Horror: An Essay

By: D.G. McCabe

Let me begin by saying that I have complicated feelings for horror movies.   Groundbreaking early horror films like Nosferatu (1922) are more creepy than conventionally frightening, and more of interest to film historians than general audiences.  Older Hollywood horror classics like Dracula (1931) haven’t aged well, mostly due to the endless parodies and remakes that have destroyed the impact of the original.  Throughout the history of horror movies, for every Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), and The Sixth Sense (1999), there are hundreds of cheesy monsters, fake blood, screaming teenagers, and hammy acting.  Even the aforementioned “good” horror films heavily rely on well known plot twists and familiar scenes that have lost a great deal of their original umph.

I think most people know this, and even the biggest horror fans would probably agree that any film that utilizes shock value loses its power with repeated viewings (slapstick comedy suffers from a similar problem). Furthermore, horror films have been made so many ways that it is hard to make a really groundbreaking horror film.

Finally, we often call films like Psycho and the Exorcist “thrillers” and not horror films.  Horror we attribute to formulaic nonsense such as Scream (1996) and sadistic torture films like Saw (2004).  Thrillers are made by men like Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, take great directing skill, and attract the finest actors.

We like thrillers, but we don’t like to admit that we like horror movies.  Still, we keep coming back to the horror genre, especially this time of year.  Something is alluring about being in a dark theater, looking at the world through the eyes of a vulnerable teenager, waiting with anticipation for Count Dracula or Jason Voorhies or some other inhuman monster to appear out of the shadows and attack them.

It is something in those monsters that makes the horror movie what it is.  Unlike historical villains, there is no ambiguity in the monster, they are evil and represent deep psychological fears.  Zombies represents the fear of the mob, the wolfman our fear of animistic tendencies,  the slasher our fear of random violence.  The vampire, perhaps the most enduring of all horror villains, represents all of these things to a certain extent.

After all, isn’t Count Dracula the perfect villain?  He lurks in the shadows, attacking us at our most vulnerable moments.  He turns his victims into a mindless mob that exists only to do his evil bidding.  His insatiable, ferocious, lust for blood is the only thing that keeps him alive.  Finally, he is quite suave, sophisticated, and courteous – every bit the attractive, successful gentleman.  At least until that last moment, when he drinks every drop of your blood.

Fortunately, Count Dracula does not exist and never has (although Bram Stoker based him on Vlad Draculesti, known to posterity as Vlad the Impaler).  As dangerous as he is, he frightens us knowing that when we leave the theater, he will be no more a part of our lives than Freddie Kruger or any other movie monster.  In this way we can confront absolute evil and live to tell about it.

And maybe that’s what keeps us coming back.  The pleasure of horror movies isn’t in the fright, it’s in facing it and being able to walk away at the end of it.  We can’t do that with real villains, even many historical monsters defeated in the last century, in the last ten centuries, are still with us in one form or another.  But every time we make it through a horror movie (without taking a strategic “bathroom break”) we’re again, and again, driving a wooden stake through evil’s heart.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

What’s the Deal with Vampires? Nosferatu (1922) and the Vampire Myth

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” is considered the first great vampire film.  Although a modern viewing reveals a dated, even silly, film, all of the elements of the vampire story are there (specifically the Dracula story).  The vampire is a monster that lurks in the shadows and feeds upon the blood of the living, or in the case of Nosferatu, draws strength from pestilence and death.

Nosferatu was indeed terrifying in 1922, as “Dracula” was for people in 1931.  The problem with the vampire villain in general is that it has been cliched to the point where it is no longer terrifying.  The concept of the good or morally ambiguous vampire, while breathing  life into the genre on television, has sunken into melodrama no thanks to the Twilight series.

How do we resurrect the vampire-as-a-villain myth from decades of cliche and, more recently, the moral ambiguity of the creature created by several excellent television series?  First we have to ask the question: do we even want to?  Isn’t the course mapped out by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “True Blood” a more interesting place for the genre to go?

I would argue that the route television has gone is interesting, but not mutually exclusive with the vampire as an archetypal villain.  We can have our cake and eat it too here.  The vampire story is excellent ground for rich characters and social allegory.  Still, it also remains a visceral and archetypal concept for a pure villain.  The answer to the future of the villainous vampire can be found in Murnau’s Nosferatu.

While Murnau’s film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most interesting aspects of his adaptation are the unique elements he brought to the story.  Indeed, the parts that seem silly to modern audiences are the parts of the story that are re-told in later vampire movies.  Murnau’s vampire, however, is not merely an evil count who stalks the night and feeds on the blood of the living, he is the very personification of disease and death.

For example, there is a scene in the film where the vampire, Count Orlock, has hidden himself in a coffin for transport from his castle in Transylvania to the German city of Wisborg.  He does not come alone, but with several other coffins filled with hundreds and hundreds of plague rats.  He doesn’t murder the crew of the transport ship by biting their necks because he doesn’t have to – his furry minions do his dirty work for him.  He is the master of disease and he can spread death and destruction without lifting a finger if he doesn’t want to, making him all the more terrifying when he does attack.

And there I think is a good answer – future films could break away from the cliches of the vampire story, especially the ones set forth by adaptations of Stoker’s great novel.  Instead, they can explore the abstract qualities of what the vampire brings to mind – primal fears of death in the night.   Films have no reason to limit the vampire’s power to only sucking the blood of the living, they can explore other ways that vampires can be terrifying.  There is a lot more territory to explore, and we shouldn’t drive a stake through the heart of the vampire as an archetypal villain just yet.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe