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The Shower Scene from Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho (1961)
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Imagine a boring Saturday afternoon. You turn on the TV and find there a film that you’ve never seen before. You’ve missed the title, but decide to watch it nevertheless. During the next two hours you witness a damsel in distress, an evil villain, and the death of several people. By the end of the story, you have probably already determined, in a rather unambiguous manner, that you’ve been watching a horror, crime, or western genre effort.


Arguably, such a verdict is grounded on our previous experience as cinemagoers. Indeed, after years of watching a wide variety of films we become aware of clichés and other recurrent visual and/or narrative elements. As a matter of fact, this knowledge is required not only to categorize, but also to recognize the aesthetic qualities of the effort we have just watched. Such a complex intertextuality means that our appreciation of a film at any given moment depends, in a rather intricate manner, on other movies, magazines, and books that have been available to us in the past. Thus, the full meaning we assign to a film, or to any other cultural product for that matter, depends on our cultural background.


In particular, we know that we are watching a horror film, mostly because we have seen horror films before and we know what they are all about. Such an empirical conceptualization and categorization probably is enough to get us through life, to communicate with others about our interests, or to help us choose the movies we want to see or avoid. However, if we have more than a casual interest in the genre, and we want to provide an objective, all-encompassing, sound, timeless, and reliable definition of what exactly a horror film is, then we face insurmountable challenges.


Defining horror, or any other cinematic genre for that matter, is a rather complex problem that has preoccupied critics, scholars, academics, fans, and even filmmakers and distributors for many decades.  In an attempt to shed some light on these issues, this installment of Dread Reckoning will take a glance at some of the problems encountered when we attempt to give meaning to the words: “horror film”.


To begin with, one could argue that generic names such as horror, science fiction, or western are mere labels used to categorize subject matter. So, if we envision a structural approach where we designate a list of characteristic elements to each label, then it would appear trivial to assign one label to each movie. However, this labeling system is likely to be completely subjective. That is, the list of those structures that distinguish the horror film is bound to be dissimilar from person to person, and across different historical periods.


Thus, we need to be rather concrete and think about general traits instead of specific details. In this regard, perhaps the easiest way to attempt to define horror cinema is by its characteristic iconography. Arguably, the imagery and symbolism most recurrent in movie macabre centers around a monster—a creature different from “us” that transgresses biological or physical boundaries. But this is not enough: to prevent Superman and E.T from becoming horror movies, we probably want to add the requirement that these monsters need to challenge our cultural and moral values, becoming a threat to the natural and social order. 


Some of the early historians of the genre embraced this definition of horror film. For instance, Carlos Clarence in An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films (1967), Dennis Gifford in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), and William K. Everson in Classics of the Horror Film (1974), clearly stipulated that horror films are required to have a fantastic element in its narrative. For these authors, movies about vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens, ghosts, and other supernatural entities were obvious members of the genre. Even the eminent film scholar Noel Carroll relies on this definition in his groundbreaking study of the genre The Philosophy of Horror (1990).


The main problem with this understanding is rather trivial to observe. That is, undisputable classics such as Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Friday the 13th do not feature otherworldly monsters, and therefore they do not satisfy our structural requirement to become horror films. Clearly, this conclusion is in conflict with the most recent studies of the genre by Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) and Cynthia Freeland in The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (2000), and with the personal experience of most moviegoers.


Arguably, such an oversight on the early film books was due to historical reasons: Clarence, Gifford, and Everson published their books before movies with serial killers and psychopaths became popular during the mid to late 1970s. Of course one could amend this omission by allowing “human monsters” into our definition of horror films. Unfortunately, in this case the genre becomes too broad as we would have to include movies in the vein of Dirty Harry, Black Sunday, and Die Hard, as well as TV shows such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.


Once more, we could attempt to correct our definition by claiming that a horror film has to gravitate towards the suffering of the victims, and not on the police procedures used to trap the monsters. But then again, horror favorites such as The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en would remain outside the genre, while a wide variety of real life dramas would satisfy the new requirements.


Similarly, movies often labeled as horror such as Jaws, Anaconda, and Snakes on a Plane, would not be considered in this category because their monsters are real life animals with no fantastic elements. And perhaps more dramatic, there are films such as The Final Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Sorum, and several adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s works that feel as if they should belong to horror, but do not present any type of monsters or creatures. Obviously, a definition of the genre based on its monsters has to be fine tuned for a wide variety of films, which is an unacceptable feature from a formal theoretical perspective.


Likewise, we could think about characterizing the horror film by its visual structure. For instance, bleak images of gothic spaces, graveyards, and decrepit churches appear to be characteristic. But then again, we can also find this imagery in non-macabre efforts such as David Lean’s Great Expectations, Luis Bunuel’s The Discrete Charm of Bourgeoisie, as well as in several entries from Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre. And in any event, horror movies may take place in brightly illuminated suburban spaces such as the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, the wilderness of a tropical jungle in Predator, or in the vast desolation of an American desert in The Hills Have Eyes.


We could also argue that genres such as horror, comedy, or porn could be categorized by the physiological reactions they have on the audience (fear and revulsion, laugh and giggles, and sexual arousal, respectively). But this is an equally problematic scheme. For instance, a WWII film about Nazi racial policies such as The Pianist is likely to be terrifying, but it is doubtful that it should belong to the horror genre. On the other hand, Re-Animator, Bad Taste, and Evil Dead 2 are classic horror movies made with the express purpose of making us laugh at the many onscreen excesses. And ultimately, the physiological response of the viewer may be based on his psychological character and cultural background, making this system completely subjective.


In addition to these complexities, we also have to account for films that appear to belong to more than one genre. Consider the case of generic hybrids such as Alien and Frankenstein. Their transgressive and aberrant creatures are more than enough to make them horror flicks. But in addition, because Alien takes place inside a spaceship in some distant future and Frankenstein showcases the results of science gone awry, they both neatly fall into the science fiction category. More sophisticated instances of generic mixtures include Angel Heart (horror and film noir) and Westworld (horror, science fiction, and western). In this regard, perhaps a more difficult question is to attempt to decide if, for example, Alien is more horror than science fiction, or vice versa.


Clearly, all these intricacies reveal that cinematic genres are not rigid, absolute, hermetic, and immutable. Instead, a genre appears to be a fluid and permeable intertextual cultural construction. As we will see in the next installment of Dread Reckoning, this means that generic conventions are continuously revised and updated, and a classification that makes sense at some point in history may become problematic a few years later.

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


Dread Reckoning
18 Jan 2010
As the new millennium accelerates we witness our world consumed by an international economic crisis fueled by unrestricted consumption and greed. Hence, the relevance of Stephen King's 'Needful Things'.
26 Oct 2009
Profondo Rosso, the Dario Argento store in Rome, hints at a dramatic cultural shift taking place in Italy regarding the appreciation and analysis of classic Italian horror films.
20 Sep 2009
Western culture’s perspective of torture is complex and paradoxical; it's considered immoral, illegal, primitive, and indecent, yet it's shocking to see that torture methods continue to be used in the interrogation of prisoners of war.
29 Jul 2009
The country that is producing high quality fear flicks these days is not in North America nor anywhere in Asia, but in Western Europe.
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