Mysterium Tremendum

HistoryHorrorFor 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.

3 responses to “Mysterium Tremendum

  1. “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.)”

    Thanks for your review. I hope Dixon’s analysis is more sophisticated on 1950s horror. In my view that period was not tired, but rather, represented a shift in cultural fears from the Gothic to the Cold War, resulting in the sci-fi/horror films of the decade. During this time people ma not have been thinking about Dracula, Frankenstein, and the other Gothic monsters of the 1930s-1940s, but they were thinking about giant mutated insects and the like as a result of fears of nuclear power and war.

    I hope Dixon’s analysis here is more sophisticated and respectful. For an example on how this can be done see Mark Jancovich’s “Rational Fears”: http://www.theofantastique.com/2010/05/10/1950s-horror-and-rational-fears/

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    • Dixon’s review is indeed more sophisticated. The overall sense that I took away—and this may just be me—is that the energy had gone out of the earlier period and that somehow things never quite recovered.

      One of the issues I noticed in such books, and I struggle with myself, is how to define the genre, or if such a definition is even desirable. I’ve read some who suggest “science fiction” is a better able for later, mutated monsters. One viewer’s horror is another’s adventure tale or thriller.

      My view is not one intended to cast any kind of disrespect. I grew up on the monster movies of the 50s and 60s and still find them to be worth watching and learning from.

      Thanks for the link!

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  2. “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.)”

    Thanks for your review. I hope Dixon’s analysis is more sophisticated on 1950s horror. In my view that period was not tired, but rather, represented a shift in cultural fears from the Gothic to the Cold War, resulting in the sci-fi/horror films of the decade. During this time people ma not have been thinking about Dracula, Frankenstein, and the other Gothic monsters of the 1930s-1940s, but they were thinking about giant mutated insects and the like as a result of fears of nuclear power and war.

    I hope Dixon’s analysis here is more sophisticated and respectful. For an example on how this can be done see Mark Jancovich’s “Rational Fears”: http://www.theofantastique.com/2010/05/10/1950s-horror-and-rational-fears/

    Like

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