the seductive appeal of the horror film

From Psycho to recent hit Annabelle, which had audiences rioting in France, we've always loved to be scared by horror films. Sophia Satchell-Baeza investigates the terrifying lure of the silver screen...

by i-D Team and Adam Fletcher
30 October 2014, 11:00am

Film still from Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock

France is facing an outbreak of cinema seat-shredding hooliganism. According to French news reports, scores of teenagers have been rioting at screenings of the new American horror film Annabelle, which tells the story of a demonic doll that makes Chucky look cushy. And it's driving teenage audiences wild. So much so that several French cinemas have chosen to pull the film from programmes in a bid to control the 'menace'. It's not the first time that a horror film has set off teenage riots in the cinema. Le Parisien reported back in 2012 that screenings of Paranormal Activity and Sinister had also led to disruption. So either French teenagers are really very angry (likely), or there's something particular to the horror film that creates a space for this 'anything goes' mayhem.

The allure of the horror film is confusing for the haters. And yet David Robert Mitchell's It Follows received a lot of praise at the London Film Festival for the potent atmosphere of dread and black humour in its depiction of sexually-transmitted teenage hauntings (you read that right). A slew of new films out in time for Halloween, including Ouija, The Babadook, Horns, and the aforementioned Annabelle suggest that the genre is still very much alive. So why are we still, in the words of horror writer Stephen King, "daring the nightmare?"

The horror film creates a space for dealing with demons, unstable behaviours and our deepest, darkest perversions. All rehearsed and dealt with from the safest of our sofas

What Percy Bysse Shelley aptly described as "the tempestuous loveliness of terror" is as good as any a description of the seductive pleasures of horror film spectatorship. The Romantic poet was, of course, writing long before the horror film. But his description of the experience of the thrill of terror evoked by inspecting Leonardo Da Vinci's Medusa, is evocative of the combination of dread and transgressive pleasure brought on by these films. I asked Martyn Conterio, film critic and author of the upcoming monograph on Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960), just what he thought was so appealing: "Confronting death. Embracing the irrational. Acknowledging the sheer weirdness of being. The meeting of the known and the fantastical. The recognition of beauty in ugliness." "Scares, nerve-shredding tension and gore effects are all commendable attributes of big screen terror, for sure," he adds, "but it's in the examination of primal themes and accompanying transgressions, where the genre truly packs a punch. Horror cinema pushes buttons and boundaries, and sometimes its luck. The narratives can be as wild as they like."

By exploring these primal desires, the horror film offers catharsis, allowing us to make sense of real-life transgression. Stephen King, a.k.a the "King of Horror" author of cult novel Carrie, tackled the conundrum in a pithy essay titled "Why We Crave Horror." The essay boldly starts with a claim for universal insanity: "we're all mentally ill." Insanity is clearly relative when it comes to the horror film, however. Seeing a German doctor sew humans together from the mouth to the anus in tribute to his beloved dog (cough cough Human Centipede), might not be as unhinged as your Friday night bender on Ouzo. Instead, the horror film creates a space for dealing with demons, unstable behaviours and our deepest, darkest perversions. All rehearsed and dealt with from the safest of our cinema seat/ sofa.

In a world divided into 'good' and 'evil', horror films often replicate the familiarity of myth, the comfort of retribution. They encourage us to be children in the playground, seeing vengeance enacted, rehearsing the simplicity of condemnation. As King argues, this provides us with 'psychic relief', encouraging us to lapse into 'simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness.' We are all of us, states King, potential lynchers. Horror films allow us to deal with these demons. 

The scariest horror films are also challenges, encouraging shared communities in a landscape more inclined towards private film spectatorship and sit-on-the-sofa film downloading. We go to prove ourselves, to show that we're 'not chicken'. To boast, impress or be a part of a shared filmic 'event'. Posters start to appear on the sides of buses, sneaking up on you on winding corners of the tube. News stories like the Annabelle riots or people projectile-vomiting at screenings of V/H/S bait new audiences in the press. 

Memorable scenes from horror films have become mental fixtures, part of a shared upbringing and cultural reference point. These shock images seem to have a special hold on people's psyche. I'll never forget the time I went into a screening of some (unnameable) Italian rape horror with no idea what I was going into. And I was the only woman in a darkened cinema. I never got over that. In Alfred Hitchcock's famous shower scene in Psycho, many reported a phobia of taking showers after watching the film, including most famously Janet Leigh herself. Speaking in 2000, she claimed to still be terrified of jumping in and having a wash, and who can blame her.

Gore and gunk can also be aesthetically pleasing. Whether it's the retro hues of 70s Italian giallo or the kitsch-Goth allure of the Addams family, there's a thrill of visual pleasure from watching spatterings of fake blood or crushed velvet. 

The monster — with its big fangs, stinking breath and skin-ripping claws, is appealing for its uncanny resemblance to the human form. If you've ever felt preternaturally turned on by the vampire, you'll know what I mean. Zombies, for example, are particularly disturbing because they remind us of the dead-behind-the-eyes humanity of the morning commuter ride. Think of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and how cannibalism and zombies become metaphors for a number of social and political anxieties raging in the late 60s. And what about True Blood, which is a (frankly pretty unsubtle) take on race relations in contemporary America. 

In "Blood in Your Eye: Why We Need Violent Stories," the author Warren Ellis (not the wizard-bearded musician from the Bad Seeds) observes that: "Fiction is how we both study and de-fang our monsters. To lock violent fiction away, or to close our eyes to it, is to give our monsters and our fears undeserved power and richer hunting grounds. It's entirely possible that we need a little blood in our eyes to see some things more clearly." 

Gore and gunk can also be aesthetically pleasing. Whether it's the retro hues of 70s Italian giallo or the kitsch-Goth allure of the Addams family, there's a thrill of visual pleasure from watching spatterings of fake blood or crushed velvet. Recent films Berberian Sound Studio and Strange Colour of My Body's Tears are both exemplary of the kind of swoon-inducing aesthetics than horror can do so well. But good old simple fake blood can do it too. And I'm not just talking about the decor. The filmic villain is often painted as an alluring, misunderstood or elusive anti-hero, with strangely seductive qualities (Hannibal Lector, anyone?)

What roboticist Masahiro Mori called the 'uncanny valley' is also relevant. In the 1970s Mori observed that as robots became more realistic and started to resemble the human form more convincingly, people seemed to warm to them. When they became too human-like, people turned away, experiencing eerie feelings. For Mori, these ultra-realistic creatures remind us of death, of rotting corpses and the inevitability of our demise. Better lay off those sexy zombies for now.


Text Sophia Satchell-Baeza
Film still from Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock

warren ellis
Think Pieces
Human Centipede
night of the living dead
sophia satchell baeza