National worries and horror booms

One of the friends in my critique group brought up the subject of horror booming during times of national concern. Her being a converted Democrat, I assume the “national concern” she’s talking about has to do more with Iraq than 9/11. But we won’t split that hair today. This topic of horror booms and national security concerns things going together is something my agent has mentioned, too, and others. Since we’re worried now, we should expect another horror boom, they say. Frankly, I’m not so sure that’s accurate.

We could trace horror back to the cavemen, I suppose, and discuss the drawings they made on the cave walls and how those reflected his fear of the world outside. A more likely starting place would be the penny dreadfuls of the Victorian Era, where Mary Shelly very likley was expressing a fear of the move from religion to science in her novel Frankenstein. But I think we’re best suited looking at the 20th century since that’s really when America came of age, and the topic here is national concern and horror.

The first thing I pointed out when my friend mentioned the recent and upcoming movies and TV shows with horror themes is that most of them will be crap. You’ve almost got to get outside the mainstream to find anyone doing anything decent these days. Look at how many of the recent and upcoming films are inferior remakes of stories that did well when they were first introduced. Hollywood wants money, not groundbreaking art. Social message? Only if you can convey it with quick edits and big explosions. Okay, but enough of that. Let’s look at American horror of the 20th century.

It really pretty much began in the 1930s with Universal Studios classic monster films and pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Yes, America (like the rest of the world) was gripped by the Great Depression, but we didn’t really feel any threat to our national security. World War I — The Great War, the War to End All Wars — was over and we’d won. We were wearing blinders as far as what was happening in Europe during the 1930s, so it’s hard to say Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster were reflections of the rising Nazi party. Once we did enter WWII, the horror boom had pretty much run its course and degenerated into Abbott and Costello comedy.

Horror was reborn in the 1950s. This time there’s a better chance there was some national security issues involved. We’d been shoved into the atomic age and the Cold War with the USSR was a concern. As a result, we had great movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, which showed our worry over Communism, and Them! and the other “big bug” movies that was a reflection of our concern over the effects of radiation. But, the economy was booming and we were still pretty happy with the job we’d done in Europe and the Pacific in WWII. Mostly, I think, Americans were pretty content in the 1950s and horror boomed in the theaters (especially the drive-ins), in fiction and in comic books.

Until Congress got involved. The Comics Code Authority was born in 1954 and marked the beginning of the end of that decade’s horror boom. Bye-bye EC Comics. By 1960 horror was back in the closet and stayed there until Rosemary gave birth to Satan’s son in the film version of Rosemary’s Baby in the late ’60s. The big boom most of us remember built slowly from there and really can be tracked by following Stephen King’s rising popularity, peaking in the late 1980s.

What were we concerned about in the Me Decade? The hostages were freed in Iran. We whipped Grenada in about a week. The USSR was beginning to fall apart. America seemed to be invincible and, arguably, mostly united behind a president who won two landslide elections. Of all the 20th century horror booms, I think the one of the 1980s — the biggest one — shows that horror and national security fears do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. If there was any theme to that decade’s horror it was that pre-marital sex would get you hacked to pieces by some dude in a mask.

So, why is horror apparently heating up again? Probably for the same reason girls are wearing bell bottoms and platform shoes again. Things run in cycles. We’re suckers for nostalgia, and that’s another reason Hollywood is giving us remakes, I believe. Are we worried about Iraq and what Bush is doing there? Sure. But I don’t think most Americans specifically tie national security fears to Iraq (isn’t that what the Left has been saying all along?). The quality horror that may come from the current national security concerns will be more generalized, more subtle … like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We’re not afraid of Iraq. I don’t think we’re really afraid of Iran. We are afraid of bin Laden, of people on the extreme edges of society. People who, like the Communists of the ’50s, may turn out to be our neighbors building nuclear weapons in their basements.

Nuclear weapons make big explosions. That may be the only thing that will attract Hollywood to “national security” horror stories that actually  have the power to scare us.

What do you think?

0 responses to “National worries and horror booms”

  1. There is the hoary old cliche that Horror does well under conservative/republican presidents, and poorly under democractic/liberal presidents — 70’s horror boom under Nixon. Big 80’s horror boom under regan.
    horror does well in uncertain/bad economic times, and poorly during boom times. Oil crisis of the 70’s…. Regan era deppressions of early 80’s, follwed by post cold war downturn at end, corresponding to the Bush Senior regime. As the economy got better in the 90’s, commercial horror fiction pretty much dried up.
    Oddly enough, when horror receedes, mystery booms. Keep in mind, I’m mailny reffering to published horror fiction (though if you look at movies, the trends are their as well), and when I say “does well” I’m reffering to number of titles published “in genre”, NOT to any intrinsic quality of said work during a given period.
    I eximne some reasons why this might be the case in my VIEW FROM CORONA column, and use the mystery genre as a counterpoint:

    “The core conflict of a mystery novel revolves around a disturbance in the natural order of things… a crime of some sort, a murder or a disappearance… something that violates the natural order. The protagonists job through the course of a mystery novel is to restore “order” to the universe — to solve the crime, or to put the murderer in jail, etc.
    Horror fiction is at odds with this form. The protagonist of horror story is forced to confront a universe that does not conform to his or her expectations. The “natural order” is in flux, or inherently unknowable in a horror story. Through the course of a horror story, the protagonist must come to understand this newly revealed order, or come to accept the inherent unknowableness of the universe.”

    Obviously, I’ve thoght way too much about horror as a genre, and why/how it appeals to people.
    Any thoughts or insights into the horror genre that you might have are always appreciated.

    • Oooo. Great analysis, Jeremy. I hadn’t thought to compare other genres kinda filling in when horror receeds. But yes, it would be natural that mystery would thrive when horror lessens.
      This opens a new avenue of thought … could it be that more horror is published under conservative administrations because authors/publishers feel confined by the less progressive leadership? Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower … but then Roosevelt doesn’t fit. Still, the Bush Administration response to things like Janet Jackson’s booby could spark a tidal wave of horror being published as creative people feel like barriers are being set up.
      I’ll read your entire column later today; I’m waiting on a phone call for a magazine piece I’m working on. I look forward to it, though. Very good thoughts! Thanks.

      • “could it be that more horror is published under conservative administrations because authors/publishers feel confined by the less progressive leadership? Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower … but then Roosevelt doesn’t fit.”
        I don’t think the fiction/movies are a reaction to the specific political administrations… I think that social factors that produce conservative political governments also cause an interest in horror fiction. Horror fiction isn’t written as a reaction to the patriot act. Horror fiction is written as a response to the exact same social conditions that allowed the patriot act to be passed…. the uproare over Janets nipple and horror fiction are both symptoms of something, and not related, cause and effect.
        Throw Roosevelt’s political affiliations out the window. The great depression and world war 2 shaped the nations consciosness, and impacated the political system in ways that just aren’t replicated elswhere.
        World war 2 and the depression created the crime and noir genres of mystery fiction and film… which are basically the non-supernatural equavilant of horror… a chaotic world with no order… protagonsists have to come to terms with this disorder, not try and restore it… Crime/noir and horror are closely related.
        Look at the emergance of the “hard case crime” line of noir/crime fiction, from dorchestor. From all accounts, its been a spectacular success.
        Look at world war 1, and the impact it had… the golden age of the the wierd tale came in the wake of the horrors of ww1…

  2. Nice thoughtful piece. I agree that it’s likely not too firmly attached to the zeitgeist or the collective angst.
    I attended a panel on horror where this topic came up with the focus on the Iraq war. What I’ve seen, at least in the thick of deployments, is that people read what people read in normal times.
    So I’d agree that it’s a cycle and reading habits (as they exist) flow and ebb.

    • On an individual basis, I can’t see anyone saying, “I’m so worried about the war in Iraq that I’m going to go buy the new Gary A. Braunbeck novel.” (They should buy it, though.)
      I think when there’s a boom, though, and horror (or Harry Potter or whatever) is everywhere, you see a lot of imitators as the publishers/studios try to cash in on the elements they think makes the original work. And you have a lot of readers/viewers who may dip into different reading/viewing experiences, even if they don’t continue to explore that genre. Maybe it takes 20 years for those people to forget they got burned out on horror last time.

  3. Horror boom
    As the converted Democrat who raised the subject with Steve in the first place, I feel obligated to chime in…
    I wondered if the glut of horror-themed television shows coming out this fall has to do with the desire to categorize the monster? If it comes from outer space, the depths of the ocean or is brought in by a hurricane, then we can be more comfortable with it. It is a lot less creepy to think what is going to get you is so foreign, so other-worldly that it is almost unrecognizable, instead of the guy sitting next to you on the subway or driving the Ryder truck.
    Incidentially, W. is still the scariest thing I’ve seen on television lately…

  4. The Me Decade
    An interesting analysis, but one nit keeps leaping out at me. This is the second time recently that you’ve called the 80’s “the Me Decade.” You may think of them that way, but to the world at large, the 70’s was the Me Decade (which was why Steve Wozniak called his rock festivals in the early 80’s the “US Festival” – because we were coming out of the Me Decade into the We Decade, and it was a time for us to pull together).

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