Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has described the horror film genre as “one of the last of the brave genres of film.” Unfortunately, many critics and audiences reject the genre out of hand, while the growing collection of film and religion scholars have failed to give it it’s due…aside from films like The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and the other usual suspects, of course. While Charles Derry does not dwell on the religious/theological/spiritual implications of the horror genre in his book, Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century, he does give clear, strong evidence for the case that horror films demand our attention because they reflect the times and places…accompanying fears especially…from which they emerge perhaps more directly than other genres.
Dark Dreams 2.0 is actually an enlarged version of Derry’s Dark Dreams that he published in 1977. In the then shorter, but insightful, iteration, Derry outlined three subgenres of the horror genre: the horror of personality, the horror of Armageddon, and the horror of the demonic. While they are each distinct in their characteristics, they occasionally overlap. Obviously, the horror of personality focuses on the horrific acts of an individual or a small group. Derry points out several motivating factors for the horror and violence acted out in these films and shows how they evolve over time. Broadly speaking, we see personality transitions from the monster (vampire, etc.) to the monster next door (Norman Bates, serial killers, etc.). Across this evolution, however, some “explanations” for this behavior remain including curses, demonic possession, or psychological instability. For Derry, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is an historic cinematic hinge that represents the most significant shift in this subgenre and in the broader horror genre altogether. More on this below.
The horror of Armageddon taps into our fears of more widespread destruction, whether that be at the hands (claws?) of an over-sized Godzilla-like monster, invading aliens, pandemic infections, nuclear disaster, environmental degradation, or terrorism. At the beginning of this subgenre, we see films reacting to the launch of the atomic bomb and then to the emergence of the Cold War, the AIDS epidemic, and, most recently, global warming and terrorism. Again, Derry points to another Hitchcock film, The Birds (1963), as a seminal horror of Armageddon work. The widespread presence of zombies in contemporary popular culture from literature to comic books to television reveal that this subgenre is alive and well.
Finally, the horror of the demonic is self-explanatory. The demonic, the epic battle between good and evil, has fascinated entertainers and audiences alike since the beginning of time, and filmmakers have been no exception. In fact, improvements in CGI and special effects have allowed filmmakers to image the demonic (and the divine) in unprecedented ways. Ironically, this is the last (sub)genre in which a kind of willing acceptance of the supernatural/spiritual remains. Of course, the ways in which filmmakers approach, and audiences respond to, the supernatural and spiritual varies.
Derry entitles Part II of his book “Millenial Nightmares.” In this section, he largely devotes his attention to an updating of the three subgenres by not only discussing new films released between 1977 and 2009, but by examining the influences of cultural and political events on the horror genre (the rise of the religious right, 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.). Derry also reflects on the genre as a whole–why it is in decline, why American horror filmmakers are lagging behind other countries, and what the future might hold for the genre. Derry also, thankfully, gives some extended attention to “Asian Millenial Horror” and its impact on American horror films. It would have been interesting to read Derry’s thoughts on just why Asian Millenial Horror films are so extremely violent–what about the cultures from which they emerge influences them–but the chapter is just a chronicle of some of the more impressive/influential film.s In this broad second section, he also devotes two brief chapters to Del Toro and David Cronenberg, two of his favorite horror directors.
First, let me say that I love Derry’s book. It is not exhaustive, but it is extensive. He fills his chapters with screen grabs that illustrate his discussions and help drive home his points. Derry discusses as wide a range of horror films as you could imagine. In fact, we could question his inclusion his inclusion of some films (Notes on a Scandal (2006) and Crash (1996), for example) in a discussion of horror films, but he makes compelling arguments nonetheless. I am also drawn to Derry’s critique of the effects of horror films and the increasing pornographization of horror film violence on American audiences’ responses to horrific films and real world events. He argues that it has robbed “us” of our empathic abilities. Derry claims that this is not a one to one correlation, but rather a process of sustained erosion due to increased exposure.
On the other hand, I feel like Derry occasionally too strongly draws connections between real world political and cultural events and the films that emerge from those times and places. He seems to be a big fan of reading the influence of both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars onto almost any horror film that has released since they began. At the same time, while he is rightfully critical of American audiences’ unwillingness to think at movie theaters, he too often paints a picture of said audiences too broadly. It’s hard to see how confident he can be in sales of his book(s) if “we” are all so unwilling to engage the films we watch. Of course, not all of “us” are mindless consumers, nor is a healthy appetite for entertainment primarily a bad thing, especially in a world as frequently painful as this one. Finally, though Psycho is no doubt one of the most important and influential horror films ever made, it seems at times as if Derry sees influences of Psycho in films that either are not there or are just incidental. Not every shower or bathtub scene in a film has to be an homage to Hitchcock.
Derry’s critiques of Americans’ lack of empathy, lack of creative filmmaking, and unwillingness to “thoughtfully” reflect on the world in which we live demand theological responses. It will be a welcome voice that looks critically at, but also beyond, the accompanying violent and disturbing images in these films to see what challenges they pose to theology. For now, Derry’s psychological perspective t is a fantastic discussion starter if we take the time to read and, more importantly, watch.