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Pulp Culture
Horror flicks reflect
state of the nation

October 31, 2002
By Franklin Harris

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

H.P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature"

The creative peaks in American horror cinema seem always to coincide with feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty in the culture at large.

Bela Lugosi in ''Dracula'' (1931)Universal's landmark horror films — Bela Lugosi's "Dracula," Lon Chaney Jr.'s "The Wolf Man" and Boris Karloff's "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy," not to mention a decade of sequels — were born during the Great Depression and World War II.

The 1970s were a 10-year-long hangover from the '60s and the Vietnam War. Americans believed the nation had lost its innocence, and that belief manifested at the movies.

In the late 19th Century, the English-speaking world embraced the idea of childhood innocence, the idea that everyone is born innocent and it is society that later corrupts us.

The myth of childhood innocence reasserted itself in the '80s and '90s, but it took a beating during the '70s. Rather than innocents, children were murderers ("Halloween"), monsters ("It's Alive!"), instruments of demonic possession ("The Exorcist") or the spawn of the devil ("The Omen" and "Rosemary's Baby").

The '80s and '90s were quiet years. With only a few bumps along the way, Americans enjoyed peace and prosperity, all while watching their hated bogeyman, the Soviet Union, crumble into dust like a vampire at sunrise. Consequently, horror films during those decades were mostly mindless body-count movies — movies with nothing to say except, "Don't go down to the basement, stupid!"

You can't expect much from mute hulks and wisecracking slashers.

But in the last few years, America has become more anxious, and so has its movies.

The economy has soured, and the country faces the shadowy threat of terrorism. Against this backdrop, the old-fashioned ghost story has returned, and audiences have embraced it.

From "The Sixth Sense" in 1999 to "The Others" in 2001 to "The Ring" this year, American theaters have become haunted places.

With each of these films, however, America has turned to other countries for help in expressing its fears. It's as if after 20 years we have forgotten how to do it for ourselves.

M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs," was raised in Pennsylvania but born in India. While "The Others" is a proper English ghost story, its director, Alejandro Amenábar, is from Spain. And "The Ring" is a remake of a Japanese film.

H.P. Lovecraft, the most important figure in 20th Century literary horror, said the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. It is no surprise then that these recent films depend as much upon mysteries as they do scares. Each presents its audience with puzzles to solve, and each keeps its monsters hidden for as long as possible.

Lovecraft also believed fear of the unknown is universal, which explains why Japan, plagued by more than a decade of economic uncertainty, has seen a similar revival of horror.

Apart from "The Ring," Japanese filmmakers have produced disturbing films like "Evil Dead Trap" and "Audition." The latter, by director Takashi Miike, is one of the most nightmarish and squirm-inducing films in years.

The Japanese version of "The Ring" is part of a trilogy, including a prequel and a sequel. The Japanese never bought into the myth of childhood innocence, so they have no problem with a child portrayed as thoroughly evil, as in "The Ring." Perhaps it is only after Columbine that a remake of such a film can succeed here.

Those who predicted a kinder and gentler Hollywood following Sept. 11 were ignoring history. We have always mirrored the world's uncertainty in our movies.

The latest wave of cinematic hauntings is proof enough that this time is no different.

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