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Horror Genre

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Autor:  anton  31 October 2010
Tags:  Horror
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The idea that the monster within horror works as a metaphor, reflecting the socio-cultural fears of its time is a theory which has been tried and tested since the dawn of the genre. The monster can be seen to illustrate our phobias or uncertainties as a human, changing with the times and therefore always seeming to be relevant in society. If this is true then the converse must also hold the same weight, that by analysing the monster in horror and their psychoanalytical meaning we can learn something of society at that point in time, a snap shot of our weakness and failures historically. Indeed the relevance of the monster and its ability to be on the pulse of our current concern is where the real psychoanalytical weight of the genre lies.

Robin Wood expressed the idea of ‘Otherness’, using the basic narrative formula that the ‘monster - threatens - normality.’ I am arguing that the normality is actually self obsession and a lack of morality within society and that the monster who threatens this is actually a representation of the current fears in terms of the socio-economic-cultural-context. The genre uses the ‘Otherness’ of the monster to set up a thematic focus - good vs. evil, which merges into Levi Straus idea of Binary Opposition within film, this can be pushed further onto the idea of morality/immorality- where is the dividing line? Wood suggests that the monster is an other, and that humans push all their fears and insecurities onto others in order for them to live uncomplicated lives. Freud, a psychoanalyst argued the idea that we all hold subconscious desires, repressed and undressed feelings that we are able to release through dreams. He created the theory of repression, linking reality to the idea that the monster in horror films cathartically addresses and resolves these primal desires within us to kill. A good example to prove this theory is the 1930’s classic, Frankenstein. If we were to watch this film now we would find it quite comical and not at all scary because it reflects the fears and value systems of the 1930’s. Around this time America was just coming out of the great depression and although thousands of working class men were still struggling to survive and find work, many businesses were slowly becoming ‘stable.’ The idea that the ‘creation’ within the film represented the working class as victims and the actual monster was the upper class man, Dr Frankenstein was very effective and relevant to the people who watched this film at the time of its release.

Again the 1930’s classic, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein were able to tap into the socio-cultural fears of the day very successfully, making the suggestion that scientific discoveries and new technology can be pushed too far. In the 1930’s, the normality was that we had limited scientific knowledge and a healthy respect for human life and the roles of nature and science were separate entities. The film adapted the idea of playing God which terrified the audience into believing that man was fooling around with the natural order. Today technological advances do not scare us easily as we are now a nation who embraces it, consequently Frankenstein as a modern day monster doesn’t work in as immediate or intense way. These key binary oppositions at the heart of the monster, good/evil, science/nature and morality/immorality hold true, regardless of how ‘dated’ the actual filmic illustrations of them become.

Modern horror has, in a way, shifted up a gear and is beginning to focus on us as a society, suggesting that it is the way we live out our lives that is the real monster. The 2004 horror movie, Saw is a very successful film, in the way it was able to create fear within the audience as it expresses the idea that we are all becoming self obsessed and too wrapped up in our own comfort to care about anything else. The film tells us that we are living in a care free society where our looks and careers have become more important that our health, attitude and family, where we are always able to shift the blame onto others and where we are able to dispose of our responsibilities so easily that we are beginning to believe that it is out rights not to have them. It is these thoughts and feelings and this ‘whatever’ way of living that is destroying us.

There are many different reasons for this selfishness that has swept over us;

Money and personal debt being one of them. The idea that we are all able to take what we want, when we want it by borrowing from others only too happy to lend has become more and more popular over time. According to the credit action statistics, the total UK personal debt from July 2004 stands at Ј1 trillion and Britain’s personal debt increases by Ј1 million every four minutes. With a growth rate of 12.4% Britain has recently witnessed the largest single-year increase since The Bank of England was founded in 1694. We have grown up in a society where if we see something we want, we can just take it without a second thought.

The compensation culture is another reason for this non moralistic selfishness we show as a society. Day after day it is drummed into our heads that if something goes wrong it is not our fault, there’s always someone else to blame. Research from the BBC suggests that in 1998 compensation claims cost Britain over Ј6.8 billion and when questioned, 78% of people said that taking someone to court over personal injury was ‘socially and morally’ acceptable. It is this information that proves we as a society are beginning to believe we are continually owed things by others.

Education can also be seen as an ideological change which may explain this selfishness as it, or the government continually injects us with the idea that we need to do better, we need a good education, to get a good job, to live in a nice house and make more money than our next-door neighbours. In the run up to the 1997 Election one of Labours main slogans was, ‘Education, Education, Education.’ And in 1998 it was revealed that the education spending would rise by a significant 5.1% a year. Blair wants school learners to stay on until they reach 18 and he also wants 80% of these students to enter into further education. Prince Charles recently argued that people should ‘know their place’ in societies hierarchy instead of all being treated as potential ‘winners.’

Reality TV has quickly become a genre of its own, proving to be one of the most significant new genres within media and creating a new ‘C LIST’ celebrity. Developing from early ‘real life’ television, e.g. Candid Camera in 1948, An American Family in 1973 to the more recent and successful Big Brother, Survivor and Fame Academy. All this has caused a ‘boom’ within the celebrity status and in a way has caused a phenomenon ‘celebrity worship’ to occur. As the celebrity status is becoming more and more important within our society, our obsession with self has begun to grow and grow and therefore the idea of morality/immorality has become a prime binary opposition within the horror genre. It could be argued that the attitudes to talent, programmes such as Fame Academy and Pop Idol have are focused on making money and ratings by trying to indulge and encourage people with little talent to make fools of themselves in front of the nation. They force the idea that people have what it takes to become famous by getting others to laugh at their stupidity and

ignorance. Big Brother also uses the same approach, creating the idea that people can become famous for doing nothing. In a way these programmes are there to create celebrities for our consumption,

‘Suddenly a celebrity could now really be, in a circular way, someone who is known, and all they need to be known for is being a celebrity’- Chris Heath.

Celebrities themselves have quickly become distillations of particular character types and are becoming commercially productive stereotypes in order to keep their fame and status over these ‘new’ celebrities, for example, we see David Beckham and Jordan as ‘chav idiots’ trying to make more money from their name, they are no longer famous for their talent but for the way they present themselves.

Media on the whole is becoming much more ‘public centred,’ giving out the impression that we can all be a celebrity and fame is what we want. It is ideas such as texting in our views on different programmes or news broadcasts and exploiting the ‘weakest link’ within a game show that does this.

The idea that morality has conversely always been present within horror, a seemingly immoral genre, is a good argument which can be backed up by Grixti’s theory that all human beings are ‘Rotten at the core.’ The idea that horror is cathartic and the most rebellious genre (meaning it always has a dark subject matter, pushing the limits of taste and acceptability) but at the same time is the most conservative genre by always re-establishing normality and the status quo within the films to make overtly moral comments. The Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a very good example of this. The zombies or mindless killers within it can be argued to represent the American soldiers fighting a losing battle in Vietnam without consciousness or motivation- a political bloodlust.. Also the lead role, a black man survives throughout the whole film only to be shot dead by a red-neck sheriff at the end, representing the civil race riots occurring all over America and making a strong political and ultimately moral point. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is another film with a very strong moral stance which goes as far as to use an alien to tell us that we must stop fighting amongst ourselves or Earth will implode and be destroyed.

Fitting morality or the idea of moral judgement into horror is a very subtle way of warning people against self obsession. We know that it was present in earlier horror

movies but as the idea of Reality TV and celebrity culture has spiralled out of control it has become more and more present and more and more obvious as time has gone on.

It is clear that from looking at the more recent films that morality is a key opposition. Films such as Seven (1995) which is based around the ‘moral’ killings of a ‘prophet’ using the biblical list of mortal sins to enforce the message that we should not lead sinful lives or we will suffer. Phone Booth (2002) targets an arrogant P.R agent who is having an affair getting his comeuppance by being held at gun point and being made to tell the truth. And Saw in 2004 where a viciously inventive serial killer teaches his victims to respect life and what they have. All are ironic in that their narratives suggest that if the victim is being targeted based on their lack of morals then the idea that killing as punishment/as education is also immoral and so it is negated or paralysed.

In Saw the killer, known as Jigsaw plays games with his victims, punishing them for their selfish lifestyles. Unlike some of the monsters within horror, Jigsaw is not driven by cruelty or insanity but by the need to teach his morally deficient victims the value of life. Jigsaw makes each of his victims appreciate how precious life is by threatening to take it away. Only at the end do we discover that he, himself is dying from cancer- in a way, justifying his corrosive anger at those who take life for granted. Saw doesn’t tend to follow the classic key narrative theories which most horror texts do, for example there is no equilibrium at the beginning of the film instead beginning with someone waking up to discover they have been kidnapped. It is also very hard to determine or adapt Propp’s idea of spheres of action as the story twists in many directions leaving the audience unable to determine which roles fit which characters. This lack of narrative certainty or security is what twists our expectations and puts us much in the same position as the hostages- a two hour enigma code where our confusion is matched only by the implication that we too should re-evaluate our lives.

There are many key significant scenes within the film which set up the idea that its main focus is morality or self obsession. Unlike most films of this genre the focus is not hidden from the audience and is instead explained very bluntly in one of the

opening scenes, the dilemma is thus to do with whether we morally identify with the victims or the killer and which is which? Lawrence, a surgeon at a local hospital and Adam, a paparazzi photographer are the two main characters within the film and are the latest of Jigsaw’s victims. Once they awake to find themselves chained to opposite sides of a deserted room with a bloody corpse lying between them they find, hidden in their pockets tapes left by the killer. These tapes explain to the victims and the audience that each of the men live ‘self obsessed’ lives and it is because of this that they have been kidnapped, ‘Up until now you have simply sat in the shadows watching others live out their lives.’ This explanation stops the audience from having to guess what the underlining reason for these kidnaps are and it allows them to watch the film without having to think too hard about why the two men have been chosen as victims.

There are many ‘one liners’ expressed throughout the film, mostly by Adam which are stereotypical of the characters age and consequently a self obsessed outlook, ‘I went to sleep in my shithole apartment and woke up in an actual shithole.’ This contrast between comedy and terror is set up to remind us of the lack of morals both the characters and the audience actually have. Two men are going to die and yet they still have time to joke around and we have time to laugh with them. The reflex to blame others- to imagine the situation can be shifted onto someone else- creates a ‘Dog Eat Dog/ Weakest Link’ scenario.

Within the film there are many different scenes or situations which set up or echo the film language of Reality TV. This is very effective in blurring the lines between the fiction and the genre, we as a society all love to watch. The use of a nameless, faceless killer using tapes to play games and test his victims is, in a way just a more extreme example of reality shows such as Big Brother. The fact that the killer wants Lawrence to kill Adam also suggests the idea of competitiveness within game shows- kicking each other out to gain something for themselves, e.g. Dog Eat Dog and The Weakest Link. The control room/monitors/microphones and mise-en-scene familiar to the genre lit in an unearthly bluey green, add to this understanding.

The suggestion that ‘the camera does lie’ within Adams filmic flashback also holds the idea of paparazzi press hounds desperate for celebrity title tattle. In the flashback

Adam takes pictures of Lawrence entering and leaving a student nurses room, suggesting that adultery has taken place. This, in fact is not true and so creates the idea of selective truth, e.g. editing within game shows such as Big Brother to create different personalities which in effect will bring more ratings but is a comment on our culpability as a media obsessed audience to believe the worst of anyone in any situation.

Throughout the film, the director uses the idea of flashbacks within a flashback to introduce us to three other victims, all of whom awoke to find themselves in similar, time dependent situations to him and Adam. The first, a man who self harmed was given two hours to crawl through a room full of razor sharp wire in order to free himself. Then a woman addicted to heroin was made to kill and sift through a mans intestines in order to be let go and the third man who lived his live pretending to be ill was given until his candle burned out to find a combination that would open a safe holding the antidote to the poison which was injected into his bloodstream. All three victims show signs of weakness directly attributable to societies selfish streak, the self indulgent abuser, the drug addict and the benefit soaker living off others. The flashbacks also introduce us to two other characters which, at the beginning can be seen as the hero within the narrative, these men were detectives working on the murder case. After one of the men dies on the trail to catch Jigsaw the other becomes obsessed with trying to put a face to the name and begins to loose all control, even our ‘hero’ gives in to his darker instincts and loses sight of what he was originally trying to do- its all about healing his own bruised ego.. A very important scene within the flashbacks and one that sums up the idea of morality, is when one of Jigsaw’s victims and sole survivors (the drug addict) credits him for helping her change her life, ‘He helped me.’ We are shown, through a series of fast edits exactly what she had to go through in order to survive along with a scene in which the murderer congratulates her after she completes the task. He tells the woman that she will no longer live her live carelessly and from now on will respect herself completely. This makes it clear to the audience that the murderer, if you can still call him a murderer doesn’t want to hurt his victims but feels he must punish them in order to teach them a moralistic lesson and make them understand and appreciate the meaning or value of life. Only

by utilising the most extreme and immoral means can he enforce the immorality at the root of their punishment.

Throughout the film both victims, Adam and Lawrence are represented as being immoral and self obsessed which suggests that the killer is acting morally and that kidnap and murder can be excused for the right reasons. Through the flashbacks we see that Adam is a photographer, making his living by sneaking around, taking incriminating pictures of people and ultimately wrecking their lives. We also see that Lawrence has not only been having an affair but he tends to devote himself to his work rather than his responsibilities, his wife and child. Many films of this genre show the victims family in order to create empathy but within Saw a very different effect is created when we enter Lawrence’s home. We do not feel for the victim but we are instead angered by him, in a way we begin to feel as if he has deserved this, empathising with the killers actions rather than his pleas of guilt, ‘I‘d rather you broke down and told me you hated me. At least then there would be some passion in it.’

The main twist within the film is that we are led to believe the killer is Zeph, a hospital orderly who is present within one of Lawrence’s flashbacks, again as an audience we have been led to ‘narratively judge’ based on what we have been shown- selective reality. Within this flashback Zeph has to remind Lawrence of his patients name, ‘They are people you know,’ suggesting to the audience that Lawrence looks upon his patients as cases rather than people and so reminds us of the underlying idea of immorality and self obsession. This is followed by a scene where he flirts with a student to cement out dislike towards him.

It is not until the very end of the narrative that we and Adam realise Jigsaw is actually the fake corpse that has been lying between him and Lawrence in a pool of blood for the whole of the film, and that Zeph is also being controlled by him through tapes. As Jigsaw rises up from the floor, the camera focuses on Adams eyes watching him, we see his fright and the need to live within him.

The camera jumps back to one of Lawrence’s flashbacks where it shows him working at the hospital with a terminally ill patient dying of cancer, it is Jigsaw. We then hear the voice over of Jigsaw saying how he is sick of the disease eating away at him and of people not respecting what they have. A series of fast edits and canted

camera angles and movements piece everything together for the audience to understand. Jigsaw then turns and switches off the lights. We see his silhouette through the smoke of outside which makes him look very powerful against Adam, chained up and pleading to be let free. As he slams the door shut he shouts, ‘game over’ making the final point that these people looked upon their lives as a game they were playing, they had no morals, no respect for life and they learnt their lessons too late. Adam is left in the darkness of the last four walls he will ever see to think about his life and how he lived it.

This ending to the narrative is very effective in making its audience think twice about how they live their lives. Its strong moral stance and echoing of genres key to societies lack of morality such as Reality TV and tabloid journalism is what makes it so successful, representing the socio-cultural fears of a modern-day society. The film suggests that if we keep on living the way we do then it will take something as drastic as murder to bring us back and make us realise what is really important and why we are actually here.


Visual Texts

Saw (2004)

Twisted Pictures

James Wan

Phone booth (2002)

Fox 2000 Pictures

Joel Schumacher

Seven (1995)

New Line Cinema

David Fincher

The Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Market Square Productions

George A Romerio

Frankenstein (1931)

Universal Pictures

James Whale

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Universal Pictures

James Whale

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

20Th Century Fox

Robert Wise

Big Brother, series 5 (2004)

Channel 4 Television Co-operation

Endemol Entertainment

Simon Hepworth, Helen Dawning

The Weakest link (2000)

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Finton Coyle, Cathy Dunning

Dog Eat Dog (2002)

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Bob Levy

Survivor (2001)

CBS Television

Charlie Parsons

Fame Academy (2002)

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Pop Idol (2001)

Thames Television

Simon Fuller

Candid Camera (1948)

CBS Television

Allen Funt

An American Family (1973)

Public Broadcasting Service

Alan Raymond, Susan Raymond

Web Sites/ Essays

Debt facts and figures

Richard Talbot, 2005

Compensation Culture,

Who is to blame


The rise and cost of a compensation culture

Michael Beverley

Huge rise in number of claims

Michael Beverley

Self Obsession

Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist

Triangle of Self Obsession

World Service Office, Inc

Adoption Statistics

Lori Carangilo, 2001

Web Sites/ Research


British politics in focus, second edition

Roy Bentely, Alan Dobson,

Maggie Grant, David Roberts

Chapter 2, British Politics in Context

Page 74

ISBN- 1873929935

AS and A2 study Guide- Media Studies

Jacquie Bennett

Pages 56-57, 134-135

ISBN- 0582784425

Feel; Robbie Williams

Chris Heath

Chapter 5, Page 37

ISBN- 0091897548

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