Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reflections on Classic Horror

Years ago, I attempted to teach a unit on horror to a class of college freshmen. It was an unmitigated disaster. We watched the 1941 Universal horror classic, The Wolf Man, in class, and the students complained as though they had all been scheduled with lengthy dentist appointments. Their objections were endless: it wasn't scary, it was too slow, it was in (gasp!) black and white! After the movie they suggested that their primitive ancestors might have found The Wolf Man scary because people didn't know anything about good special effects then, or because, way back in 1941, people still believed in werewolves.

Yes, they actually said that, and, yes, I wept for the future. The anecdote suggests the need to answer some questions about classic horror movies. Are they supposed to be scary? What did the people who saw them when they were new think about them? Why don't we find them scary today?

It's important to dispel the whole "ignorance of good special effects" myth right away. Early filmmakers saw their medium as a bold frontier, and anything was possible. They were capable of creating dazzling effects without a single computer. I can think of no better example than the winged monkeys of The Wizard of Oz (1939). They have continued to terrify children and disturb adults for seventy years. Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West is pretty darn scary, too, but those monkeys just give people the chills.

Granted, The Wizard of Oz is not technically a horror film, but what about Nosferatu (1922), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and Freaks (1932)? The first two films use incredible make-up effects to create unparalleled spectacles of deformity, while the third one skips the whole idea of artifice and shows us the real thing. One can certainly argue that some films have not fared as well, and their effects can look dated to the sophisticated twenty-first century eye, but many early films reveal a level of creativity rarely seen in movies today, and it's clear that they could and did put make-up, costuming, and effects of all kinds to very good use.

What did the original viewers think? People passed out in droves at the first screenings of Eyes Without a Face (1960), much to the director's delight, and the makers of Freaks were sued by one woman who claimed that the film had caused her to have a miscarriage. As a whole, people enjoyed horror movies, but certainly not because they believed that Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's monster were real. Partly they loved the actors who disappeared into those fascinating roles, and partly they loved the fun of a harmless thrill.

They wanted to be pleasurably frightened, but they did not want to be traumatized or assaulted by what they saw. With World War II and plenty of visceral horror out in the real world, people of that era didn't seem to feel any need to see the minutiae of human anatomy dissected for them on screen. There's a now famous scene in Frankenstein (1931), in which the monster drowns a little girl, that was cut from the final release version of the film. It was considered too awful for people to see; it represented a line that the film could not cross without losing its original audience. Clearly, the threshold for what constituted the horrific was much lower then than it is today.

Even more important is the fact that early horror films simply rely on a different aesthetic and dramatic foundation than most modern examples of the genre. The roots of these films lie in the nineteenth century, in the Romantic and Gothic literary movements, where the idea of terror exists in tandem with beauty and awe. It's no accident that both Frankenstein and Dracula were novels from this period long before they were films, and other movies drew their material from works by Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Hugo, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The key concept here is that of the "sublime," in which subjects are drawn to things that evoke both terror and awe, like mountains, oceans, and vast deserts. In early horror, the monsters and supernatural events become the embodiments of the sublime; they both fascinate and terrify, attract and repel. It's this understanding of the sublime and its psychological force that makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) so brilliant.

Furthermore, the early films borrow psychological complexity from their literary forebears; characters struggle against their monstrosity, grappling with destiny itself, and in doing so they symbolize the universal experience of inner conflict. William Godwin had done a very good job illustrating this struggle in Caleb Williams way back in 1794, but we see it worked out beautifully in horror classics like Dracula's Daughter (1936), The Wolf Man (1941), and Cat People (1942), just to name a few.

Classic horror films do not, in general, bludgeon the viewer with their terrors; they brush against the psyche with the subtlety of a moth's wing. They are less scary, perhaps, but they are more elegant and thoughtful. I am very fond of quite a few modern horror films, but the ones I like take their cues from the classics. True horror fans appreciate those early films as well as their descendants, and they understand that terror can take many different forms, not merely that of a disfigured maniac wielding a large, sharp weapon. Those old movies reveal their macabre charms to the viewer who is wise enough to see them.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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