The Deconstruction of Horror

On the eve of All Hallow’s Eve, Oct. 30, 1938, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), broadcasted, by radio, a taste of H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds.  This taste of terror, dramatized by Orson Welles, involved the planet Mars and its deadly invasion on the state of New York.  A million listeners tuned in that night listening in fear and disbelief, while thousands, in panic, called radio and police stations, and while others fled, taking all they had, to escape the horror.  According to Noel Carroll, who wrote Philosophy of Horror, horror can be defined as a mixture of fear and disgust (fear alone is not enough to be horror).  If the horror is fact or fiction, the body still produces the same terrifying physiological responses (i.e., rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, heightened alertness, and more). The people of New York, in 1938, are no different from you and me. What makes their situation different is their world was on the brink of WWII.  This means an invasion from Mars would not had been as unfathomable as a blood thirsty dictator warring for world domination.

The genre of horror is a billion dollar business.  Two big billion dollar franchises are Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.  Around Halloween, most people get in the mood to read a scary book or try a scary movie.  Basically, there are many types of horror which include: gore, teen, romantic, psychological, thriller, suspense, and science fiction.  There are six elements one may apply to deconstruct the genre of horror:  Supernatural/magical objects and events, superhuman antagonist and/or monster, limited space/setting, limited senses, limited options, and limited time.  By applying these elements one may understand the makings of horror.

Supernatural/magical objects and events:  Unexplained and bizarre phenomena are part of supernatural/magical objects and events.  Supernatural/magical objects are anything that can be seen or touched.  For example, a possessed doll, a killer car, a cursed talisman, or a not too friendly ghost. An event is an occurrence or happening.  A supernatural/magical event can be living in a house run by peeved poltergeist, a zombie ambush, a deadly virus threatening to cause world extinction, an alien invasion, and an evil spell cast by a vengeful witch posse.  These objects and events go beyond scientific reasoning and rationality which create the story’s suspense. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1959-1964), delved in the bizarre and the supernatural. For example, if Talking Tina (possessed psycho doll and trailblazer to Chucky), in Twilight Zone’s “Living Doll,” felt a little unappreciated, that person was sure to be the next mangled rug mat at the bottom of the stairwell.

Superhuman antagonist and/or monster are what create the horror within the story.  In rare instances, the monster is an “internal affair” (i.e., monster within) as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Identity.  A superhuman antagonist and/or monster possess unnatural strength, omnipotence, and intelligence (this can be a person, animal, insect, place, or thing).  An example of unnatural strength is when it takes 5 shots of cyanide, 6 bullets to the head, and 7 gassed up motor vehicles to plow down the monster.  The monster is always a potential threat i.e. two steps behind then two steps in front (how do they do it?).  Monsters that possess superhuman intelligence have a myriad of skills i.e., a twisted MacGyver or a jacked-up jack-of-all-trades.  At times, the superhuman antagonist and/or monster may be masked (i.e., Michael Myers, Jason, and Jigsaw).  If the superhuman antagonist is not masked then 1.) They appear in a humanoid form i.e., shape-shifter, vampire, werewolf, swamp thing, demon lizard, or ghost inhabiting another human body (to name a few); and 2.) They look like the next store neighbor until they start visibly going nuts and start using a knife as the only form of communication.  The superhuman antagonist and/or monster is always present until they slip out for another day (dormant stage), are chased away (purged stage), or defeated by a pure protagonist (annihilated stage). Horror cannot be defeated until the conflict is solved by a pure protagonist or a pure act of selflessness. Unfortunately, in horror, the good guys/gals do not always win (some die brutal, bloody deaths).  Whether the protagonist beats the monster or not, the scars still remain.

Limited space/setting: The characters cannot escape and are trapped in their environment unable to receive immediate help from the outside.  The characters become helpless and a product of their deadly environment. Without a horrific setting or a good trap there is no horror.  Horror places a reader/viewer squarely in the middle of conflict which adds to uncertainty and confusion (for character and audience).  A limited environment can be a haunted house, a blizzard (like in The Shinning), a storm (like in Psycho), and a flood (like in Identity).  An unknown wilderness is another notorious horror setting.  The space is limited because the victims do not have the knowledge to escape i.e., the trio lost in the woods in The Blair Witch Project.  A timeless staple to the genre of horror comes from novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s, “It was dark and stormy night” (1830).  Darkness creates limited space because one cannot see or find a way out (darkness limits one’s senses, too).  At times, limited space is controlled by the monster which makes it impossible to escape (i.e., altered reality, riddle, or trap).  The monster is more knowledgeable of the space (unnatural intelligence) than the victim i.e., a hunter vs. its prey as in Wrong Turn, Vacancy, and The Strangers.

Limited senses:  Limited senses are broken down to physical and psychological.  Limited senses impair the character’s ability to reach a safe setting or reality esp. in The Nightmare on Elm Street, The Birds, and Salem’s Lot.  This happens when the characters are struggling to out-run or out-smart the monster. That’s why the audience yells, “Look out!” because the characters are too naive, ill, physically hurt, drugged/liquored up (from their own stash), or paranoid to see they are leaving a safe environment into killer territory.  Limited physical senses include impaired judgment (had a little too much to smoke or drink), impaired hearing, blindness, broken (mangled, damaged, and half eaten) appendages, and illness (from poison, ancient spell, or virus) which slow the victims down. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick’s senses were too acute and Madeline’s senses were too dull.  A person with acute senses becomes paranoid and the slightest sounds and movements (snap of a twig, flicker of the light, or creaking in the house puts them uneasy). Those with dull senses become bait for the monster and are the first to go.  For example, the cocky cop who doesn’t believe those crazy teens that a psychotic killer is on the loose always gets whacked before the second reel.  Limited by their pride, fear, greed, rage, or lust, these characters fall under psychological limited senses.  Basically, their emotions set them up to fall into the hands of the monster.  Most people who fall to the sexual mercy of Dracula end up bitten.  Those who fall into paranoia, because of cabin fever, begin to turn on each other when it is the monster they need to collectively defeat.

Limited options: Why is there never good help when you need it?  Victims of limited options are usually isolated from anyone who can help them. Problems always arise because of limited options and/or resources. Limited options are like hurdles the characters must jump over to survive. When in trouble, there is never a loaded gun, a phone signal, a reliable car, a bright enough flashlight, or a compadre who can stay alive without getting themselves killed. There are no easy ways out in the genre of horror.  Options are few, and sometimes, if not, deadly.  One’s virtue comes into question because now the mantra is, “Kill or be killed.”  In a safer environment, one has all the time in the world to make the best decisions without having to go against the moral belief system of, “Thou shall not kill.” Running is the victims first option; however, running just prolongs the game of cat and mouse. Sometimes the monster has limitations, as in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, and will make the characters/victims believe they have no options i.e., a supernatural, murderous devil that bullies the fearful townsfolk of Little Tall Island to procure, for himself, an heir.

Limited time:  There is not enough time to make rational decisions in the genre of horror. Characters’ lives are time-bond.  When the characters fall prey to the monster, the clock starts ticking.  The genre of horror follows a time schedule; hence, that is why characters are always on the run.  Life and death are connected to time.  In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” pompous Prince Prospero is on borrowed time until Death takes him home.  Time based thrillers include, The War of the Worlds, The Ring, and Dawn of the Dead.  Time may be linked to starving to death, bleeding to death, and going insane (those are a few).  Characters struggle for survival is crucial because now the monster is not only after the protagonist; the monster is after you.  According to Noel Carroll, horror is the only genre where the audience becomes emotionally involved (you are not the monster’s prey– why are you afraid?).  In studies on non verbal communication, people are more likely to imitate or “mirror” non verbal emotions of fear and distress than they are to imitate positive emotions like happiness and pleasure. Fear and distress pull people in quicker, raising physical adrenaline (and adrenaline is very addicting). Basically, horror is the proverbial train wreck one cannot take their eyes from. For that reason, horror is one of the most powerful genres (more powerful than sex and romance combined).

This model on the deconstruction of horror is an excellent starting point in understanding what makes a book or film scary (revealing patterns behind the madness). With the rising


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