27 Jul

Striking similarities in cultural tone. Vast differences in cinematic theme. Guest starring Jason Zinoman!

Posted by Bryan White | Wednesday July 27, 2011 | Guest Starring

Shock Value by Jason ZinomanIt’s been a long time since I’ve done a Guest Starring post and that has a lot to do with me being completely unable to sell people on the idea of writing an article for me. I’ve asked Zacherley, Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs, and bunches more and no one ever bites. You’ll notice that I occasionally add new writers to the shark tank here and they tend to scuttle off a couple of months later. Jason Zinoman made it easy for me, though. His publicist offered his services as guest blogger and asked me to hit him with a topic and I did. I love guest posts! Not only do I get to sit back and offer light commentary such as this but I get to read someone else’s thoughts on the topic of horror in the context of my own website without having to do much on my part. In the past I’ve had Remo D. – host of the ‘Manor of Mayhem’ horror movie show and Andrew W.K. – Rock’s ultimate party commander. Now I can add journalist and author, Jason Zinoman to the mix. Jason recently wrote the outstanding document on the re-emergence of horror, Shock Value, reviewed at this very site. I’m not sure Jason will be including this document on his resume any time soon since he guns for the New York Times and Slate, among other notable publications and websites but at least I can feel like my site’s status has been elevated slightly above the horror blog trailer park that I live in. Without further adieu, here’s Jason Zinoman’s question and his reply.

With the American social condition of the 60’s and 70’s influencing the direction of horror film then, why do we see a return of monsters and the supernatural in the horror of today, where social conditions aren’t all that much different?

Do good horror movies emerge out of bad times? It’s an appealing theory, since the classic Universal movies opened during the Depression and many of the movies I write about in Shock Value opened during the tumult of the sixties and Vietnam. There’s no question that all art is informed by the times in which it is made and that horror has traditionally expressed contemporary fears. The political atmosphere that Night of the Living Dead came out of had a huge impact on how it was seen. And Wes Craven will tell you that Vietnam played a role in Last House on the Left. But this way of understanding horror movies also has its limitations. There are many factors that go into the popularity of certain movies, and sometimes, defenders of the horror genre have overemphasized social or political ones.

I would say that the mechanics of the MPAA ratings board or the status of horror among Hollywood studios or movies trends have just as big of an impact. Why were werewolves out of fashion for most of the 1970s and then suddenly there was a spate of good ones in 1981 including Wolfen, American Werewolf in London and The Howling? I suspect that new developments in special effects, enabling better transformation scenes, had something to do with it, but there are probably many reasons. Vampires are often said to be going through resurgence right now, but they have popular for a long time. Even in the 1970s, when most of the famous horror movies involved serial killers and zombies, there were a huge number of vampire movies.

The horror genre was defined by the presence of the supernatural for most of the 20th century. It’s partly why some did not consider Psycho horror when it came out. Same goes for The Night of the Hunter, which would probably be called a horror film today. In the late sixties, the popular conception of what the horror genre started changing, expanding to include other kinds of monsters, including Romero’s zombies. Some people still saw horror as primarily supernatural, but that was changing. Since then, horror has grown and grown so much that defining the contours of it today is much harder. Is Twilight horror? Is A Serbian Film? These questions can start heated arguments among horror fans. But the reason we see more monsters today might have something to do with social conditions. Anyone who watches the news know out culture and politics is driven by fear.

But just as important is the dictates of the box office and the copycat nature of Hollywood. Twilight and True Blood inspire a flock of new vampires. And The Walking Dead should keep the zombies coming. But there have also been technological breakthroughs. You can simply show much more than you used to, and when done with care, like in the movies of Guillermo Del Toro, it’s quite thrilling to see these monsters come to life. Lastly, I think that mainstream filmmakers like Darren Aronovsky and JJ Abrams grew up with horror as a regular, accepted part of the cultural diet. And their movies reflect an appreciation of the genre without the sense that it’s less worthy than any other. Feature stories have long described cycles of horror, that it would go in and out of fashion. I suspect we passed that phase. Now horror is a permanent part of the landscape, and if you want to be informed about pop culture, you can’t afford to ignore it.

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