Horror Movies And Why We Love Them

by Joanna D'Angelo
Almost everyone I know loves to watch horror films. And not just at Halloween.  I enjoy them too - but I have a particular fondness for classic horror movies - especially the b-movies -  the Roger Corman film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe starring Vincent Price and the Hammer films starring Christopher Lee as Dracula.

I also love Bela Lugosi as Dracula as well and perhaps the creepiest Dracula of them all Max Schreck. I miss those old-school vampires. Unlike the pretty boy vampires of today - the old guard were bad asses. They were evil. True villains. And we wanted them to scare us. We loved it.

But why do we love horror films so much? I think we love being scared. It's an adrenaline rush. I mean, modern society has made that kind of reflex of fight or flight obsolete for most of us who live relatively safe, suburban lives but that feeling is still within us.  And so horror films tap into that - but in a safe setting.  Watching horror movies gets our adrenaline pumping but after 90 minutes or so - we know everything is going to go back to normal.  We just have to make sure to check under our beds and closets before going to bed and make sure we take baths instead of showers for a while. I could never understand the psycho killer waiting in the back seat of the car. I always peek into the back window before I unlock my car door - don't you?

We also love the taboo subjects that are couched in the guise of horror. Horror movies tend to push boundaries as they explore themes of sexuality - either in a covert/subversive way or overtly - but by watching it in the context of a horror film - it makes it "acceptable".  Have you ever noticed that in slasher flicks the first couple to get "offed" is usually making out in a car? The idea of burgeoning sexuality run amok is a common thread in horror films.  Not to mention themes of twisted sexual identity. Probably one of the best we've seen is Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.  When Psycho was first released - critics gave it mixed reviews  - some critics thought it was brilliant while others thought it was utterly vile.  Why is that? Why such an extreme reaction to a horror film? Well, in this case the heroine is killed before the first third of the film so that is a big turn off for those who were looking for a more traditional picture. But it's the way she is murdered that gives us pause. In the shower. Nude.  And by the "mother" of the motel owner who turns out to be the motel owner himself -  in drag.  For audiences in 1960 that was quite shocking!

Incidentally, the shower scene took a week to film, and required more than 70 camera setups. If you know a bit about filmmaking you'll know that a camera set up can take hours. Why? Because each time you move the camera you have to adjust the lights (not to mention the other gear and rigging). And as we know - the lighting in black and white films was stunning - and often made the scene. And then there is the continuity - you have to know exactly where everything was in the previous shot for the next set up.

I think what Psycho did was usher in a new wave of horror films and a new way of thinking about horror. The hero became the anti-hero.  We saw this saw building in the 1960s but then it took off in the 1970s in films like Carrie and up to the 1980s in movies like The Shining.  And it made it okay to explore other taboo subjects like religion/faith and the "Devil" as we've seen in films like The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby. 

It spilled over into other genres too - heroes were no longer the "good guys" but became outlaws in westerns like  McCabe and Mrs. Miller and gangster movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. Even cops like Dirty Harry, began to play by their own rules - seeking out their own brand of vigilante justice in the movies.

Certainly the anti-heroes in these movies do bad things but their stories compel us to understand - to ask to recognise that just because the outlaw or gangster is bad doesn't mean that the "law" is entirely good either. Nothing is black and white. But there is a lot of grey -especially in the movies where you find yourself (quite often) rooting for the "bad guys".

One of my favourite movie quotes of all time is from Godfather II - Michael Corleone is talking to Senator Pat Geary:

Senator Pat Geary: I despise the way you pose yourself. You and your whole fucking family.

Michael Corleone: We're both part of the same hypocrisy, senator, but never think it applies to my family.

Of course these movies aren't made in a bubble. They reflect shifts in society - in how people thought and acted during the major social movements of the time that were changing the face of  - not only the United States but the entire world. And movies - particularly horror films can take themes about alienation, sexuality, identity politics, racism, religion and spin them into scare-fests for us to enjoy but also to think about. Even the most seemingly ridiculous b-movie can do that on a very basic level.

The next time you've got a bowl of popcorn in your lap and are watching your favourite horror flick - think about what it might be saying beyond the blood and gore. Oh, and I'll let you in on a little secret - I like to analyse horror films because it makes me less afraid to watch them. ;)

So, what are your favourite horror films and why?



  1. Hey Joanna!
    I have taken a few courses on horror films/books. They academic approach to this is that humans are intrigued and disgusted with the abject (a Julia Kristeva term) which means that we like the taboo or anything that is other. When we are little we repress the taboo because society tells us we need to in order to be accepted. So things like corpses are considered dirty even though it was once a living human that was not rotting. Horror deals with the taboo or the things that are repressed.
    Blood is apart of us but isn't something we want to see so when it is presented in a different context it is considered no longer a part of us but other.

    Vampires would be abject because they are the living dead who consume blood. Zombies are the ultimate in abjectivity as they are the walking rotting dead, same with Frankenstein.
    Something about our human nature makes us intrigued when we get to see the taboo, it is why we slow down to see a car accident or sit through a Saw movie. We are scared of what we might see and yet intrigued. It is the animal within us that is repressed that yearns to delve into these issues.

    I have the article by Julia Kristeva if you ever want to read it, it is quite interesting and she applies it to literature and it can be applied to films as well.
    Great post! Great choice of movies too! Happy Halloween

  2. thanks Murissa! That is very fascinating - I would tend to agree about the repulsion/fascination aspect of it. ;) Cheers!

  3. My husband is an avid horror fan, so we have a lot of that playing at our house. Personally, I'm more into spooky films like The Lady in White (1988) and Ghost Story (1981.)

    My ultimate favorite horror character is Dracula, and my favorite version of that is the BBC miniseries (1977.)

    Currently, my adored series Supernatural goes into complex philosophical issues, such as 'Is there a God?' / 'Isn't Lucifer necessary to God's universe?' / 'Can a good man do evil things (such as torture someone) and remain good?' / 'Can a good man use whatever means necessary if it's for the greater good' (such as drink demon blood in order to gain enough strength to destroy other demons.)

    I can't get enough of that kind of thing, and the great horror films - like another favorite 'The Exorcist' - embrace these moral and ethical dilemmas along with the thrill and the scare.

  4. terrific comment Julia! Also I love spooky stories too. And as I recall the Xena show was very big on exploring those themes as well - esp. killing for "the greater good".



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