It is almost Halloween and many people around America are celebrating “Spooky Season”. This holiday is one where we enjoy going around to people’s doors asking for candy in costumes and sometimes making a fool of ourselves. We also watch horror films and tell ghost stories. How do these two things relate? How does a child dressing up in a costume from a kid’s film relate to someone dressing up as a villain from a Slasher film franchise? Well, Halloween is much more than just handing out candy, dressing up in costume, and telling “scary” stories. Halloween has become a celebration of human storytelling, revolving around enjoying the company of many characters and stories that many of us love. But one type of story, in particular, defines the holiday more than any other and that is the Horror genre.
The genre of Horror is not something that has emerged in the last century or even something that was popularized by the film industry. Horror stories are much more than a few ghosts or some adrenaline pumping jump scares. Horror stories take their inspiration from complex, emotional characters and usually comment on social issues.
In Ancient Rome, a philosopher/playwright named Seneca wrote a play called Thyestes, where one of the main characters mutilates a man’s children and then serves them to him as his dinner. If this were shown in a film in today’s world, it would be categorized as a horror film. The character Atreus is manipulated by Furies (something equivalent to a demon) to kill the children of his brother. Atreus begins to acknowledge that he enjoyed killing the children and wishes he could have made it worse for their father. Seneca’s main argument is to show that one can never really have fulfillment in acting upon anger, as Atreus does, which is part of Seneca’s stoic philosophy. Therefore, Seneca uses horrific elements to make a point and comment on a societal issue.
The Brothers Grimm fairy tales are another perfect example. Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by a wolf in the woods, Cinderella’s stepsister cuts off her own toes to fit in a glass slipper, and Hansel & Gretel are eaten by a Witch who lures children into a house made of candy and fattens them up. This is prime horror usage, to the point where several Grimm tales have been adapted into actual horror films such as the recent Gretel & Hansel (2020). Many of these stories were used to teach children how to “behave” in society and to learn, for example, don’t go out into the woods alone.
Another example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where she uses a creature that is manipulated into coming back to life by a scientist and comments on how humans meddle in nature where they shouldn’t, which makes Frankenstein’s monster a menacing phantom to Victor Frankenstein, showing how when we do meddle in nature where we shouldn’t one may become subject to its consequences.
This then leads into the 20th century, bringing in modern ideas such as Zombies and Found Footage films. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) talks about the nature of humanity and even goes as far as to comment on racism and equality in society using a collection of characters stuck in a house during the Zombie apocalypse. The fear of being killed by Zombies leads the characters into an abnormal situation, driven by excitement and vulnerability which gives the story an opportunity to talk about such subjects. In this case, zombies are used as a mechanism to place characters in an environment where certain political and societal issues are highlighted. Some horror films later spawned a slew of female protagonists including Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).
In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle speaks on the technicalities of tragedy saying that the genre evokes fear and pity, creating catharsis which is the release of complex and difficult emotions. Ancient Greek tragedies also take place within 24 hours, in one setting, and show characters on, more than likely, the worst day of their lives. These latter three qualities in Greek tragedy can be seen in many horror films such as The Evil Dead (1981), You’re Next (2011), and REC (2007). But most importantly, horror films allow for catharsis to take place. Characters in horror stories tend to be written to be liked by the audience and then that character is placed in a situation in which they are in danger. This danger is beyond what most people encounter in their daily lives. For example, it is not every day that I encounter a giant raging dinosaur that is terrorizing the world, such as in Godzilla (1954). By watching these characters either overcome or succumb to such out-of-this-world situations, allows one to feel what they feel and then to release complex emotions in the wake of the story. This doesn’t always happen, but horror stories can have and have had this effect on people.
Therefore, when you walk around this Halloween season and someone asks you why you watch horror films and they say that watching horror films is a waste of time, express to them that horror stories are important to understanding one’s feelings, can release complex emotions, help individuals understand certain societal issues and sometimes, they’re just fun to watch. Happy Halloween!