tutorial notes – 27/6/12

why ‘arresting’ images work ?



Funny games – Michael Hanaka

the white ribbon


horror films – Published in Horror by Katie Parker, on May 23, 2011

“Anti-horror critics have often addressed the question of the likely pleasures afforded by horror by arguing that the only people who could actually enjoy this sort of thing are either sick or stupid, (or both)” (Hutchings: 2004: 83).  How might academics interested in the relationship between horror film and its audiences argue in defence of the pleasures of horror film?


This essay will argue in defence of the horror genre in order to preserve its integrity as one of the most intellectually stimulating genres. The horror genre is possibly the most insightful in terms of psychoanalytical theory, and this essay will investigate this. Theories that will be investigated are those of how these movies unleash our primal instincts, as well as the hypocrisy of Hutchings’ statement as these instincts are supposedly felt by everyone.

The simplest explanation as to “why” people enjoy horror films is to look at “how” they are viewed. Horror films have been increasingly popular throughout the age of cinema, and were one of the first solid genres to come into the limelight. Considered the first horror film, The House of the Devil (1896, Melies), was a silent short which depicted supernatural events with a gothic twist, so it could be argued that the genre was established only one year after the Lumiere brothers held the very first public screening of a movie.

The enjoyment of this genre has been discussed in relation to terror psychology, morbid curiosity and an unconscious likeness to reality. Jacques Ellul states:

“As big city life became for the most part, intolerable, techniques of amusement were developed. It became indispensable to make urban suffering acceptable by furnishing amusements, a necessity which was to assure the rise, for example, of a monstrous motion picture industry.” (1964, pg. 113-4)

Here, Ellul provides evidence of contemporary social theory, using it as a device to define the rise in popularity for the horror genre. And it could thus be argued that a postmodern, cosmopolitan world could provide thirst for distraction.  Tania Modleski provides explanation to the genre’s popularity, describing that one common convention of the genre is open ended narratives. Providing the ending to Carrie (De Palma, 1976) as an example (the hand bursting out of the grave), she explains how horror leaves the audience hanging with unalleviated expectations of closure. She defines this as the key to horror’s financial success at the cinemas, as it leaves room for sequels. However, this essay will investigate a deeper meaning as to why the genre is so popular.

One example as to why it is so popular would be the fantastic – an otherworldly approach to cinema which gives the audience’s imagination more to play with. The term is here explained by Gelder: “We may need to remember that the fantastic was a term long used in derogatory fashion, linked to tasteless and excess, irresponsibility, delusion, even mental derangement.” (Gelder, 2000, pg. 11) This quote from Gelder defines horror in the simplest term: fantastic, or fantasy. The term, as he defines, was long a derogatory term, which begs the question of why it is no longer thought of negatively, especially in defining an apparently “sick” and “stupid” movie genre as a fantasy, the term as we know it defines the “otherworldly” such as supernatural or dreamlike horror, however it clearly has darker undertones due to its past meaning. This past meaning can relate directly to what Hutchings describes the genre as being. This leads to the theory of Oedipal Law as an example – a psychoanalytical term used to define the unconscious and “dynamically repressed” fears, wants and needs of a person in relation to their desire to “possess” their parent of the opposite sex, and “destroy” the parent of the same sex. This relates to Freudian theory on the subconscious, and can be closely related to all things fantastic, as these things are most likely to represent the horrific, repressed and unconscious taboos we all desire. Gelder defines that this Oedipal Law is often used as a basis for psychological founding in horror film and he defines the genre as one of taboos and psychological insight. Although the horror genre may not directly reflect Oedipal Law, it is an example of the psychoanalytical behaviour often related to viewing something deemed “sick”, however this somewhat shallow view of the genre is defended by the theories that can be applied to it in order to explain the possible meaning behind the films such as this.

Freud also spoke of “primal instincts”, something which has been discussed countless times in relation to horror movies, as Gelder continues: “This was precisely why the fantastic was refused entry into the respectable literary field, it was seen as a throwback to premodern times, utterly sensual, without intellectual content.” ( 2000, pg 11.) Although as Todorov argues (indirectly quoted by Gelder):

“The fantastic is not primal and pre-modern at all, but in fact sophisticated enough to stand for the nature of literature itself. It’s project involves not the arousal of primal emotions, but the production of an epistemological, and very modern, problem. The fantastic was defined by the fact that it produced a ‘hesitation’ about the truth or falsehood of phantoms or apparitions. It raised the questions: is my ghost imagined by me, or is it something real? And in doing so it shifted away from conventional views of fantasy as an ‘escape’ from or an ‘alternative’ to or idealization of the world.” (2000, pg. 11)

Here, Todorov doesn’t see the idea of the “fantastic” as a return of primal instincts, but defends it as a very modern problem relating to the nature of literature, as he defines, it promotes hesitation and questioning of thought as a intellectual “escape” or “alternative”. In other words this hesitation and questioning of thought provides a further insight into the psyche of the viewer of these horror films. This is a strong defence of the genre in terms of Hutchings’ comment as the “sick” elements of horror films can merely be defined as thought provoking. Taboos and otherworldly insight provides a foundation of thought on which the filmmakers build on to set the scene. It may be coincidental that gore and violence are also shown in these movies, but this quote defines primal fears provoked from horror as being something which we can learn and grow from intellectually. Speaking of “slasher movies”, Tony Magistrale implies otherwise: “Their violence secretly stimulated antisocial impulses that the audience has been taught to repress.” (2005, pg. 3) Speaking of internal and potentially unconscious, repressed feelings, Magistrale here, attempts to define the “slasher” film’s popularity as a generally accepted and guilt-free outlet for these repressed taboos, however this point would not necessarily defend the genre as it could then be said that these filmspromote violence to those who repress these feelings – although as a counter-argument, Magistrale and Freud would agree that everyone has these feelings, thus making Hutchings’ theory hypocritical.

“Otherworldlyness” is a key term relating to the fantastical elements of horror, as Todorov explains above, the blends between worldly and otherworldly in horror films is elusive (“is my ghost imagined by me, or is it real?”). This acts as a strong defence for the horror genre as it defines the whole as both a conscious and subconscious feeling that every human being is aware of. Dreams, or even nightmares (as is the case with most horror films) bring these ideas to the forefront of our minds, and provide a logical and intellectual theory to the pleasures of these types of films – an outward expression of socially unaccepted ideals. The symbolic order is a theory with which Copjec defines the otherworldly horror film as a means of escape. The symbolic order is what she defines simply as the order of events in horror and specifically how this can relate to the mind’s distraction from the real:

“The symbolic order defends against the real by substantifying its negation in the interdictions and doubts that define symbolically as such. We have thus described the space of the second half of Freud’s dream as an Oedipalized space both because it instantiates an avoidance of the real, a desire not to know anything about it.” (Copjec, 2000, pg. 55).

This explains how insight into the subconscious can be established while offering a distraction from the real, much as horror films tend to do, although the question still stands, if escapism is such a major factor, then why escape into something often shocking, violent and frightening? This defends the genre in the same way that Magistrale’s comment does – the genre works as a guilt free expression of these feelings.

Copjec states that anxiety is a signal of danger, and yet it works without the use of signifiers. She says that it is not caused by lack of objects, but a lack of lack. (pg. 53) in other words, it is a failure of the “symbolic reality”, where obtainable objects can be constituted and that perhaps because of its lack of a signifier, anxiety is caused differently to different people. The term “lack of lack” defines the uncomforting aura that horror movies can produce with the unflinching cinematography and gore, and Copjec goes on to explain, it is this anxiety that returns audiences to the cinemas for horror movies as she quotes Foucault’s explanation that laws are made to be broken. This relates directly to the unconscious as previously discussed, as well as the otherworldly. A return to the cinemas is a return to a primal and perhaps pre-modern feeling of self as “monstrous” and anti-social behaviour and feelings are released through the viewing of the films. This is not to say that horror promotes violence in its audience, although the questioning of reality, thoughts and repressed feelings is said to be promoted through supernatural horror which in itself defines the genre as one of great intellectual thought, meaning audiences who enjoy horror cannot possibly be “stupid”.

Mark Seltzer defines interest in slasher movies as “morbid curiosity”, something heavily studied by Freud as a healthy interest into the outrageous. Serial killers have always been “newsworthy” and have appeared in the press as long as records go back, Seltzer says, which is a possible reason for its rise in popularity in movies, although as Freud theorized on the socially repressed, he deemed this interest an investigation into the violent capabilities that we all have. Although we may not all be serial killers, Freud defined “morbid curiosity” as an interest into what would happen if we were “uncivilized”. Bryant and Vorderer define morbid curiosity as a thirst for knowledge, something which may have been teasing us on the television (a fleeting and “child-friendly” view of violence) or something which has even stemmed from a common taboo. “There are several correlations between sensation seeking and scales expressing general curiosity about sexual events and curiosity about morbid events, as well as actual attendance at horror films of the ‘slasher’ variety and X-rated sexual films.” (2006, pg. 375) Here, the authors couple horror with another great taboo, X-rated movies, and suggest that the reason for continuous viewership is a general thirst for both knowledge and “sensation seeking”. They suggest that people want to feel certain emotions, even fear, anxiety or sorrow, possibly for reasons stated by Magistrale previously, as a way to express these repressed emotions in a safe and guilt-free way. Annette Hill carried out a study of violent and shocking cinema to ask this same question, and received a variety of responses. One which seems crucial to this exploration was by Participant 4 – FC6:

“I can just feel a prickly sensation on my neck, feel the colour just draining out of you. I mean it’s just awful. There is a slow, really obvious build up to the film – you know what’s going to happen, you just know you can’t stop it. It’s kind of fascinating.” (1997, pg. 187).

The number of negative words in the explanation should define a general disliking for the horror genre, although this participant goes on to state that they enjoyed the movie. Hill defines this behaviour and reaction as something which may be described as a rehearsal of emotions. People seem to enjoy being scared in a safe environment, which could bring back ideas of “primal instincts”. Andrew Tudor provides a good example of this when speaking of serial killers in horror films: “They are victims of overpowering impulses that well up from within; monsters brought forth by the sleep of reason, not by the dangerous excesses of human passion.” (1991, pg. 185). The direct commentary from common film audiences supports the ideas of morbid curiosity as a thirst for knowledge and thus defends the genre as an intellectual source of entertainment.

Another reason why horror film is a rich source for cultural studies analysis is that the 1970s and 1980s saw a dramatic rise in popularity for horror films which, could be because of the social and political context of the time. This thirst for distraction as defined by Ellul, provides grounds for its rise in popularity. Andrew Tudor shows in a case study, the popularity of “slasher” movies rose greatly in the 1970s and 1980s. This could be for many reasons, although one way to analyse this growth would be to analyse the political and social context of the time. These times were especially iconic for the changing representations and views on minorities, at the time commonly believed to be black people, homosexuals and often women. The Otherness theory is one often associated with horror movies as the minorities or even the “frightening” things to society are often deemed monstrous and can therefore be interpreted as these monsters in the films (Magistrale, 2005, pg 3). Christensen (1994) speaks of the civilized/uncivilized Other and self which leads to an interesting theory of “Zombification”. This is simply a tool of analysis for horror movies which has supported academic theory within the horror industry. This “Zombification” relates directly to movies such as Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978), as Reynold Humphries (2005, pg. 38-9) provides this as an example into Marxist and capitalist theory. The zombies are seen as humans consumed with their desire to consume, thus keeping the Hierarchy and capitalist system moving. Humphries argues of capitalism turning us into zombies and states that the movie could a conscious take on this theory. Tania Moleski provides an interesting insight into this theory, speaking of Marxism she states:

“Allowing the capitalist his unhindered experimentation in the ‘workshops of filthy creation’ – his accumulation of more and more specimens of dead labour – cannot possibly provide a blessing to human kind. These critics claim that rather than truly liberating humanity by freeing it from burdensome toil, the proliferation of dead labour – of technology – has resulted in the invasion of peoples mental, moral and emotional lives, and thus had rendered them incapable of desiring social change.” (2000, pg. 285).

This defends the genre as an intellectual debate of how our times are changing – these are not simply scary movies, but provide a cultural statement and debate and an understanding of certain taboos and repressions on a subconscious level which could possibly not be defined elsewhere.

With all the above evidence it is clear that the viewing of horror movies is not as shallow as Hutchings’ quote initially implies. Viewers experience repressed emotions and feelings often defined as “primal” – something which is unavoidable to humans based on any theories of evolution. There is a substantial amount of sub-consciousness involved within these theories which promote ideas of the pre-modern and instinctive emotions linked with horror, as well as the academic side of it. To state that the only people who can enjoy horror films are either sick or stupid is a contradictory statement as evidence in this study has implied that everyone experiences these emotions and thrills from these movies. The context of the movies themselves suggest an academic side to the films and that these films have not been created mindlessly, but with a certain view to creating these emotions, and perhaps consciously bringing forward these subconscious feelings.


Gelder, K. (2000). The horror reader. London; New York: Routledge.

Hill, A. (1997). Shocking entertainment: Viewer response to violent movies. Bedfordshire, United Kingdom: John Libbey Media.

Humphries, R. (2005). The American horror film. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.

Jenks, C. (2005). Childhood (Key Ideas). 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge.

Jones, A. (2005). The rough guide to horror movies. London, United Kingdom: Rough Guides.

Magistrale, T. (2005). Abject terrors: Surveying the modern and postmodern horror film. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Phillips, K. R., (2005). Project fears: Horror films and American culture. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Postman, N. (1994). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Rasmussen, R. L., (2007). Children of the night: The 6 archetypal characters of classic horror films. North Carolina; London: McFarland.

Tudor, A. (1991). Monsters and mad scientists: A cultural history of the horror movie. Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

slavoj zizek

peter osbourne – kingston

parasol unit – gallery

john hilliard

edwin zwakman

thomas demand ??

cecelia jardimar ???


~ by mrtbrown on August 29, 2012.

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