"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." -Stephen King
Stephen King is a favorite among my students, for obvious reason. His stories are fast and often a little dirty, dealing with monsters and pop-culture, and his stories are human. When looking at King I'm always reminded about humanity. Each Halloween we read King's My Creature From The Black Lagoon in my class from his Danse Macabre collection of nonfiction (Everest House 1981) in which King compares and contrasts horror flicks with "fairy tales." This always leads to what is more horribly human, the monsters of Disney films, or the monsters in horror movies like zombies, vampires and serial killers. In Danse Macabre, King classifies the horror genre into three defined and descending levels; 1.) Terror, 2.) Horror and 3.) Revulsion.
In discussing the unique nature of terror with my students, I provide a blow-by-blow example as how horror movies reflect the sociology of the past fifty years. In the 1950's we had the scare of atomic power, leading to radiated monsters movies such as Godzilla, Them! and Attack of The 50 Foot Woman. Then came "The Red Scare," the fear that the Russians were coming for us all with their wicked, alien ideologies and we got Invasion of The Body Snatchers. All of this was terrifying, and horrible, but hardly repulsive. In 1968 George Romero came out of Pittsburgh with Night of the Living Dead, a story based around the old (dead, if you will) eating the young in an era when counter culture politics was at a peak. Even the martyr in the legendary zombie flick is a black man, being chased by dead white folks.
After Vietnam and Water Gate, things changed. The questions of American honor and trust came in to play with the slasher flick, the movie about a quiet next door neighbor became the all-to-human-terror, the new horror, and even a little repulsive. In Halloween Michael Meyers chopped sexually active teenagers during the sexual revolution. Friday The 13th had Jason Voorhees and his mother doing the same. What kind of name is Voorhees anyways? In the 1980's Ronald Reagan called Russia the "Evil Empire" and we saw the horror film evolve once again. Then, we saw the larger-than-life dreamy monsters, like Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street, and the supernatural horror of Pumpkinhead, and don't forget Clive Barker's Hellraiser. The horror during the Reagan administration had a less than human-fairy tale aspect, like a drunk Disney film, and once the "Evil Empire" was killed, everything was fine. We had hardly any social problems for horror films to reflect upon, at least that is what our cable news outlets had us believe. In the 1990's, when the economy was great and the only problem America seemed to have was Bill Clinton lying about oral sex with an intern, and the horror movie became ironic and snarky. There were no creatures from lagoons, or flesh eating zombies. We just had fast talking teenagers and The Fonz from Happy Days in Scream.
Then, in September of 2001, some bad men stole four airplanes and gave the horror genre new life. As opposed to Reagan's "Nightmare," or the hack and slash of the sexual revolution, everything got repulsively real and human. Not humane, human. Torture movies became the new horror. Hostel was a smash hit. Jean Francois Rauger, film critic for Le Monde, named Hostel the best American film of 2006. And, all of a sudden, zombies returned, and they were fast. 28 Days Later ushered in the pandemic zombie, the virulent diseased monster infected with illness that spread like wildfire across the world, like SARS or this new swine flu thing at time.
When discussing King's theories on terror, on horror, on repulsion I ask my students "what's next, what is the new social problem horror films will reflect?" As a kid, King saw The Creature From The Black Lagoon at a drive-in, and the fake rubber-suited actor brought him a little chill, but how human the creature was with his haunting eyes resonated long after the lights came up on the parking lot. My students and I can never agree on what the next creature from a "Black Lagoon" is going to be. I think the new terror will be about the repulsive behavior of health insurance companies killing us all slowly. My students say it is the iPhone and facebook turning us into zombies. That would be a gross-out. But, we'll never know until we see it. That's the fun of terror.