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The Decline of the American Horror Film

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Decline of American Horror Films

American horror films have undergone several series of change in the past 50 years. The claim most often directed against modern horror is that it is somehow "sick". Some viewers declare its preoccupation with violence and sexuality is excessive and politically incorrect. However, the horror films of the 1960's redefined and distinguished American horror with racial undertones as in Romero's "Night of The Living Dead," and indirectly addressing social and family problems as in Hitchcock's "Psycho." To most critics, these were the dying reels of horror. The thrasher and serial killer flicks of the 1980's would steer the genre towards male chauvinism and the degrading concept of shaping horror into a new form of comedy. Today's horror genre has been transformed by 1980's thrasher films, Japanese influence with the use of computer generated imagery (CGI), and the lack of innovative directors.

American horror films during the 1960's revolutionized the entire genre. According to Andrew Tudor, prior to the 1960's, horror had maintained a series of relatively straightforward distinctions between "self and other". There was some sense of faith in authority and in the possibility of a survival or escape. Therefore, many of these films had a general tendency to resolve narrative conflicts. In the 1960's however, these features started to disappear. It became easy to relate to the "evil" characters. The loss of faith in authorities and the possibilities of any hope gave rise to horror narratives in which quarrels and problems are rarely resolved. Instead, conflict seems to move unavoidably towards complete social or personal breakdown (Tudor 68-74).

Handfuls of horror films encompassing attacking a social problem come to mind from the 1960's. George A. Romero's, "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), left the audience pondering civil rights. The male protagonist throughout the movie, Ben, is an African American whose death in the end is questionably racist. Ben is shot in the head, coming out of a cellar, by a member of the surviving posse. They throw his body on the fires with the rest of the zombies. The viewer is left with the question, Was Ben killed because others thought he was a zombie or simply because he was black? This questioning of American social issues is also seen prevalent in Alfred Hitchcock's, "Psycho." In "Psycho," the monster appears to be a normal American teenager, Norman Bates, whose personality is split. On the surface, he appears to be a shy young male, but when sexually excited, another personality takes over which murders the object of his desire. Norman sees this other personality as an entirely separate being, which he calls "mother." She is the product of a disturbed mental state which derives from his family background. For Robin Wood, Psycho is therefore a critique of the institution which he sees as fundamental to American society, the patriarchal family (37-39). How could films such as these be forgotten and not epitomized and utilized in modern horror? Unfortunately, the 1980's would influence modern horror far more than any other decade.

If the developments of 1960's horror achieved a measure of critical recognition, the developments of 1980's horror provoked hostility from critics and reviewers. Rather than presenting the monster as a product of American social life, 1980's films present the monster as the essence of pure evil; a bizarre destructive force which assaults American social life, but does not criticize a particular institution. Names like Jason, Freddy, and Chucky took over striking fear in people rather than real issues. Gore and blood drew in an all new audience base as well. However, it is the attitude towards women, believed to be present in these films, which is considered their most degrading feature. Thrasher movies concern a serial killer who tracks down a group of teenagers, killing them off one by one in various grisly ways. Vera Dika argues its attacks are primarily directed against women. Even when the number of men killed is equal to the number of women, it is pointed out that it is the killing of women on which these films concentrate (Dika 130-138). The men are either dispatched quickly,



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