“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.”
This line from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) refers, of course, to Freddy Krueger from the popular A Nightmare on Elm Street series. It brings forth two interesting matters: the popularity of the horror genre and its appeal to a younger audience. Children have always been fascinated by monster movies. We all remember sneaking out of our bedrooms to watch those late night B-movie presentations. We’d turn on the television and hide behind our fingers, incapable of truly looking away.
The horror genre goes well beyond clandestine cheap thrills for children. In his essay The Nightmare World, film scholar Stanley J. Solomon points out that the horror genre “is a major genre because major artists of our time have worked seriously in it and produced notable films.” Horror films can be found since the beginnings of cinema, during the silent film era: Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau’s expressionist vampire movie, is often held as a classic. Since then, the horror genre has spawned multiple subgenres such as the “slasher” (1978’s Halloween, 1980’s Friday the 13th, 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc.), which has as its core audience teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen years old.
However, monsters have existed long before cinema. According to Tim Dirks, former history teacher, “horror films developed out of the tradition of Gothic novels from Europe by way of Mary Shelley [author of Frankenstein] or Bram Stoker [author of Dracula].” In turn, the Gothic current was inspired by the spectres and goblins of popular folk tales. The notion of monsters was already well established in the culture of the time. Monsters were, since the beginning, an integral part of children’s fairy tales. Consider the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the ogre in Little Thumb, or the evil witch in Hansel and Gretel, on whom Freddy Krueger was based. Children were familiarized early on with ghouls and evil beasts.
Our culture has since changed tremendously, but this tradition has remained a constant. We still tell our children about the fire-breathing dragons and the broom-riding witches. Who among us had not heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood at least a dozen times by the age of six? The enduring presence of fictional monsters in our popular culture indicates that our fascination with them, whether they are found in storybooks or horror films, is more than a mere trend. Why then are supernatural monsters so important to our culture? What role do they play in our society?
The assertion in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is that imaginary monsters are essential to our society, especially to our children, because they help contain humanity’s evils. When asked by the movie’s heroine if the evil that plagues her has any weakness, Wes Craven, a character in his own movie, replies that “it can be captured sometimes […] by storytellers of all things. Every so often, they imagine a story good enough to sort of catch its essence. Then, for a while, it’s held prisoner in the story.” Movie monsters give form to our deepest fears and darkest impulses. We need them to exorcize the monsters within us.
In his essay Why We Crave Horror Movies, famous novelist Stephen King argues that “we’re all mentally ill” and that because of this, sanity becomes relative. The “fairy tale” horror film “intends to take away the shades of gray.” King explains that there are two sides to our personality: the civilized front and a hidden madness, what Solomon calls “the nightmare world”. The role of the horror film is to appease our hidden madness by embodying it on screen. For example, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the monster, a creature that forces its way into its victim’s body and spends much of the movie chasing after a lone woman, is a representation of rape (though this analogy is dropped in the sequels).
This process of personifying societal evils allows us to delve into our “nightmare world” in a benign and harmless way, keeping it from seeping out in more concrete and destructive ways. Whether we are children or adults, the irrational part of our minds will always, in some way, fear the boogeyman. By giving him a face, a name such as Michael Myers (from the Halloween series), and a set of rules for him to follow, we give ourselves the means to defeat him or, at least, to escape him.
Horror films are merely an extension of an age-old tradition. Imaginary monsters have been with us for centuries. They are an integral part of our culture: society’s way of dealing with the ghouls that lurk within us all. If horror films seem more popular today than ever before, it’s perhaps because we now have more demons to exorcize. If that is the case, I urge us all to go see a horror film as soon as possible.