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Frightgeist

With 100 years of movies to choose from, is it possible to pick horror films that best represent western culture during each decade of cinema’s history? Is there such a thing as a fright zeitgeist?

From the forgotten art of the silent film to the twenty-first century gimmick of “real” 3D, horror movies of the last 100 years have delivered many a shock and nightmare to audiences around the world. But choosing a representative one from each decade to reflect cultural, political and social tensions of the time is no easy task.

The challenge is not to necessarily provide the genre’s finest, but the best representative film from each decade — something that could be said to reflect popular culture at the time of its release — from the shadows of the First World War to the current climate of cameras everywhere. To that end, I give you ten films that may not be the best of the genre, but those that say something about western civilization — the spirit of the age, be it political, social, cultural, even sexual — at the time of their release.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

1920s: Nosferatu (1922)

The most atmospheric of adaptations of Dracula from the great German expressionist F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is notable not so much for what it takes from Stoker’s vampire, but instead for what it adds to vampire lore. Here for the first time we find sunlight destroying the undead, and while Dracula was able to command rats in the novel, it is Nosferatu that suggests that rats —and by extension, vampires — carry plague.

The titular character (aka Count Orlok), has often been seen by critics as an immigrant — or more specifically, a Jewish immigrant. Released at a time when anti-semitism and anti-immigration was gathering momentum in the corrupt Weimar Republic (especially among Hitler’s supporters), Nosferatu can be seen as reflecting extreme xenophobia. Intentional or not (the film was actually penned by a Jewish screenwriter named Henrik Galeen), the undercurrents of anti-semitism are undeniably there in Nosferatu. As such, fear in the film is not just one of a bloodsucking monster, but of an infiltration of the eastern-european other. It is a theme that would go on to have great political significance when coupled with the economic collapse that came with the Great Depression.

Frankenstein (1931)

When Henry Frankenstein cries out “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” nineteen thirties’ audiences were shocked. Frustrations rising out of the depression, coupled with the rise of totalitarianism and a distrust of intellectualism had many questioning the social order; and science was chief among the culprits seen to be whittling away at religion and morality.

Theronoid (circa 1930)
Theronoid (circa 1930)

After all, this was only six years after the infamous Scopes Monkey (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial) Trial (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial), and science posed a threat to traditional values. Sure, there were vaccines and penicillin; but there were also cure-all electromagnetic contraptions like the Theronoid and the Magnetone. Elixirs and tonics that promised good health but delivered poison. Was it any wonder that doctors would be distrusted?

Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)

Where May Shelley’s novel was about the dangers of blind ambition and the nature of being human, Universal’s 1931 adaptation with Boris Karloff was more directly — as one advertising poster made clear — about “a monster science created but could not destroy.”

Frankenstein is effective because it raises questions of ethics in science. The world was changing rapidly in the nineteen thirties; and science, spurred faster onward by a looming Second World War, would usher in the new world of gods and monsters (as Dr. Pretorius would say in the films’s arguably better sequel).

Cat People (1942)

Cat People (1942)
Cat People (1942)

Arguably the first horror film to make explicit the power of female sexuality, producer Val Lewton’s Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur) is the story of Irena, a Serbian girl who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused.

Notable for its cinematography, Cat People is most compelling because of its suggestion that a woman’s sexual urges have an element of danger to them — a power that men cannot contain or control. Played with equal parts innocence and seduction by the sensual Simone Simon, Irena is a threat to men only when she becomes the object of desire or an agent of jealousy. In many ways, she is both feminist hero and failure, as it is through her control of the animal within that there is ultimately a happy ending (of course, not for Irena, who is presumably torn to shreds, off camera, by a panther in a cage).

Yes, there were femme fatales before and after Irena, but with Cat People, Lewton gives us a character that not only threatens male dominance, but renders men unable to contain or even confront the threat; its themes would resonate later in a century that saw the women’s liberation movement and rise of feminism.

The Thing (1951)

The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Thing from Another World (1951)

Howard Hawks was a peculiar director who managed to make films of almost every genre: from the slapstick comedy of Bringing Up Baby to the western noir of The Outlaw to the war-hero world of Sergeant York. Each classics in their own right, these films are joined by Hawk’s foray into the world of horror with The Thing From Another World.

“Tell this to everybody, wherever they are,” is the radio report sent back from the isolated arctic outpost at picture’s end. “Keep watching the skies.” And were it not for the combined efforts of a band of soldiers and scientists putting aside their differences and working together to fend off and kill an alien that they themselves unearthed from a frozen crash site, the entire expedition would have been wiped out: food for alien seed pods.

Filmed during the Korean War at the height of tensions with communist China and Soviet Russia, The Thing is, in many ways, a comment on the Cold War — even more so, fighting a war with an enemy we do not understand. With scientists and soldiers working together to stave off a mindless (anti-individual) menace that will reproduce without their combined intervention, the film none too subtly implies that Americans, too, must pull together to combat a similar threat that may come from the skies.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s seminal zombie classic may very well be the most political picture on this list. “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything” says Helen, the woman whose townhouse becomes the refuge for her nuclear family of headstrong husband Harry, their daughter and another couple PLUS the black man, Ben Huss, who arrives uninvited with the white girl, Barbara, that he saved from a zombie hoard.

Had it just had moments of racial tension alone, Night of the Living Dead could have made this list, but it is its shock ending that says much about the fear of a black man in nineteen-sixties rural America. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending for you. But go watch it. Now.

Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)
Halloween (1978)

White flight of the nineteen seventies helped usher in a golden age of suburbia. Factor in the fear that came in the wake of the discharge of many mentally ill patients in the late sixties and early seventies (due to court decisions in some states limiting commitment powers of the state) and you had the ingredients for one hell of nightmare steeped in urban legend: what if a mental patient escaped from the hospital and threatened the safety of our suburban homes?

Originally entitled “The Babysitter Murders,” Halloween made it clear that suburbia was not as safe and secure as middle america has been led to believe. That underlying message, and the blank stare of Michael Myers, scared the hell out of a teen audience whose parents had always kept them safe from harm.

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven’s first and best Freddy Krueger outing, Nightmare on Elm Street, took the “suburbs are not safe” theme to a whole new level. In the wake of Halloween, many a slasher movie was made, but none had the balls to suggest that you could be killed in your dreams.

What’s worse was the reason you were being killed. For a disillusioned Generation X —the children of the eighties who would be the first, in the history of the nation, to not do as well economically as their parents — the message was clear: your parents have secrets, and you’re gonna be the generation to pay for it. Freddy Kreuger isn’t killing teens because of their promiscuity as they were in endless Friday the 13th sequels; no, his nocturnal visitations were motivated by revenge. And what it told audiences in a time of nineteen-eighties excess is that Mom and Dad couldn’t be trusted.

Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch Project (1999)
Blair Witch Project (1999)

While arguably the most over-hyped and therefore disappointing films on this list, Blair Witch Project holds the distinction of being the first “found footage” film that also took advantage of early internet viral marketing. The result was a stark (albeit grainy) realism that transcended the screen and affected the audience on a visceral level of questioning — even for a moment — if what they were seeing was real.

Late '90s video camera
Late ’90s video camera

Technology in the nineteen nineties was in a state of flux unlike any decade previous. The demise of VHS, the rise of DVD, the ubiquity of the handheld camcorder and the explosion of early “reality” programming like MTV’s Real World and America’s Funniest Home Videos meant that by the time the decade was nearing its end, Generation X was already aging, giving way to (what was once called) Generation Y (now part of the Millennials); these new kids on the block measured an events’ importance by its ability to be captured on camera. Certainly, YouTube and Facebook, which would radically change the landscape of “social media”, were still four to five years away, but the end of the nineteen-nineties was a critical turning point; it was the dawn of democratization of who now created content for mass consumption — and how it was created. The tool of the masses was the video camera. Weddings, births, birthday parties: all had to be captured. The Blair Witch Project may have signaled the coming of a cultural shift now manifest in high speed internet and smartphones. No longer were we concerned if a tree falling alone in the forest made a sound; now  could we truly know if an event happened if it weren’t captured on video?

More than cinema vérité, Blair Witch Project established found-footage as an effective device for storytelling, cleverly turning the reality of artifice on its side.

28 Days Later (2003)

28 Days Later (2003)
28 Days Later (2003)

The events of 9/11 changed everything, including our understanding of true horror. In a post 9/11 world, it is arguable that nothing can be as scary as the ever-present threat of terrorism. From anthrax-tainted mail to shoe-bombs, the dangers of the early “naughts” were made 24/7 news. The escalation of fear was inescapable. Could we all be wiped out by a biological weapon? Were there hidden weapons of mass destruction that could be used on us? Could our own government be trusted — not only to protect us, but to tell us the truth?

28 Days Later — on the surface a zombie film — tapped into a post-9/11 paranoia of constant threat from a faceless enemy. Its poster said it all: Day 1: Exposure. Day 3: Infection. Day 8: Epidemic. Day 15: Evacuation. Day 20: Devastation. Its message: fear your neighbors as they can bring infection and death; fear the military as they may not be operating in your best interest; fear walking the streets during the day as you don’t know who or what is out there.

Each of these fears play out in the course of 28 Days Later, and while it may be the animalistic undead that rush the screen and provide the majority of the jolts, it’s the dread that comes from living in a world gone mad that is the true horror.

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

If Blair Witch questioned the existence of an event if it weren’t captured on camera, then a little over a decade later, Cabin in the Woods made it clear that in this age of smartphones, high speed internet, the NSA and security cameras, we are always being watched. 

In Cabin in the Woods, the traditional genre tropes are all there, almost comically: from the titular cabin, to the attractive teens, to the use of practically every known monster in horror history! But these are merely a means to an end. Here, technology serves the beast. An apt metaphor? Perhaps.


Is that, then, the spirit of this age? Only time will tell. What’s remarkable about horror movies is that many wear their age well, and the themes are timeless.

Don’t believe me? Go back and read only the bits in orange and tell me how many of these issues still resonate all these many years later. You’ll be surprised as to how far we’ve come but how we’re still only beginning to understand the issues horror movies have had us confront in the times in which we have lived.

The scares may be short-lived, but the real impact of these films is how much their themes become part of the cultural Frightgeist

The Gothic Staircase: From Piranesi to Harry Potter

Labyrinths, dark corridors and winding stairs.  Pathways and prisons. The pursuit of occult knowledge and — more often than not — the ensuing madness. These are elements of the Gothic.

The term Gothic first appeared during the latter part of the Renaissance. An architectural style, its characteristics included the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress. Evident in the edifices — cathedrals and abbeys — of the Roman Catholic and later, Protestant churches, it was also the style of many a medieval castle. Therein lies the use of the term centuries later to refer to a literary movement of mystery and the grotesque — for many a Gothic tale finds its setting in an old castle, replete with a great staircase upon which blood is spilled, ghosts appear and heroines ascend into the unknown.

Of the many influences upon the progenitors of Gothic fiction —the German and British Romantics of the eighteenth century — was the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist known for etchings of Rome and labyrinthine “prisons” (Carceri d’Invenzione). With arches, vaults and staircases that lead nowhere, Piranesi’s prisons were visions of the impossible.  To the Romantics, he was a virtuoso of the imagination.

“I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.” — Giovanni Battista Piranesi, as quoted by an early biographer

Plate 14 of Piranesi's Prisons
Plate 14 of Piranesi’s Prisons

The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750; a decade later, Piranesi would return to his imaginary prisons, revising the existing and adding two more (click here to see all 14 of the original Carceri in order (http://www NULL.let NULL.leidenuniv NULL.nl/Dutch/Renaissance/Facsimiles/PiranesiCarceri1750/)). By the late eighteenth century, his work was known throughout Europe.

Writing in his Italian Journey: 1786-1788, Goethe confesses that his visit to the ruins of Rome had failed to measure up to Piranesi’s images of them. Horace Walpole — author of the Castle of Otranto (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/696/696-h/696-h NULL.htm) (1764), generally agreed upon by critics as one of the first Gothic novels —  urged his fellow artists to “study [Piranesi’s] sublime dreams.” (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=dnk9AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA399&dq=Piranesi+Walpole+study+his+sublime+dreams&hl=en&sa=X&ei=iviMVLvfF7WHsQSlm4HoDg&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Piranesi%20Walpole%20study%20his%20sublime%20dreams&f=false)

Coleridge was well aware of Piranesi; Thomas De Quincey in his Confessions of An Opium Eater (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/2040/2040-h/2040-h NULL.htm) (1821) reminisces

“Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls: on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c.&c. expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overccome. Creeping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose, at least, that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.” 

Again and again, De Quincey comes back to the image of the staircase to the point where Piranesi’s labors are likened to unfinished stairs.

It is as if in the staircase itself, De Quincey and by extension, Coleridge (if the recollection is accurate) find in Piranesi’s etchings a potent symbol for the imagination itself. And for the authors of the Gothic novel, that symbol, consciously or not, plays out again and again.

Emily St. Aubert, the heroine Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/3268/3268-h/3268-h NULL.htm) (1794) encounters many a supernatural terror on the staircase in a gloomy castle. In his Monk: A Romance (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/601/601-h/601-h NULL.htm) (1796), Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis similarly situates his paranormal happenings on the stairs when in Voume II, Chapter I he writes “Occasional gleams of brightness darted from the Staircase
windows as the lovely Ghost past by them.” The aforementioned Castle of Otranto (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/696/696-h/696-h NULL.htm) finds many a dastardly deed tied to the castle’s stairs. And as late into the nineteenth century in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/345/345-h/345-h NULL.htm) (1897), the titular Count leads an unsuspecting Jonathan Harker “up a great and winding stair.” So prevalent is the image from Dracula that it is repeated again and again in film adaptations of the novel, from Carl Laemmle’s 1932 version with Bela Lugosi to Francis Ford Coppola’s with Gary Oldman (in 1992).

The stairwell in Dracula (1932)
The stairwell in Dracula (1932)

“Winding” “dizzying” “narrow” and “great” are just a few of the adjectives tied to the Gothic staircase. More than a means of moving from point A to point B, they are a mystery within the mysterious. They are architectural ruminations of at once possibilities and simultaneously dead ends. To the writer, they are ready made for metaphor.

No surprise then, Freud states that “staircases, ladders, and flights of stairs, or climbing on these, either upwards or downwards, are symbolic representations of the sexual act.” (Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners (http://www NULL.bartleby NULL.com/288/5 NULL.html).  1921. Chapter 5). But Freud stops short of fully exploring the nature of the staircase as metaphor in the same way that the Judeo-Christian tradition mistakes original sin as some type of sexual awakening — when it is indeed all knowledge that the forbidden fruit affords.

Knowledge then, as it emerges from the path of imagination, is at the end of the staircase. Something Jung might see as Hermetic knowledge and light from darkness.

Winchester House and the stairs to nowhere
Winchester House and the stairs to nowhere

Sometimes it is knowledge of a truth one does not want to confront as in the curious case of the Sarah Winchester’s “Mystery” House (http://www NULL.winchestermysteryhouse NULL.com/) in San Jose, California. Plagued by thoughts of the horrors her husband’s rifle had wrought, the widow Winchester spent the years following her husband’s death building a mansion with doors, windows and stairs to nowhere as a means, or so she thought, to confuse potentially vengeful spirits or hold off death itself. Hundreds of rooms with no sense or reason. An attempt to ease a guilty conscience.

More often, the staircase can be seen as a retreat or escape. A Jacob’s Ladder of sorts. A movement toward reward. It is interesting, for example, that a radical form of psychotherapy called Emergence Therapy uses the staircase as a metaphor (http://theemergencesite NULL.com/Tech/TechIssuesIssuesTheStairs NULL.htm). The patient ascends from darkness to light. Even in popular music, we find stairways to heaven. Where a “piper will lead us to reason.”

Piranesi’s etchings were born out of an Age of Reason. Knowledge, the promise of the Enlightenment, was believed within reach by men of science in the mid seventeenth century — providing the man of reason stayed the course and used a scientific mind to stay on point. But as Piranesi’s mind-boggling prisons reveal,  the imagination — the creative yet too often cruel tool of the inquisitive mind that was championed as much as reason by poets and philosophers of the early nineteenth century — can obfuscate more than enlighten. Or perhaps better put: enlighten through the challenge of obfuscation.

Stripped of its many layers of metaphor, it becomes clear that the staircase is the mind. Up into the light. Down into the dark. Knowledge. Fear of the unknown.

Hogwart's Grand Staircase (courtesy of harrypotter.wikia.com)
Hogwart’s Grand Staircase (courtesy of harrypotter.wikia.com)

It has been reported that among the many influences for J.K. Rowling’s depiction of the Grand-Staircase (http://harrypotter NULL.wikia NULL.com/wiki/Grand_Staircase) at Hogwart’s was a bookshop in Portugal called Livraria Lello (http://portugalconfidential NULL.com/2010/08/livraria-lello-a-bookstore-beyond-beautiful-in-porto/). In its beauty and grandeur, one can see a model for Hogwart’s in Livraria Lello, but it is not until one really considers the bewildering movement and plot points served by Piranesi-like staircase at Hogwart’s that the real foundation for Rowling lay somewhere in the Gothic.

Not only is there an impressive architectural style in Hogwart’s, but also, even more so, a movement of the mind therein — from darkness to light. It is this very movement that for Harry Potter and company literally reveals hidden [i.e., occult] knowledge again and again across the novels each time the Grand Staircase comes into play, placing Rowling’s work (and the eerily reminiscent prisons of Piranesi) firmly within the Gothic tradition.