusiak said. “If not face on, then in this artistic and metaphorical way that the horror genre deals with those things.”
Horror is a genre where we can, by facing fear, let some of it out as well, which Heffner also found important.
“I think that the basis of all of the reasons people go to movies is for a release, and I think historically, horror movies have been the most sustainable genre,” Heffner said. “They seem to continue to do well, no matter what’s going on in the world.”
When things feel scary and out of our control, it makes sense that we seek out fear in a safe environment. We may make jokes about how news has become a horror film in itself, but real life genuinely does shape the horror genre and the ways we react to it. By watching that final girl triumph over her masked killer, we can learn how characters confront fear and make new lives in the face of overwhelming loss.
Lorelei Horrell is a fourth-year writing major who knows a lot about the monster hiding under your bed. She can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Selkie Racela.