“Horror stories give us a way of exhausting our emotions around social issues, like a woman’s right to an abortion, which I always thought was the core of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ or the backlash against feminism which I always thought was the core to ‘Stepford Wives.’ ” – Chuck Palahniuk
Here’s a list of ten of the most influential and critically acclaimed horror films released since 1960. Take a look and see if there are any noticeable commonalities.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Omen (1976)
The Shining (1980)
There are many more that can be added to the list, some of which may contain one of the elements about to be discussed (films like The Thing (1982), Poltergeist (1982), The Fly (1986) along with films that may have been spawned by these such as the Friday the 13th series, not to mention the numerous sequels and many other, arguably lesser films of the genre), but for the sake of talking points we’ll keep the discussion to this list.
Need a hint? A number of the films listed center around, or have in the case of Night of the Living Dead prominently figure into one scene, a child which speaks to the presence of “the family” – or for the specific intent of this article, the disintegration or decaying of the American family and its ideology. Whereas the 1950’s gave us television shows like Lassie and Leave it to Beaver with their wholesomeness, the 60’s film era ushered in a very different perspective of the family, particularly with regards to the horror film. As Chuck Palahniuk suggested in his opening quote, much of horror is reflected upon social issues of a time and taken collectively, the list of films represents, to some degree, the family as a dysfunctional group that either is subsequently the cause for horror or subjected to it by one of its members.
In his excellent article, “An introduction to the American horror film,” the late film critic Robin Wood discussed “the process whereby horror becomes associated with its true milieu, the family, is reflected in its steady geographical progress toward America:
In the Thirties, horror is always foreign. The films are set in Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue), Middle Europe (Frankenstein, Dracula) or on uncharted islands (Island of Lost Souls, King Kong); it’s always external to Americans, who may be attacked by it physically but remain (superficially, that is) uncontaminated by it morally. The designation of horror as foreign stands even when the ‘normal’ characters are Europeans. In Murders in the Rue Morgue, for example, the young couples, though nominally French, are to all intents and purposes nice clean-living Americans (with American accents); the foreignness of the horror characters is strongly underlined, both by Lugosi’s accent and by the fact that nobody knows where he comes from. The foreignness of horror in the Thirties can be interpreted in two ways: simply, as a means of disavowal (horror exists, but is un-American), and, more interestingly and unconsciously, as a means of locating horror as a ‘country of the mind,’ as a psychological state: the films set on uncharted (and usually nameless) islands lends themselves particularly to interpretation of this kind.”
While Alfred Hitchcock touched upon the family as a source of horror in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, it wasn’t until the release of Psycho in 1960 that American audiences began to truly see horror as entertainment through the context of the family. Inspired by the Ed Gein murders, as was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fourteen years later, the film stripped away the notion of horror being foreign, replacing it with the ideology of the disintegrating family making it much more immediate and frightening due to our new sense of vulnerability as we learn those closest to us are the ones who have the ability to hurt us the most.
Aiding in this sense of immediacy with horrors of the family is the fact that, taken into account “the home” is generally perceived as a place of safety, there’s simply no place to run and no place to hide resulting in a sense of dread and claustrophobia. This is turn speaks to some of the elements discussed in the previous article about cognitive dissonance: the place that we believe to be the safest and full of love and warmth is proven to be filled with repressed secrets and horrors, especially in the case of Hitchcock’s Psycho in which case if home is where truly where the heart is, then inevitably horror resides deep within the fabric of our very souls…something to be explored in Part. II.
Robin Wood discusses this notion of home further in his essay with regards to the other Ed Gein inspired film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
The image of the “Terrible House” stems from a long tradition in American (and Western capitalist) culture. Traditionally, it represents an extension or “objectification” of the personalities of the inhabitants. Massacre offers two complementary “terrible houses”: the once imposing, now totally decayed house of Franklyn’s and Sally’s parents (where we keep expecting something appalling to happen), and the more modest, outwardly spruce, inwardly macabre villa of the monstrous family wherein every item of decor is an expression of the character’s degeneracy [which is another great exemplification of setting as an extension of character’s mind]. The borderline between home and slaughterhouse (between work and leisure) has disappeared–the slaughterhouse has invaded the home, humanity has begun literally to “prey upon itself, like monsters of the deep.” Finally, what the “terrible house” (whether in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, in Psycho, in Mandingo, or here) signifies is the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future–an idea beautifully realized in the shots that starts on the ominous grey, decayed Franklyn house and tilts down to show Kirk and Pam, dwarfed in long shot, playing and laughing as they run to the swimming-hole, and to their doom.
[It’s worth noting Robin Wood’s article was written back in the 1970’s, so the significance of the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation is something that probably holds more truth today with the nation’s debt and prior generation’s decision making leaving many to fear they may very well be the first not to out-earn their parents (which calls into question why more films don’t explore this since of growing dread and indebtedness to the point it infringes upon free will to some extent, particularly to the endeavor of “enslavement” to various systems and/or lifestyles.)]
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, preceding Massacre by six years, takes Wood’s notion of “dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation” and makes it both literal – the dead coming back to life to kill (and consume) the still living – and ironic in one notorious taboo scene involving matricide where the young girl, Karen, comes back to life and murders her mother. That it happens in what turns out to be the safest part of the house – the basement – only adds to the film’s many moments of irony as she was put there having fallen sick. Though not the first film to feature the embodiment of an “evil child,” it remains perhaps one of the most powerful scenes due again to a bit of cognitive dissonance and what we tend to hold true of human nature, that the mother will go to the greatest lengths to protect their child from harm, here becomes inhuman and representative of the family’s destruction from within by what was previously considered “innocent” – a theme that weighs heavily with many of the films on this particular list from the 1970’s.
Of course this isn’t the only instance of the family “cannibalizing” one another in Night of the Living Dead: there’s also the iconic opening where Johnny taunts his sister Barbara about their days visiting the cemetery in the past. Claiming one of “them” is coming upon them, Johnny mockingly flees, leaving a vulnerable Barbara to find out they really are coming to get her. His attempts to fight the dead off unsuccessful, Johnny falls victim…only to reappear at the film’s climax when the house is under attack, surprising his sister in an otherwise nihilistic-attack (really, if having the house proven to be unsafe wasn’t bad enough, Barbara’s left with the realization that nobody – not even your loved ones – can help you.)
Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie, and Halloween all represent a motif of evil being born into the family – destroying it from the inside out – while also playing toward strong religious overtones though Halloween is certainly more suggestive. Dr. Loomis, as the story’s principle voice of authority, sounds much less a psychiatrist than he rambling lunatic himself spouting off about Michael Myer’s having “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes,” but this also happens to demonstrate the importance of perspective and imbedding your audience into a character’s shoes by having them experience the world through their eyes (imagine watching Halloween without the character of Dr. Loomis – would the scenes with Michael stalking Laurie Strode be nearly as effective without our knowing what she does not?)
Michael himself inexplicably kills his older sister at the beginning of the film, leaving the motif unanswered – something that makes the original film all the more creepier as opposed to all of the inferior sequels that try to rationalize and explain his origins; as noted in the previous article’s opening quote from H.P. Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Demystification works counter to involving the audience’s greatest asset: their imagination.
As such, Halloween uses small doses of cognitive dissonance to explore whether “The Boogeyman” really exists in the form of Michael Myers. Robin Wood’s essay further discusses Halloween‘s familial aspect with this interesting reading of the film:
The basic premise of the action is that Laurie is the killer’s real quarry throughout (the other girls merely distractions en route), because she is for him the reincarnation of the sister he murdered as a child (he first sees her in relation to a little boy who resembles him as he was then, and becomes fixated on her from that moment). This compulsion to reenact the childhood crime keeps Michael tied at least to the possibility of psychoanalytical explanation, thereby suggesting that Donal Pleasance may be wrong. If we accept that, then one tantalizing unresolved detail becomes crucial: the question of how Michael learned to drive a car. There are only two possible explanations: either he is the devil, possessed of supernatural powers; or he has not spent the last nine years (as Pleasance would have us believe) sitting staring blackly at a wall meditating further horrors. (It is to Carpenter’s credit that the issue is raised in dialogue, not glossed over as an unfortunate plot necessity we aren’t supposed to notice; but he appears to use it merely as another tease, a bit of meaningless mystification.) The possibility this opens up is that of reading the while film against the Pleasance character: Michael’s “evil” is what his analyst has been projecting onto him for the past nine years.
Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen take two entirely different approaches to the same topic of “devil child,” the former exploring the couple’s desire to have a baby, the pregnancy and the revelation upon birth whereas the later seems as though it could be a logical progression of the same storyline involving the child’s youth if it weren’t for the change in setting and characters. Nevertheless, both continue Wood’s concept of horror intruding further not only into America, but the home and future (which children often symbolize.)
Likewise, the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist befriends Regan after pretending to be her friend “Captain Howdy” via a Ouija board, opening the door to her possession. Though the film is really a mediation on faith, that a seemingly healthy, young girl would become possessed and do some incredibly personal, horrifying things plays to the film’s point on faith itself – setting up an increasingly dreadful situation for Regan’s mother, herself agnostic and unable to do anything to help her child. That sense of powerlessness in turn speaks to the film’s theme regarding the power of faith, particularly when examined via the story’s main character Father Karras, himself having lost faith after the death of his ill mother. Pazuzu, in turn, uses both these familial weaknesses to attack both Karras and Regan’s mother psychologically while physically manipulating Regan herself.
Carrie meanwhile shows us the realistic horrors of being an outcast teenager during perhaps the most awkward phase of life, the teenage years, while also exploring an oppressive lifestyle at home thanks to an overbearing, abusive and religiously fanatic mother (a fact that undoubtedly casts Carrie herself as a misfit by association – much like Wood noted with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s family home being an expression of the character’s malady, so is the case here.) With Carrie’s sexual awakening comes an awakening of telekinesis…along with her mother’s further damnation of her daughter. While this angle gives the story a supernatural presence that culminates in revenge, it’s the story’s mother/daughter dynamic that’s arguably one of its most horrifying aspects: just as bullying today is prevalent outside of school with little escape, so is the abuse for Carrie as we learn home, and subsequently the family, two elements that should provide a sense of support and sanctuary, prove to be in reality just as horrifying as school – if not more so.
Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Stephen King’s The Shining shows (yet again) what happens when the workplace enters home (or home becomes the workplace), this time exploring the literal effects of “cabin fever” on the Torrance family as Jack uses his job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during the long winter months to work on his second passion: writing…the same thing over and over in different patterns. While Jack slowly loses his mind, we’re provided contrasting perspectives of both son Danny – who harbors the supernatural trait for which the story is named after – and wife Wendy who becomes the target of Jack’s transgressions…all this after Jack is informed early on by the hotel’s manager that a previous caretaker went crazy and slaughtered his family.
Last, but not least, is 1996’s Scream whose plot stems from infidelity and the destruction of one’s family when Sydney’s mother had an affair with her boyfriend Billy’s father, leading to his mother to move out and abandon him. One’s destruction of family deserves another, hence Billy’s (and friend Stuart’s) murdering of Sydney’s mother and framing Cotton Weary.
Half parody and half-tribute, Scream‘s self-referential style works because, by the mid 1990’s, what seemed new and fresh in the 60’s – horror entering the American household and family – had become cliched…something that’s indicative of the lack of films on the list since the 1980’s (another, somewhat related factor being there’s fewer taboos to explore not to mention the studio’s reliance on regurgitating story lines in countless, mostly inferior sequels and endless reboots.)
In each of these films’ cases, the family and its deterioration plays a significant factor in the horrors that unfold on screen. Whether it be through some form of dysfunction (Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining) or incarnation of “evil” through birth or childhood (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie), the stories made the horrors of what once seemed foreign and “elsewhere” all the more immediate and personal by placing them in our very own backyards, home, and family.
Next up: Part II which will re-examine these same films and their other element they share in common which is closely related to “the family”: Identity.