Powers of Horror Film: Or, Why My Horror Literature & Film Course Has So Many Movies

Except for a couple of school-specific details that may have to be tweaked before the semester begins, my horror literature & film syllabus for this fall is complete.

Now that I’ve finished planning the course, I realize that instead of teaching horror literature & film, I would have preferred to just cover film. I find myself gravitating more toward film than written texts within this genre and I had a much harder time coming up with solid novels and short stories to assign than I did movies. We will be reading four novels (and some short fiction) and watching at least 11 movies during the semester. We’ll be moving quickly this semester; my goals are more oriented toward coverage of a range of issues and subgenres within horror and students’ ability to make connections between them than they are toward depth in any given subgenre or text. Even so, there were many movies that I had to leave out both in order to maintain some semblance of balance between literature and film throughout the semester and for lack of time in general.

This emphasis on film isn’t just about my personal preference, however. This genre, more than others I’ve taught, seems to be particularly well suited for film. This is not to say that there’s not great horror literature to be read. There is. Unfortunately, some of my favorites were too long to fit into a course where I’m trying to cover a lot of subgenres and approaches to the genre. Stephen King’s The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves are two of the longer works that wouldn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that King’s novel is more racist than I’d really prefer it to be, but the real concern is its length, not the casual racism of a white author in the 1970s.

Shining coverHoL cover

But even while acknowledging that great horror literature exists, I believe horror may be at its best in film. Film is more visceral and less malleable than literature. It’s harder to escape or avoid the unpleasant bits when watching a movie than while reading a book. The reader can skim a passage in a book and still get the gist, but short of actually skipping a scene in a movie it’s really hard to entirely shut out its upsetting effects. And as viewers, we have less freedom to imagine horrific scenes in ways we are comfortable with in a film than we might have in a book. In fact, in written descriptions of violent or scary scenes, there will always be less detail than there is in representations of those same scenes on the screen. The written text needs us as readers to fill in the gaps; film doesn’t need us for that. It fills the scene with more details than we can probably take in, actually, and then it demands that we watch.

Horror revels in the visual representation of fear and violence – a monster suddenly appearing in the darkness, a knife cutting into an eyeball or some other fleshy bit. You can close your eyes, of course, but then it’s hard to know what’s happening and so there’s not much point in watching the movie at all.

What’s more, even when you close your eyes, you can hear what’s happening. And that might be worse. Revisit the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London or the fingernail scene in The Fly. If you watch them with the sound off, they’re not so bad, but even with your eyes closed, hearing those scenes is disturbing.

And then there’s the music. Horror film music plays on our bodily reactions to sound by mimicking heartbeats, by vibrating our bodies with bass lines, by shocking us with bursts of horn or string music. Goblin’s soundtrack for Dawn of the Dead is synth-y and very ’70s, but it’s extremely effective. For instance, it includes a heartbeat-like rhythm alongside washes of sound to physically draw the viewer into the film. Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s films are dramatically different from Dawn of the Dead in style, but they are also emotionally powerful. The theme from the shower scene in Psycho is iconic for a reason.

Finally, horror is primarily about an emotional response, not an intellectual one. Horror plays into some fascinating cultural narratives and develops interesting ideas about these narratives (which we will definitely discuss in class), but it does so through our bodies and through our feelings, not through our rational selves. In other words, unlike some other genres, horror doesn’t need us to think. This is not the same thing as saying that horror is dumb. I don’t believe that to be true. It simply means that horror functions differently than science fiction or mysteries do, for example. Science fiction grows out of rational ideas and speculation and then includes emotions; mysteries require their viewers or readers to be thinking rationally at least enough to be interested in solving the mystery. Horror, however, wants to scare us – on one level or another. As Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre (1981), “I recognize terror as the finest emotion . . . and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” He also notes that what horror is “looking for is the place where, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.” Through its visual and sonic effects, film taps into our senses and emotions more directly – for most people – than written texts do, and this direct line is just what horror is looking for.

This is both good and bad. It means that works of art and entertainment in this genre are powerful. We can easily immerse ourselves in them and enjoy them; we can also easily be influenced by them.

This also just means that I really wish I had a whole semester to devote to horror film alone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s