THIS HALLOWEEN BRINGS all manner of scary treats for viewers looking for something to provide the occasional nightmare. Paranormal Activity 4, the latest of the Paranormal Activity films franchise was released on October 17 . But after looking at the ad for the film – which features cinemagoers petrified, screaming in their seats – the question has to be asked: Why do audiences flock to horror movies in droves and what do they say about us?
In Stephen King’s fascinating study of the genre, Danse Macabre, he suggests that there’s something therapeutic about these big-screen terrors. They hit on “pressure points… terminals of fear… so deeply buried and yet so vital that we may tap them like artesian wells — saying one thing out loud while we express something else in a whisper”.
Historically, the evidence supports his observation. Horror movies tend to perform better in a recession. Often movie-makers who have made productions on a budget have had the most success. Studios like these films because they can be produced on relatively tiny budgets when compared to other movie franchises. The budget for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D is estimated at $8 million. Saw 3D cost $17million. That’s pocket change when compared to the cost of Skyfall or The Dark Knight Rises, so the studios can afford to take a gamble on these films that can still turn a profit, even if they don’t perform spectacularly.
However, many of these films do, raking in massive amounts of money – often in the face of the harshest possible critical reviews. The Exorcist is a high-profile example. A film now widely regarded as a modern classic, The Exorcist was once attacked by the New York Times as setting “a new low for grotesque special effects”, calling to mind many of the criticisms leveled at modern “shock and gore” horror films. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead was infamously banned in Ireland, one of the so-called “video nasties.” Perhaps there is a reluctance to acknowledge the craft of making a horror movie, and perhaps the Saw, Paranormal Activity and Human Centipede films are the horror classics of tomorrow.
Economic horror or horror that reflects the mood of a nation is indeed a factor also. Indeed, the most iconic of the Universal monster movies were all produced during the Great Depression, with films including Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong emerging as things were getting bad. The next generation of horror came about during the 1970s, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre arriving in 1974 – smack bang in the middle of the 1973-75 recession.
Authors like King and John Kenneth Muir point to 1970s films like The Amityville Horror as being anchored in a sense of economic horror, reflecting the concern and fear felt by many families at the time. “In terms of the times – 18 percent inflation, mortgage rates out of sight, gasoline selling at a cool dollar forty a gallon – The Amityville Horror, like The Exorcist, could not have come at a more opportune moment,” King argues.
While most families worried about paying the mortgage, haunted houses make that fear more literal, more visceral. That massive investment might (literally) be the death of you. It isn’t too surprising then, in this type of horror has seen its stock rise in this era of mortgage crisis and bank debt.
This year saw the release of House at the End of the Street and Silent House. As the titles imply, both films centre on horror within a family home, and are firmly anchored on the property. Indeed, both were filmed in 2010, but only released this year; perhaps suggesting the public at large was “ready” for that type of horror. Indeed, audiences can look forward to two separate Amityville reboots in the hazily-defined future, with Amityville: The Legacy 3D and Amityville Horror: The Lost Tapes originally scheduled for 2012 releases, but currently without a defined release date.
In his fascinating essay, Popular Culture and the Stock Market, Bob Prechter suggested that the horrors of the day were reflected on the big screen. He said:
In the 1930s, Dracula was a fitting allegory for the perceived fear of the day, that the aristocrat was sucking the blood of the common people. In the 1970s, horror was perpetrated by a group eating people alive, not an individual monster. An army of dead-but-moving flesh-eating zombies devouring every living person in sight was a fitting allegory for the new horror of the day – voracious government and the welfare state – and the pressures that most people felt as a result. The nature of late 1970s warfare ultimately reflected the mass-devouring visions, with the destruction of internal populations in Cambodia and China.
You could argue that the rise of the “slasher” film reflected fear of anonymous urban violence. If this is the case, what does our recent spate of horror films say about our culture? Does the surge in “found footage” horror (Paranormal Activity, Quarantine, Grave Encounters) suggest a fear of a surveillance culture, the notion that we are constantly being documented, observed, recorded? Does the increase in religious-themed horror (The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism) suggest a modern insecurity about faith in an increasingly secularised culture?
We may protest a culture of remakes and sequels in horror cinema, but this has always been the case. Universal drove their horror brands into the ground by teaming them up with Abbot and Costello. Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween both ran through enough sequels to make Paranormal Activity 4 seem a modest accomplishment.
Occasionally, the results somewhat justified it, with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare serving as an underrated forerunner to his celebrated Scream. Most of the time, these sequels wind up in bargain-basement DVD baskets – if they don’t start there. One thing is for sure though. Given the economic forecast, these films are unlikely to be going anywhere.