I don’t know if it’s a case of themes running in cycles, or simply being forced to be more aware of trends that always happen, but there’s something that I’ve been noticed lately that has the wheels in my head turning.
Mainly, does the reality of a story somehow make it off-limits, one that isn’t allowed to be treated as horror?
What I’m trying to ask is, does the historical or sociological basis of a piece place it above being used as a horror element?
According to comments that I’ve received, it does. But is that necessarily true?
My first gut reaction is that even if it is inappropriate to use historical elements as horror elements, we’re well past the point where trying to stop it would be ridiculous. The meaning of that statement runs deeper than just the obvious fact that people are doing things like relying on Nazi imagery to make zombie films.
This is where I find topics like the sociology of fear to be especially interesting– part of the way that humans interact with the horrific is by placing it right in front of their faces. Society processes fear by being afraid.
One of the ways that a truly effective horror film works is by envoking images that we know we’re afraid of, but sometimes we don’t want to admit that we’re afraid of; when I first became aware of the term torture p.orn with regards to horror films, it was in analysis that suggested that Hostel and other similar films were popular because of an ingrained zenophobia that society wasn’t ready to address (but one could argue has started to be addressed in the forefront of society) (note: that term isn’t in reference to anything sexual, and that link goes to a New York Magazine entry).
We use fear to talk about fear.
Bosch was painting hell long before Saw went 3D
What does that mean for movies that rely on actual historical realities? This extends to macrolevel events like racism, and more microevents such as true crime.
The immediate thought is that there is something banal about using such images to create horror entertainment, and it’s arguable that they may not even be horror in the first place, even if they’re suggested to be horror or rely on traditional horror images (which is the point that I was trying to make with my review of Older Than America and other such films).
Is that true though? I find it interesting that on one hand, movies should reflect themes that we are familar with- so that we can connect with them- but on the other, there are themes that shouldn’t be used, even if the writer has a personal connection to that theme. It’s okay to support movies that rely on themes like love, but if it’s darker than that, it’s not appropriate.
I understand the logic about profiting from other people’s tragedies, or rather, the logic against such things, but at the same time, horror isn’t the only genre to rely on such things- Saving Private Ryan may have been fictionalized, but the war that it’s set in isn’t.
Rename Ed Gaines Norman Bates, and you have a classic of American cinema
Kindertrauma has a review that I am unable to pull up right now that suggests that one of the reason that people have problems with true crime and similar branches of horror is that there are horrible things that scare us but we can handle because we know it’s not real. On the other hand, there are horrible things that scare us more because we are fully aware, even if we are hesitant to admit it, that there are things that we are all fully capable of doing if pushed too far.
The review was referencing a movie about John Wayne Gacy. It went on to say that such movies can make the viewer nervous because we’re touching on a type of fear that’s completely different from one created by zombies or vampires- this is a fear of things that we know, even if it’s improbable, that could in fact happen to us.
So this brings us to the discussion about if it’s even appropriate to do ‘historical horror’ for lack of a better word, and if such a thing can even exist.
Part of the problem is that I do believe, wholeheartedly, that horror is not a distinct genre. Things can be horrific without being Dracula or Frankenstein, and work on a much subtler level than Saw or Scream. In fact, I personally believe as a fan that as much as I love ‘traditional’ American horror tropes, I think it’s more effective for a film to be rooted in tensions that actually exist.
Is it appropriate, or possible to use history to create horror? In a nutshell, I think that from the standpoint that American society uses horror to challenge the things that scare us headon, yes. I do believe that it should be handled with sensitivity- as much as I love Dead Snow I’m not certain if it would have been as successful as an American film- but I also don’t think that horror is by definition an insensitive genre. If anything, I think that horror may be an exceptionally appropriate locality to examine the parts of our past that are less than pleasant.