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Horror Films Still Scaring –- and Delighting –- Audiences

By Chad Austin, NC State News Services

Horror films – like the creatures appearing in them – just won’t die.

Freddy Krueger terrorized the dreams of teens on Elm Street for almost a decade. Jason Voorhees eventually took his hockey mask and machete to outer space after hacking up counselors at Camp Crystal Lake for 20 years. Even Michael Myers spent about eight Halloweens stalking his victims from behind his eerie, white, expressionless mask.

And just like the iconic characters of the slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s, the horror genre always finds a way to rise from the dead. Although the tone and tenor of scary movies have evolved over time, their popularity dates back to the 1920s with the German silent film Nosferatu and the 1930s with Universal Studio’s classic monster entries like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.

If you love horror films ...
Check out Dr. Maria Pramaggiore's list of lesser-known films that are sure to please and petrify.

“It’s one of the longest-lived and most popular genres,” says Dr. Maria Pramaggiore, associate professor and director of the film studies program in NC State’s Department of English. “It fades and resurges, but there is always an audience for horror films.”

Part of the allure of horror films is that everyone loves a good scare. The quickened pulse, increased heart rate, goose bumps, thrills and chills are all OK when you know the true terror lurks on the other side of the screen. But a really good horror film can bring our deeper, more intrinsic fears to the surface.

“Certainly people like to be startled, surprised and scared, but some people argue that the lasting power of horror films is that they touch these primal fears that we all have,” Pramaggiore says. “Film scholars also argue that at the same time, they are also providing a cultural critique.”

Anxieties about life and death, the nature of evil, and what it means to be human are among the questions that some critics say horror films explore. The probing questions and social commentary can be traced throughout the history of the horror genre.

The 1950s saw a merger between the science fiction and horror genres that produced titles like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Set against the backdrop of the atomic age and the Cold War, such films dealt with humanity’s struggle with external threats from aliens and monsters from other worlds.

Psychological thrillers were popularized in the 1960s with films like Psycho and Peeping Tom, which suggested that evil could be lurking right around the corner. One of the influences of George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was the increased use of blood and gore, which became a staple of the slasher films of the 1970s and ’80s. Some critics say the violence represented in horror films of the late ’60s and early ’70s like Texas Chainsaw Massacre are reflective of the Vietnam War and youth counterculture of this time.

Recent entries into the genre include films like Scream and Scary Movie that mix tried- and-true horror formulas with comedic elements. Those themes seemed to have run their course, and Pramaggiore says she isn’t sure what current societal fears and issues horror films might try to prey on next.

“We have the contemporary social concerns about terrorism and privacy being invaded that may filter out in horror films, but I’m not sure how that will play out,” Pramaggiore says. “How do you deal with such a horrific, real-life scenario like Sept. 11? There’s almost a sense of distance and respect in dealing with these traumas that people feel are national traumas.”

Whatever the direction, horror fans will be watching and waiting to be scared.

“A good horror film has to do more than pull out some shocks every few minutes,” Pramaggiore says. “It has to hit us in a place that speaks to us about things that really do frighten us.”
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