For those of us accustomed to ancient things, horror movies are remarkably new. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are scarce or even easy to understand. While it is beginning to erode, the academic derision of popular culture has long avoided the decidedly low brow genre of horror. It doesn’t know what it’s been missing. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is an insightful attempt to make some order out of a century of monsters and mayhem. Beginning at the stage when “horror film” was still just a demonic gleam in some vampire’s eye, Dixon points out that from the very earliest experiments with movies “horror” was a popular trope. It seems only natural that the idea of a full-length scary movie would be the expected development. What happened in Universal Studios in the 1930s is that business began making money out of monsters. Where there’s money, there be monsters.
Dixon takes us through the early days into the tired era in the 1950s when life was, apparently just so darned good that people weren’t really thinking about monsters. (Dixon’s analysis is a bit more sophisticated than that.) Horror films matured in the 1960’s and spun out of control in the ‘80s. His book continues up to the first decade of our current century. There’s obviously a lot that can be said about this, but what caught my attention, naturally, was how quickly religion entered the discussion. Those of us who approach horror with an open mind know that religion is its next-door neighbor. Indeed, one of the nihilistic aspects of the proliferation of horror movies since the 1980’s has been the lessening of this getting to know the neighbors. Horror, as Dixon notes, seems to have devolved to brutality and cruelty with no real message.
I’ve never been a fan of gore. I’ve watched my share of slashers, I suppose, but they’re not my favorites. Horror can—in the best of its offerings—be very profound. Indeed, it can even inspire thoughts not so terribly far from those generally classed as religious. For what is worship if not carefully managed horror? The concept of the holy as mysterium tremendum underscores this dynamic. Part of this connection is the appeal to emotion. Horror movies make you feel something, and that is a large part of their appeal. They can be more, however. A smart horror movie will feed your brain rather than just having zombies eat it. Academics, eventually, will catch up with it. Dixon starts to show the way.