Perhaps the biggest problem involved in making a list of the best horror films in the history of cinema is that, in spite of the objective qualifier, we mostly rely on a completely subjective criterion to determine the inclusion or exclusion of a given film. Clearly, such a lack of objectivity is partly due to our scrupulous sense of aesthetics for the beautiful and the macabre.
Furthermore, any critical appraisal of a film is based on a complex, and very personal, intertextuality. That is, all the movies, books, and comics that we have had access to in the past, play a dominant role in our evaluation procedure. Therefore, quite trivially, our cultural background influences our personal preferences.
As a consequence, any list of best horror films, or of any other type of cultural product for that matter, is likely to infuriate a few fans when their most beloved flick is not mentioned. As such, these skewed categorizations written under an objective title always prove to be a futile exercise that usually ends in a flame war.
A similar predicament occurs when we attempt to determine which works are the quintessential American horror films. That is, when we try to find the characteristic elements of this subgenre in order to categorize its most emblematic entries. Once more, our cultural background will dictate our specific choices, but careful analysis is likely to reveal the shortcomings of our classification.
For instance, some fans may rightfully think that the beloved Universal classics made during the 1930s embody the American horror film. After all, not only did Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932) prove to be seminal in the development of fear cinema around the globe, but they continue to be emblematic of the genre and enjoy a sustained interest from fans and academics. In addition, one could argue that the icons that emerged with these movies were generated by the social and economic traumas that the US endured during the ‘20s and ‘30s.
However, if you think about it, these movies are more representative of the European gothic tradition than American culture. The literary origins of these films suggest this much. Indeed, emblematic creatures of this period include Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all of which have their origin in the novels written by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson respectively. As such, in their original form these narratives responded to specific European social and psychological anxieties.
In this regard, it is also important to note that most of the horror films in the Universal series take place in an undisclosed place with clear European traits. In a sense, these American movies suggest that horrors are born in Europe. This specific geographical location of the narratives actually suggests complex subtexts that delve into relevant social disquiet of the period.
Indeed, consider for example how these movies appear to resonate with the generalized discontent that Americans felt towards the way the US was dragged into fighting World War I. For many, WWI was a conflict created by external forces which ultimately led to the death or injury of thousands of innocent American soldiers. Thus, the monsters in ‘30s film become a metaphor for the horrors of war that America found in such far away trenches.
Similarly, we could suggest that the generic hybrids from the ‘50s are representatives of the American horror tradition. Clearly, films such as Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) take place on US soil and quite often the military and scientific establishments were able to confront and destroy these terrifying nightmares. In addition, these movies were metaphors for the ubiquitous menace of communism, and signify the xenophobia and paranoia that engulfed the country during the Cold War years.
But then again, once more we may find it difficult to consider these as truly American monsters. The pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers came from outer space, and the giant ants of Them! are a byproduct of the scientific research made with the goal of fighting international Marxism. In general, we can argue that most of the creatures from these films are the product of external forces, and therefore imported to America.
from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
On the other hand, perhaps the first truly American horror icon was born in 1960, taking the form of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. For all intents and purposes, Bates is a vicious monster born and raised in the US, and a clear reflection of the many social and economical problems that specifically haunted the country during those years. Furthermore, Bates is the product of the archetypal symbol of traditional American culture: the family.
However, it was not until the late ‘60s and ‘70s that this representation of the quintessential American monster truly became popular in movie theaters. Consider how these years witnessed the release of Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), and It’s Alive (Larry Cohen, 1974). The American family institution as a spring from which terrifying fiends emerge is a clear and common trait in all these flicks.
It is important to note that, the emphasis on the family as a source of evil is presented almost in parallel to a strong ideological subtext that dramatically criticized the failures of the US government in the domestic (Watergate affair) and international fronts (the Vietnam Conflict). That is, in these movies, authority figures such as the military, government, and scientific establishments, are presented as ineffective, untrustworthy, and unreliable. Therefore, these films suggest a strong correlation between cultural values and political ideology in America.
In any event, it is perhaps ironic that most of the characteristic ingredients of these quintessential American horror films are perfectly embodied in a famous painting made in 1930. Part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Wood’s American Gothic truly signifies the dark elements that typify the horror films that flourished during the second half of the 20th century.
American Gothic presents the image of a bony and decrepit old man. His distressed eyes look straight at the viewer, and he is holding a pitchfork in front of him. He is accompanied by a much younger woman at his right, who is not looking at the viewer. In the background we can observe a white house built in the distinctive Carpenter Gothic architectural fashion, with a prominent window in the traditional medieval Gothic style. Early in the history of this painting, it often was described as depicting “An Iowa Farmer and His Wife”.
In spite of its structural simplicity, or perhaps because of it, American Gothic has generated a variety of readings and interpretations. For some, this painting is an amusing satire to the narrow minded, puritan, religious, and repressive attitude of Midwestern culture. For others, it is an inspired glorification of the virtues and moral purity of rural America. And for a few more, it is considered a symbol of the relentless hard labor and the indefatigable pioneering spirit that characterize American culture.
Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that American Gothic has become a true cultural icon. Interestingly, this painting shares the two most precious characteristics of modern cultural products: it is popular and it is subversive. Indeed, along with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, this painting is one of the most well known and parodied works of art. And furthermore, Wood received several threats because of his alleged seditious depiction of rural life in the Midwest.
The interpretative ambiguity of American Gothic permits us to consider this painting in relation to the icons and symbols that represent the quintessential American horror film. To this end, let us consider how the man in American Gothic is holding the pitchfork in front of him. A farm instrument with a clear mythical connotation as the weapon of choice of Satan, the pitchfork stands in defiance between the couple and the viewer. By any means, this is a truly intimidating and menacing posture.
Taking place on what appears to be a small Midwest farm, the image is located far away from the civilized world most of us are familiar with. As such, any sense of authority, law, and morality becomes relative to the couple’s personal beliefs. Thus, they look intimidating because they are in control, making the viewer feel as an unwelcomed intruder. In addition, the gothic window of their house symbolizes dark secrets and other hidden horrors. In this regard, the couple’s age difference and the complete ambiguity of their relationship are equally distressing, perhaps suggesting a torrid history of pedophilia or incest.
However, it should not be really surprising that American Gothic appears to invoke horrifying situations. After all, its very title suggests this much. Indeed, the word “gothic” not only represents the architectural style of the couple’s home, which uses a variety of medieval forms and structures. But in addition, gothic stands for the cultural movement characterized by images of death, torture, mutilation, decay, decadence, dark spaces, and the supernatural, which are used to convey a sense of dreadfulness and morbidity.
Therefore, in a very subtle way American Gothic embodies appalling feelings of xenophobia, fear, horror, and paranoia. By granting his painting arresting visual tension and interpretative contention, Wood was able to transform a simple scene of ordinary American life into a showcase of ambiguous readings with rather dark subtexts. As much as American Gothic presents a family of friendly and religious farmers, they can also be mad murderers. In a sense, Wood was able to transform the pioneering American spirit into a cradle of horrors, placing the viewer as a victim and as a witness of such a terrifying metamorphosis.
But then again, this is exactly the same ideological content that characterizes quintessential American horror. Indeed, American Gothic suggests the fragility of family values (as in Night of the Living Dead), the deadly confrontation between the urban and rural worlds (as in The Hills Have Eyes), and the possibility of monsters hidden in the interior of humble American households (as in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).
As a consequence, American Gothic is an elegant representation of the American nightmare: the horrors and monsters that constantly lurk behind the face of normality. Therefore, with American Gothic, Wood was able to create a very dark portrayal of America veiled within a picturesque scene, the exact same way as George Romero, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper did almost 40 years later with their unforgettable movies.
‘God Bless America’ (partial) by J. Seward Johnson