Dossier » Horror

The connection between real and reel horror

by Thomas Riegler

Since 9/11 and the proclamation of the “War on Terror”, a new brand of explicitly violent horror movies has scored major box office hits: Captivity, Hostel, Saw, The Devil’s Reject, Turistas, or Wolf Creek – films that have since became synonymous with “torture porn”. But from the point of view of many directors, experts, and fans this “reel” horror reflects the “real” horror of our time: War, terrorism, economic decline, corporate greed, natural disasters, and social collapse.

Horror - The connection between real and reel horror -


Assuming a connection between violent periods and violent pop culture, this contribution explores the present horror boom in American cinema with matching genre themes of the 1970s.

Since 9/11 and the proclamation of the “War on Terror”, a new brand of explicitly violent horror movies has scored major box office hits: Captivity, Hostel, Saw, The Devil’s Reject, Turistas, or Wolf Creek – films that have since became synonymous with “torture porn”. But from the point of view of many directors, experts, and fans this “reel” horror reflects the “real” horror of our time: War, terrorism, economic decline, corporate greed, natural disasters, and social collapse.

In a similar way the splatter horror of Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had referred to the Vietnam War, a string of high profile political assassinations, racism, and urban riots. The 1970s was a time of paranoia about the rise of violent crime, economic woes resonated strongly, and the political system was engulfed in a serious crisis of confidence after the Watergate scandal.
Thus the conclusion is that real/reel violence and horror “mirror” each other in times of political, social, and economic crisis.

1.  Introduction:

Filmtheorist Siegfried Kracauer famously stated in 1947: “What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions – those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness.” Kracauer’s famous thesis that Germany’s expressionist cinema had somehow predicted the rise of Nazism to power has been contended as speculative ever since. David Slocum has argued that “the nature of the linkages between cinematic and social violence, between images onscreen and the summary of tumultuous events underway outside the theatre, remains circumstantial and speculative.” On the other hand, many commentators propose that horror cinema is “unconscious” and simply feeds the voyeuristic impulses of the audience by producing ever more violent scenarios.
Although empirical data is lacking on the subject, it can be argued alongside Kracauer that cinema is indeed a “mirror of the prevailing society”, culturally expressing, among many other factors, the anger, frustration, and fear of its time. This is especially evident when taking into account the conjuncture of the horror genre: The “great period of horror” in the 1930s gave birth to films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman – films expressing the general anxiety of their context fuelled by the Great Depression and the tensions leading up to the Second World War. Similarly, 1950s thrillers and horror movies were shaped under the “mushroom cloud” of the nuclear threat (Formicula, The Thing from Another World, Them) or the anticommunist paranoia of the McCharty era (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Manchurian Candidate).
The following sections aim to examine this interaction of real and reel horror in depth by concentrating on a comparison between 1970s and contemporary horror films.
2. Horror films of 1970

Already starting in the late 1960s, the United States experienced crises on many fronts during the following decade: The country had still to come to terms with the unsolved issues of the civil rights conflict, while the economy struggled because of high energy prices and a weak dollar. In the international sphere the US suffered setbacks and humiliation such as the retreat from Saigon (1975) or the occupation of the embassy in Tehran (1979). This state of affairs was reflected by filmmakers in various ways: George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, or Tobe Hooper offered uncompromising pictures of a nation undergoing a traumatizing period of rapid social and political change – while being engaged in a distant war in South East Asia that was a far cry from the clear-cut moral endeavor of World War II.
In many ways George Romero’s Night of the living Dead (1968) was the trendsetter of the cinematic responses. This movie marked horror’s final departure from its classic gothic and foreign settings. Instead it was localized right at the doorstep of middle class-America, and by doing so the fantastical escapism of the genre was discarded for overt social and political criticism. Night of the Living Dead features the last stand of a small group of people bunched together in an isolated farmhouse. They face the overwhelming onslaught of an army of zombies freshly returned from the grave – due to a colossal “blunder” of the military industrial-complex. Whereas in previous horror films there was always a reassuring specter and a final daring rescue at the end, in Night of the Living Dead all is lost from the beginning: The collective action among the divisive mix of protagonists fails and only one of them, the Afro-American Ben, lives to see the next day – only to be promptly shot by white militiamen mercilessly hunting down the ghouls in a “search and destroy” mission. After killing Ben (accidentally or intentionally – the films leaves this question open) the assailants drag his lifeless body with a hook to a pile of wood to burn it with the zombie cadavers.
Since the film is shot in cinema verite-style newsreel this sequence of the principal “hero” and identification figure suffering both a meaningless death and a disgraceful bodily destruction is especially disturbing. Overall this deeply pessimistic and bleak scenario incorporates both the deeply divided nature of 60s America (between classes, generations, races), its demise into nihilistic violence – enacted both within society (assassinations, riots, lynch killings) and on the outside world (Vietnam). Jim Hoberman commented on these close parallels between the movie and its context: “Shopped to distributors during the Wild in the Streets spring of 1968, Night of the Living Dead embodied the Eve of Destruction: battlefields, riots, and mass demonstrations. The movie brought the war home with a vengeance. Was social breakdown ever more luridly visualized?”
Whereas the zombie in classic films of the 1930s and 1940s had been an exotic, hypnotized, mindless slave, Night of the Living Dead established its flesh-ripping ghoul as a political metaphor and symbolic threat to the existing social order. In his related film Dawn of the Dead (1977) Romero developed that theme further – here the walking dead, who wander aimlessly in a huge shopping mall, stand for mindless consumerism, and no safe distance is possible: “They are us”. Therefore Kim Pfaffenroth has argued that Romero and other filmmakers “use the fantastical ‘disease’ of the zombies to criticize the very real diseases of racism, sexism, materialism, and individualism that would make any society easy prey for barbarian hordes. And the portrayal is so powerful and compelling in these films, that it is impossible to discount it as some thoughtless anti-American screed: it is a real, if extreme, diagnosis of what ails us.”
While Night of the Living Dead had laid the groundwork, the following movies pushed the boundaries even further: With the Vietnam War escalating in the early 1970s, horror film makers increasingly focused on the resulting effect on the homeland, but also on the nature of repressed violence within the fabric of a supposedly “civilized” American society. Some of them were even personally affected by the war– like legendary horror makeup artist Tom Savini for example, who served in Vietnam as a combat photographer. These impressions greatly influenced his work later on.
In case of Wes Craven it was the stream of brutal TV-footage transmitted from the war zone right into the American living rooms that enraged and inspired him to make his first picture in 1972: “Last House on the Left was very much a product of its era”, he recalled in an interview: “It was at a time when all the rules were out of the window, when everybody was trying to break the rules of censorship. We were all very antiestablishment at that time. The Vietnam War was going on, and the most powerful footage we saw was in actual documentary films of the war. In Last House, we set out to show violence the way we thought it really was and to show the dark underbelly of the Hollywood genre film. We consciously took all the B-movie conventions and stood on their heads.”
Last House on the Left broke into the comfort zone and shattered the façade of middle-class America in its exploration of an abyss of dark, barbaric violence beyond the thin layer of bourgeois moral and values. This was done in the most shocking way possible to avoid any stylization of pain and death. Famously the ads advised audiences: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s only a movie.” Last House on the Left first depicts the brutal rape and murder of two teenage girls by an “antifamily” of psychedelic hippies – then the murderers are in turn massacred when they coincidentally seek refuge with the parents of one of the victims. When the respectable couple discovers by chance what the young people have done to their daughter, they “explode” in murderous rage and kill them one after the other in the most gruesome manner until they are left standing in front of the ruins of their existence. According to the “New York Times” the disturbing revelation was, “that the most terrifying violence and depravity could be right around the corner.” Last House on the Left also broke the established rule that violence enacted by “good” guys was quick and clean as Craven explained: “That was the sort of attitude that America had gone into Vietnam with … that they were the bad guys and we’d go in like in Gunsmoke, face ‘em down, and bang, they ‘d be dead. The fact of the matter was that the war involved horrendous killings piled upon killings.”

This motif of savageness breaking loose can also be found in Craven’s The Hills have Eyes (1977): Here a clan of mutants, deranged from atomic tests, attacks a family on vacation in a barren Californian wilderness. In fighting back the victims become equally savage. The ensuing struggle for live and death is fought out mercilessly and ends only when the last of the assailants is dead. Again Craven stressed the point that this maddening violence is “home-grown” and could not be safely contained: “It’s not that there are violent people out there waiting to break into our own affluent circle. No. We are those people. […] We have done the most violent things.”
Another major motif was the “slaughter” or “sacrifice” of the youth of America by the hands of old, paternal, and reactionary forces. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) innocent teenagers are preyed upon in an unforgiving countryside: Out of gas they find themselves suddenly hunted by a backwoods family of cannibals led by the masked “Leatherface”. As one reviewer observed, the assailants can be interpreted “as the youth of America that joined the military and their elders are the government. The siblings do what they have been taught and told to do. So here they are, killing the innocent without knowing why.”

It was Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980s that marked the end for this boom of politically charged horror movies: The administration succeeded in restoring America’s belief in itself and supposedly “cured” the economy through neoliberal deregulation. The movie industry was an eminent part of an overall cultural change to conservative values: The dark and cynical days of “New Hollywood” were over and an era of escapist entertainment began with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchise. This trend was widespread – in the wake of Halloween (1978), Friday 13 (1980), and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) even sub-cultural horror became primarily introspective and detached from real events before it finally entered the mainstream during the 1990s with the teen slashers (Scream). The self-satisfied and optimistic tone of this particular decade had been constituted by the “victory” in the Cold War and a long period of steady growth. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 were the most symbolic event among many others that shattered this “innocence” and marked the dawn of a new “age of fear”. One cultural symptom of this shift was of course the great “renaissance” of the horror film.

3. Contemporary horror film

In a piece for The Atlantic Monthly Ross Douhat argued that Hollywood took a remarkably different path after the 9/11 attacks. Many experts had warned of a strategic “pact” between the movie industry and Washington promoting patriotism and even jingoism – just like in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Instead, writes Douhat, Hollywood returned to the “paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s.”
There are indeed many similarities, and the most obvious choice for such 1970s revival is the horror boom: Just like Vietnam was a main catalyst, the ongoing War on Terror, but also the consequences of the worldwide recession and its devastating impact on society, resonated in a revival of the genre. According to a 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center the percentage of Americans believing to be better off in the next five years is at its lowest since the start of the census 44 years ago. The worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression has already claimed 3.6 million American jobs by the start of 2009. “It's like the American Dream in reverse”, President Barack Obama declared.
Thus when Wes Craven was recently asked why “sadism is in vogue”, he replied: “Because we’re living in a horror show. The post 9/11 period, all politics aside, has been extremely difficult for the average American. We all know what’s floating around out there. That’s big stuff, and it comes out in a million ways, from people drinking a bit more to kids going to hard-core movies.” Similarly Anne Billson wrote in the “Guardian”: “The good news about the recession is that we can look forward to some great horror movies. The fright genre has traditionally flourished in straitened times.”

First of all, a retro-trend brought remakes of almost all classics – often made by their veteran directors. Most notably George A. Romero returned with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), and Survival of the Dead (2009). After many years of commercial failures – most notably Day of the Dead (1985) – Romero’s ideas were in line again with the zeitgeist. His script for Land of the Dead, which had been shelved immediately after 9/11 when Hollywood only wanted “family films”, was taken up after the invasion of Iraq (2003).

In Land of the Dead the zombies have finally taken over: The remaining people live in security enclaves like “Fiddler’s Green”, a shopping mall complex dominated by a tower resembling a “cathedral of commerce”. Kept in check by gun-crazy mercenaries the zombies, who are clearly recognisable as standing for the excluded underclass, eventually unite and thereby manage to break into this fortified gated community. There they literally “eat up” the rich – stressing the point that the exclusion of fundamental problems is never a solution. In his follow-up Diary of the Dead Romero makes fun of “zombiefied” youngsters, who keep on documenting the spectacle of a society “consuming” itself through the safe distance of the video camera: “In addition to trying to tell the truth, I’m trying to scare you.” Survival of the Dead, the latest instalment, is set on Plum Island off the coast of New England and is home to two feuding Irish clans. When this remote place is affected by the zombie apocalypse the conflict between the more religious Muldoons and the agnostic O’Flynns escalates again: One side wants to kill all ghouls, while the other tries to domesticate them in order to find a cure. The two parties – probably the last men on earth – will not compromise and face each other in a climactic duel illuminated by a large moon in the background.

Romero's films and others like Zack Snyder's more conventional remake of Dawn of the Dead (2005) made the zombie come across as probably the most fitting protagonist in this new age of horror. Lev Grossman diagnosed many reasons for this popularity: “If there's something new about today's zombie, it's his relatability. Sure, he's an abomination and a crime against all that is good and holy. But he exemplifies some real American values too. He's plucky and tenacious — you can cut off his limbs and he'll keep on coming atcha. And he's humble. You won't find zombies swanning around and putting on airs like some other monsters I could mention. They're monsters of the people. It was the beginning of the end for vampires when Lehman Brothers went under, those bloodsucking parasites. Down with vampires. Long live (or is it die?) the zombie: the official monster of the recession.”
But not only the zombie has returned: Like in the 1970s unspeakable evil lurks again in remote places, mostly in “red state” territory, in the shape of ignorant, reactionary, or retarded backwoodsmen, whose “appetite” on slaying youngsters, yuppies, or city-slickers seems insatiable. This reflects the tensions and divisions within American society – whether about the difference between city and countryside, or diverging opinions on morals, religion, and politics.
In Wrong Turn (2003) college students on a trip in the West Virginia Mountains fall prey to a group of cannibalistic rednecks, deranged by generations of inbreeding. Hatchet (2007) has a group of tourists in the Louisiana bayou decimated by a lone serial killer. In Cabin Fever (2002) college graduates partying in a remote cabin succumb one by one to flesh eating bacteria. No outside help is coming: Because they spread the virus, some hillbillies attack them out of revenge. The only survivor of the original group – who managed to evade infection – claims “I made it”, only to be shot by the police, who act on order of killing all contaminated. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2003) offers a glimpse into the past of the infamous Hewitt Clan from Tobe Hooper‘s 1975 film: In the disguise of a policeman the patron “arrests” unsuspecting youngsters only to “cook” them after recipes from his wartime in Korea. Before “Leatherface” kills them all with his chainsaw the victims have to parade around as “recruits”. Like in the 1970s these films disclose that the country “eats up” its innocent youth again. Also, when the remake of The Hills have Eyes (2006) featured the family father shoving a small American flag through the back of the throat of a mutant, it was read as a critique of the strained relations between the US and the world post 9/11.
An exception may be Last House on the Left (2009) – where as the original presented violence as grimly destructive, the new version in effect condones self-administered justice in defence of the nuclear family: This time one of the girls abused by the gang manages to escape by swimming away. When subsequently the villains spend the night at the lakeside house of the girl’s parents, the couple does not seek brutal revenge right away when their daughter drags herself home. It is all about getting her onto a boat and safely to the hospital, which entails getting past their murderous houseguests by all means necessary – including the father frying the head of the gang leader in a microwave. Consequently the film’s tagline asks: “If bad people hurt someone you love, how far would you go to hurt them back?”
Some of the recent horror films had another distinct trademark that sets them apart from their 70s-predecessors: In Captivity (2007), Hostel (2005), Hostel Part II (2007), Saw (five parts between 2004 and 2008), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Turistas (2006), or Wolf Creek (2005) explicit and up-close violence is inflicted upon the victims in lengthy torture sessions and often directed primarily against women. Critics like David Edelstein labelled this “torture porn”, which hit the screens around the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal that had exposed abuse and torture on Iraqi prisoners in 2004. Therefore Eli Roth remarked that his two Hostel films were only expressing the horrors going on in the real world: “Right now we're at war, and then you have Hurricane Katrina, where there are people on roofs screaming for help. I have this feeling that civilization could collapse, and that if you go overseas, you could get killed, […]. This film is also about the dark side of human nature.“ On another occasion Roth claimed his first Hostel movie was “very much a reflection of my disgust with the Iraq War and the Al-Qaeda beheadings. [...] It's not just about people who want to kill us, but about capitalism gone awry and American imperialism.”
This perspective of a dangerous world and a shaken belief in civilisation is exemplified in Roth’s Hostel, which has become synonymous for “torture porn”: Promised cheap booze and easy sex, young American backpackers on a trip around Europe are lured to a Bratislava youth hostel – only to be abducted and brought to an abandoned warehouse where they are subjected to all kinds of imaginable cruel and sadistic treatment. Their tormentors are American businessmen who pay to maim and murder them with torture tools. In Hostel Part II three young girls fall into the trap of the responsible organisation called “Elite Hunting” and find their adventure trip turning into a fight for their lives.

In the popular Saw franchise, most of the excruciating pain is self-inflicted, because the serial killer “Jigsaw” constructs death traps for his victims, where, once caught, he confronts them with the choice of certain death or severe self-mutilation. From Jigsaw's point of view, who is dying from an inoperable tumour himself, this is an educational means to force his “pupils” to re-appraise the gift of life. Another fitting example for torture porn is Captivity, where a supermodel is kidnapped and brutalised by an obsessed fan: Held captive in a cell, her all-powerful kidnapper subjects her to a series of psychological and physical tortures until she manages to escape.
The debate whether this degree of screen violence is something completely “new” or simply a reinterpretation of already existing trends is ongoing: James G. Poulos for example noted a critical difference separating films like Hostel or Saw from “classic” horror: “In the great zombie horror movies, the possibility of our humanity remaining intact is never entirely sealed off. Instead, the new torture movies present a closed world of inescapable doom. The rot of mind and soul devours all; the horror takes place in play chambers were choice is strapped down and humiliated, and reason profoundly mocked.” Luke Thompson claims the opposite, arguing “why it isn’t torture porn”: “The thing that's grating is the way some critics don't just pan the movies, but also pan the people who watch them, acting as though we're some depraved new breed who like unprecedented levels of hideousness, even as the movies themselves deliver the same kind of visceral kicks horror films have always had.”

4. Conclusion

The notion that reel horror is a “mirror image” of the real horror going on in this world is hotly debated, and there is no end in sight for this dispute. By stressing the conjuncture of the horror genre against the background of greater socio-political development this essay has taken forth the argument that the horror film industry strives in times of violence, fear, and uncertainty. Of course there are other factors to be taken into account – like commercial considerations of the film industry in regard to cheap and small productions turning out to be box office hits, the “politics” of film rating, or a sort of “arms race” among directors to outdo their predecessors in regard to gore and violence. Also, there is the demand of mostly young audiences to experience the horror and disgust in a safe environment for entertainment purposes.
The fact remains that the genre is a perfect expression of its era’s zeitgeist. Cinema generally affirms the political and cultural status quo from which it originates: Films reproduce, charge, and disseminate interpretations, ideologies, and world views in contemporary society by constructing an imaginary space, where the hegemonic constants of the public discourse come to life. What the “mirror” of horror films shows us, is a bleak, pessimistic and unsparing “picture” of a society deeply affected by fear, uncertainty, and aggression, very much like during the 1970s. Like Slavoj Zizek has argued, it is necessary to engage these dark abstractions, since they transcend reality in the most revealing way: “It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not yet ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is, in reality, more real than reality itself, look into cinematic fiction.”
The comparison inspired by Kracauer has further shown that real and reel violence do not exist apart from each other, they are constantly overlapping – just like in the high profile case of “torture porn”: Some of the practices in Hostel clearly resemble “methods” of “harsh interrogation” employed by the US military and intelligence agencies in the “War on Terror”. Videos and pictures detailing this real abuse spread through the Internet, while fictitious torture “trickles” down – not only through “torture porn” movies but also via mainstream entertainment: According to a study by the Parents' Television Council there were 102 torture scenes on American TV between 1996 and 2001. During the next three years, from 2002 until 2005, this number increased to 624. “Torture porn” is not a sole creation by the horror genre, but can be found to a varying degree and intensity all over popular culture.

When the infamous pictures of the Abu Ghraib scandal appeared, they were not only testimony to a sadistic and brutal military culture, but also of a darker quality of post 9/11 America, since torture’s aspects of domination and control are increasingly found in civil debate: It is almost common sense that “lesser evils” are necessary to win in the confrontation with terrorism, whereas complex conditions are increasingly judged simply in Manichean black/white. There is also a dimension of low level violence through the rapid expansion and privatisation of security, the strict regulation of immigration and enforcement of hegemonic “values”. Obviously the “evils” of our times – terrorism, genocide, failing state power, economic crises, depleted resources, and environmental disasters – have shaped a growing recognition that civilisation is indeed a “thin veneer” and security is fragile and can be lost at any given moment. It is still left to be seen how societies cope with the loss of long-held certainties. The horror genre is a critical barometer for these developments, but allows also for exploring the dark side of one’s self. “Horror is radical”, George Romero once stated, “It can take you into a completely new world, new place, and just rattle your cage and say, wait a minute – look at things differently. The shock of horror is what horror’s all about.”


Further Reading:
Ben Hervey, Night of the Living Dead. BFI Film Classics, London 2008.
Jim Hoberman, The Dream Life. Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, New York 2003.
Joseph Maddrey, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, Jefferson 2004.
Kim Pfaffenroth, Gospel of the Living Dead. George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, Waco 2006.
David A. Szulkin, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. The Making of a Cult Classic, Guildford 2000.