Horror films evolve through time, but still get to heart of basic human fears, anxieties

By Hannah Schnettgoecke

Horror films are a staple of American culture – especially around Halloween.

The step from the era of “Dracula” and “Wolf Man” to today’s popular gore movies like “Hostel” and “Saw” has been a drastic one, but people of all ages are still drawn to theaters year after year to experience the shock and thrill of horror films.

Tim Newcomb, associate professor of English and Cinema Studies, said there is something satisfying, and also reassuring, about watching a horror film. People enjoy going through something terrifying and coming out safely on the other side, he said.

“You want the shocks and the jolts, but you also feel that the entire experience is going to be familiar and reassuring,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb said he is teaching a class this semester called Haunted Cinema, and his students are studying the slasher film “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Part of what the students look at is why people find horror movies so pleasurable.

Sandra Camargo, adjunct assistant professor of Cinema Studies, said part of the pleasure of any film is the experience it offers. With horror films, the idea that you can vicariously experience something that you would never want to experience in real life is an important part of that pleasure, she added.

“It’s intense and people want intense experiences, and their real life doesn’t give it to them,” Camargo said.

The evolution of the horror genre has brought about an era of increasingly gory films. Newcomb said there may be a tolerance built up to the milder horror films of the past, and that gory movies are actually becoming more reputable.

“If somebody goes back and watches a movie like ‘Halloween,’ it’s not scary,” Newcomb said.

He added that for horror films, everyone has a different threshold, or tipping point, where pleasurable discomfort turns into disgust.

Camargo said the “horror-porn” movies of today prey mostly on the feeling of helplessness. She said she finds the increasing realism of horror movies disturbing, and she prefers films that play on the human psyche.

“I always think that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see … I like horror that preys on our anxieties rather than our digestions,” she said.

Andrew Banko, freshman in Engineering, said he enjoys both types.

“(I like) either psychological or really over-the-top gory, with ridiculous-looking puppets and stuff like that,” he said.

Banko added that he doesn’t just watch horror films around Halloween.

“It’s kind of a social thing … it’s fun to watch with your friends,” he said.

Camargo said horror films have a great influence over viewers. She added that in real life, people are usually afraid of whatever these movies tell them to be afraid of.

“Out of all genres, the horror film is the one that gets at our dark side,” Camargo added.