Lollygabber: Horror Beyond Halloween

Lauren Davis
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

For the true horror film fan, every night and weekend has the potential to be Halloween. However, the average moviegoer (and certainly the typical film aficionado) does not take the horror genre seriously. While a “science fiction” or “cult classic” label can provide an air of legitimacy, horror cinema is too often disregarded in any meaningful conversation on the efficacy of film as a medium for generating sociopolitical commentary.

Horror cinema conveys messages in a unique manner. Ironically, when the message is obvious (e.g., covered in blood and brain matter), it is perhaps more likely to be dismissed. The most effective villains, ghouls, monsters, and demons remind us of ourselves, but the aspects we find most familiar are much more likely to make us uncomfortable and, therefore, closed-minded to self-reflection or meaningful conversation. For example, in the 1976 classic Carrie, the title character (exceptionally played by Sissy Spacek) uses telekinetic powers to seek revenge on her abusive classmates. Although a prom night bloodbath is certainly not the solution to teen bullying, anyone who felt picked on, unpopular, or misunderstood in high school can relate to Carrie’s predicament.

Recurring themes run throughout subgenres of horror cinema. Vampire films capture themes of mortality, consent, sexuality, and spirituality. Zombie movies involve issues such as public health, governmental regulation, and consumption. Supernatural films challenge the boundaries between life and death and frequently involve difficult moral choices. Even slasher flicks seem to send a message behind the gratuitous violence, spurting blood, and full frontal nudity.

Although sociopolitical themes may be subtle or even incidental to many horror films, some films explicitly address important issues. Two recent horror films immediately come to mind. Deadgirl (2008) serves as a painful commentary on adolescent male sexuality, competing notions of masculinity, misogyny and violence against women, and the boundaries of consent. Grace (2009) captures themes of reproductive autonomy, medical ethics, and the role of sexual orientation in childbearing and childrearing.

By dealing in supernatural powers, scientifically impossible feats, and unbelievable events, horror films seem to set themselves up not to be taken seriously. However, the unreal and the undead can send powerful messages through the entertaining and frightening genre of horror cinema. Is it a mere coincidence that the height of election season overlaps with Halloween? Probably, but it reminds us that real-life events can be much scarier than those depicted in any tale of terror.