Halloween is upon us. The eve of All Hallows’ Day. The sky is overcast. The leaves, adorned with burnt autumnal hues, fall from the trees. Neighborhoods are strewn with pumpkins, skeletons, and plastic graves. Soon the children will scour the streets. In our mass-market post-modern world kids only issue idle threats. Trick or Treat once literal. No more. It is also indeed the ideal season for horror films.
It is no longer Samhain, Halloween’s Celtic precursor that marked the end of the harvest. Pre-Tenth Century, the Celts believed that Samhain was a liminal time – a time when our world and the Otherworld merged. The spirits of the dead were among us. To survive the winter we would have to please them. In the days of Samhain, fear was the key to survival.
Today, fear is escape. Horror is a sensation genre. It is not purely intellectual. The viewer has a visceral reaction. The hairs stand on the back of his neck as his date gropes for his hand. Horror toys with our most primitive coping mechanisms – our survival instinct – our id.
As a mirror to our world, the horror genre is superior to all other forms of narrative cinema. The horror genre has always possessed a sense of freedom in its approach to political or sociological concerns. Horror, which has always been viewed as a base genre – a genre that only titillates and excites – has the ability to dissect society through stories that at first glance seem far separated from every day life.
1950’s horror films focused on fears of the Cold War and atomic power; fears embodied by gigantic irradiated monsters and soul snatching pods. In the 1960’s, horror films focused on alienated youth.
A decade later, the televised carnage of the Vietnam War led to the desensitization and the sadism of such films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972). The slasher craze that began in the 1980s was considered by many societal critics to be archconservative in nature, while others, including genre luminary John Carpenter, viewed the cinematic killers as the personification of a constrictive society bearing down upon and repressing the average suburban teenager. Nevertheless, the majority dismissed them as bloody, exploitive, and even possibly dangerous.
In Scream 4, actress Kristen Bell says, “There’s something really scary about a guy with a knife who just… snaps.” This is exactly the point. There’s something out there in the dark. Something you don’t understand. And there’s no escape.