Horror stories have caught the attention of audiences throughout history, be it in literature or in film, because of its ability to ignite in us one of the most primordial of human emotions – fear. As H. P. Lovecraft’s quote above explicitly states, there is no other emotion as old and strong as that of fear, particularly that of the unknown. But what is the horror genre? Arguably, it can be said that horror, as exemplified in films, are fictional stories which aim to stoke feelings of horror, terror, fear from its audience.
Simple enough as it may sound, however, it has been found that one of the main problematic of dealing with the horror genre when studying it as a text, would be its overlapping characteristics with other genres, such as science fiction and fantasy. However, although horror may oftentimes be viewed as having no clear-cut boundaries, there are several delineations in it when compared to science fiction and fantasy. For example, according to Paul Wells,
…[T]he horror genre is predominantly concerned with death and the impacts and effects of the past, while science fiction is future-oriented, engaging with how human social existence could develop and dealing with humankind’s predilection for self-destruction. While science fiction is potentially utopian (although often critically grounded), the horror genre is almost entirely dystopic, and often nihilistic in outlook.
Science fiction is more concerned with the external and macrocosmic, while horror is arguably preoccupied with the internal and microcosmic. On the issue of crossing the threshold over to the realm of the fantasy genre, its main difference would be that fantasy “is based on re-imagining the world in a more playful or utopian guise, while only temporarily moving out of (endorsing) the terms and conditions of the status quo. ” Horror, on the other hand, does also contain certain elements, but the status quo, for the most part is left untouched.
Having shown how horror is a unique and independent genre despite having overlapping similarities with others, this paper will now go into the individual elements of it in order to further elucidate through the use of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as an example. It is important to take note of a genre’s individual characteristics because “genre is addressed as a system for organizing production as well as groupings of individual films which have collective and singular significance. ” Noel Carroll is of the opinion that what sets the horror genre apart from the others is primarily the reaction of the audience to what is being portrayed to them.
He says, In horror fictions, the emotions of the audience are supposed to mirror those of the positive human characters in certain, but not all, respects… Our responses are meant, ideally, to parallel those of characters. Our responses are supposed to converge (but not exactly duplicate) those of the characters; like the characters we assess the monster as a horrifying sort of being (though unlike the characters, we do not believe in its existence). This mirroring-effect moreover, is a key feature of the horror genre.
For it is not the case of every genre that the audience response is supposed to repeat certain of the elements of the emotional state of the characters. But apart from that, common elements would also include the depiction of the dark, malevolent side of humanity, the relatability of the audience to the characters – despite their being haunted individuals, the dark, foreboding mood, the violence present, which are usually graphic, and the inclusion of unexpected and frightening twists in the plot. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho does contain these elements, and thus is regarded as one of the finest examples of the modern horror genre.
The beginning of the story started out plain enough. Marion is a secretary who runs away with the money of his boss’ client in order to be with her lover. However on the long drive to Sam, she is met by several obstacles like the cop that seems to be sniffing her out, bad weather and fatigue. It was because of the last said obstacle that she ended up in the Bates Motel. Here she meets the owner and keeper of the motel, Norman Bates. He seems nice enough, gentlemanly and soft-spoken even, but there already are sure signs that he is not as pleasant as he looks.
The parlor in his office is filled with stuffed birds, and when Marion assumes that he knows a lot about birds, he corrects her by saying that he is no expert on birds; he just likes stuffing them. Also, it is in this conversation between the two of them that the audience is first given a glimpse of Norman’s seemingly disturbed mental state, becoming rigid and taking offense when Marion suggests that he place his “ill” mother in an institution. The way Hitchcock framed the headshots of Norman made him seem like he was about ready to strike, aggressive.
Later on, in the famous shower scene, he would prove to be exactly that. But despite those telling signs, in those moments when he is the nice Norman, the audience can relate to the lonely young man who is verbally abused by his mother, but would not leave her because he sincerely believes she needs him to take care of her. It is precisely in this charm and relatability of his character that made the revelation of the plot highly successful later on. As for the mood, the house atop the hill behind the motel is indeed a dark and foreboding one.
Always cast in shadows, and the structure itself, being old, looks scary by itself. Of course, the violence aspect of the film is also one of the most pivotal parts of Psycho. Although there is but one shower scene which depicted the killing of Marion with a kitchen knife in the shower, the movie is rife with the element of violence. Arbogast the detective was killed, Norman’s “mother” was verbally abusing him, and both the dead bodies were later on ditched in the swamp. As for the twist, as mentioned earlier, it is because of Norman’s charm as a character that made the twist even more effective.
All throughout the film, the audience – as well as the other characters – were led to believe that Norman’s mother is indeed alive. Later on, the audience finds out that the “mother” they all thought to be in the story is actually Norman himself who has somehow kept his mother alive, quite literally, in his own mind. What makes this movie the successful horror story that it is then is because it was successful in eliciting from the audience the emotion of fear, be it for Marion who was running away from the cop, or being stabbed in the shower.
Because the audience’s attention was focused on the hunt for Marion and the money, the element of surprise clearly was on the side of Norman’s story, him being not a direct figure in the Marion-money-Sam storyline anyway. With this example, we clearly see that the horror genre is not defined by the presence of monsters in the film (although Norman, in a figurative sense, can be considered a monster), but by its ability to evoke the emotion of fear from the audience, mirroring that of the characters they see onscreen. BIBLIOGRAPHY Carroll, Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Routledge, London, 1990.
Deutelbau, Marshall & Leiland Poague (eds), A Hithcock Reader, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, 1986. Kapis, Robert E. , Hitchcock: The Making of Reputation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Nelmes, Jill (ed), An Introduction to Film Studies, 3rd Edition, Routledge, London, 2003. Spadoni, Robert, Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre, University of California Press, California, 2007. Wells, Paul, The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, Wallflower Press, 2000. , Few thoughts on Horror, http://web. utk. edu/~wrobinso/590_lec_horror. html.