Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Reflections on Classic Horror
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.
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.
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 Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.