For the film scholar Siegfried Kracauer, German expressionist cinema was both a harbinger and a cause of the rise of fascism in Germany. The films' avoidance of the real world, both visually in the use of stylized studio sets, and narratively in the frequent appearance of monstrous figures like Caligari and Nosferatu who command the will of others, was symptomatic of the German people's turning away from political responsibility and an explanation of their embrace of Hitler. There has been more critical commentary on horror than any other film genre, with the possible exception of the western; and although today Kracauer's interpretations seem rather reductive, they share with all subsequent critical analyses of the genre the fundamental assumption that horror films, like most genre movies, reflect the values and ideology of the culture that produced them. Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for example, about an invasion of alien seed-pods that replace people with emotional replicas, is typically discussed in relation to American contemporary culture in the 1950s. Unlike earlier horror films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers imagines infection on an apocalyptic rather than personal scale, as in the vampire myth, a clear reflection of Cold War fears of nuclear destruction. But even as Americans felt threatened by possible nuclear war and Communist infiltration, the film also expresses a fear of creeping conformism at home. Invasion makes the commonplace seem creepy, and in the climax a mob of plain-looking townsfolk pursue Miles and Becky out of town in a horrific evocation of the kind of witch-hunting mentality witnessed in the United States just a few years before the film's release. The film's ambiguous ending (how could the FBI or anyone possibly contain the pod invasion, which by now has spread much wider than the town of Santa Mira?) initiated a trend that would continue in the revisionist horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, and is indicative of larger cultural tensions.
In a number of essays published in the late 1970s, Robin Wood set the critical agenda for much of the theory and analysis of horror. He offered a structural model of horror, informed by Freudian theory, built around a fundamental binary opposition of normal and monstrous. Wood was responding to the progressive wave of horror films by such directors as Romero, Hooper, Craven, and Cohen. For Wood, "the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization re presses or op presses" (as quoted in Britton et al., p. 10). He argued that the manner in which any given horror narrative resolves this conflict reveals its ideological orientation, and further, that most movies will be conservative, repressing desire within the self and disavowing it by projecting it outward as a monstrous Other. The monster thus is usually understood as the "return of the repressed." This interpretation applies particularly well to horror stories featuring the premise of the beast within, like The Wolf Man (1941) or
the various versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . According to such a reading, the monster (representing a challenge to the dominant values of heterosexual monogamy), must be defeated by the male hero in order for him to take his proper place in patriarchy by successfully pairing with the inevitable female love interest, typically represented as the attractive daughter of the scientist or lovely lab assistant. Horror films such as Frankenstein , Dracula , and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) follow this narrative pattern.
Wood provides a list of specific Others in the horror genre: women, the proletariat, other cultures, ethnic groups, alternative ideologies or political systems, children, and deviations from sexual norms. All of these have been taken up by critics of the genre over the last two decades, although the last category—deviations from sexual norms—has been the one most frequently explored. However, some feminist critics have shown how horror monsters may be read as projections of masculine desire and anxiety over sexual difference. Following from Wood's perspective, many horror films are about anxieties over masculine performance, with women as the victims of male aggression. However, Carol Clover has argued that horror is potentially empowering for women. Her emphasis on the one female, or "final girl," who often survives the killer's rampage in slasher movies, transforming from terrified screamer to active heroine, killing the killer, has influenced numerous readings of horror films from Halloween to Alien (1979) and its sequels. Finally, some readings, such as that offered by Harry Benshoff, find in the genre a consistent monstrous representation of queerness and challenges to normative masculinity.
Perhaps because horror tends to raise questions about gender and its "natural" boundaries, women have been relatively important in the genre, first as consumers of gothic novels and later as makers of horror films. Significantly, although women have found it difficult throughout film history to become directors, they are noticeably prominent in horror film production, as evidenced by Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire (1971) and Terminal Island (1973); Amy Jones's take on the slasher film, The Slumber Party Massacre (written by Rita Mae Brown, 1982); Katt Shea Rubin's two Stripped to Kill movies (1987, 1989) and Poison Ivy (1992); Mary Lambert's two Pet Sematary movies (1989, 1992); Kristine Peterson's Body Chemistry (1990); Fran Rubel Kuzui's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992); Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987); and Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000).
Critics have also examined representations of class and race in horror films. Mark Jancovich has persuasively linked the development of horror to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the dialectic of class. A classic horror film like King Kong (1933) evokes the fear of racial miscegenation in the figure of the dark ape, the beast in love with the (white) beauty, while fundamental to Dracula's appeal is his suave aristocratic bearing. Some late-twentieth-century horror films, such as The People Under the Stairs (1991), Candyman (1992), and Tales from the Hood (1995), covering territory explored only occasionally in earlier films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Blacula (1972), have addressed issues of racial difference in horror. Questions of race in horror emerged with the casting of a black actor as the hero in Night of the Living Dead : killed by redneck vigilantes at the end of the film, his body is unceremoniously tossed onto a bonfire in freeze frames that evoke the contemporary racial violence then erupting across America.
Some critics have extended the psychoanalytic approach to horror beyond the texts themselves to account for the spectatorial pleasures of watching horror films, an act that on the surface might seem inexplicable given that the experience arouses fear rather than pleasure. Critics have also argued that horror films are particularly enjoyed by adolescents because in their awkwardness they can easily empathize with the monsters, who are social outcasts, and because they express in metaphoric form the physical changes—the hairiness of the werewolf, the sexual drive of the vampire—that occur with the onset of puberty. Certainly horror films do function as adolescent rites of passage and socialization, but such theories do not account for the appeal of all horror films. Whatever the particular fears exploited by horror films, they provide viewers with vicarious but controlled thrills, like the fright one gets from an amusement park ride. It is no accident that so many theme park rides are horror oriented. As Bruce Kawin says in his essay "Children of the Light," "A good horror film takes you down into the depths and shows you something about the landscape." Like Charon, who in Greek mythology ferries the souls of the dead, the horror film takes you on "a visit to the land of the dead, with the difference that this Charon will eventually take you home, or at least drop you off at the borders of the underworld" (p. 325).
Benshoff, Harry. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film . Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Britton, Andrew, Richard Lippe, Tony Williams, and Robin Wood. American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film . Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis . London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Grant, Barry Keith, ed. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Grant, Barry Keith, and Christopher Sharrett, eds. Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film , revised ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Huss, Roy, and T. J. Ross, eds. Focus on the Horror Film . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Jancovich, Mark. Horror . London: Batsford, 1992.
Kawin, Bruce. "Children of the Light." In Film Genre Reader III , edited by Barry Keith Grant, 324–345. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre . New York: Everett House, 1981.
Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.
McCarty, John. Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen . New York: St. Martin's, 1984.
Schneider, Steven Jay, and Tony Williams. Horror International . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Waller, Gregory A. American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film . Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch . London: Wallflower Press, 2000.
Barry Keith Grant