Why Do I Write (About) Horror?
By Kendall R. Phillips
The first real horror films I recall encountering was John Carpenter’s Halloween. I was nine years old when my older brother recounted, in horrifying detail, the plot of the stalking and slashing. I remember being terrified by the images dancing through my mind after my brother had left me, alone and trembling. My imagination filled in every scene: the masked killer, the screaming teenagers, the dark suburban neighborhood. It was all so real and vivid.
A few days later, I convinced my brother to sneak me into the local theater to see these scenes for myself and they did not disappoint. The image that stuck in my mind, and still lingers with me today, was Laurie banging on a neighbor’s door as Michael Myers came stalking after her. As a young boy growing up in a not dissimilar suburban community in Texas, the idea of racing down tree-lined streets and past indifferent houses while being pursued by a knife-wielding maniac felt far too close to home.
Many years later, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who found those images meaningful and I think that realization was part of what led me to want to study culture and media. I pursued a doctorate in rhetoric because I wanted to understand how people made the world meaningful. For me, one of the ways people make sense of the world is through the monsters they conjure up to embody their fears and anxieties.
So, for the past fifteen years, I’ve been trying to understand the relationship between our culture and the scary stories we make up. I’ve explored the way our monsters keep changing, the undead creatures of the 1930s transforming into the alien invaders of the 1950s, etc. I’ve tried to figure out why horror becomes so prominent at certain points in history. I’ve tried to figure out how the changing face of our fears relates to the culture that fears it.
I’ll be honest, it has been a lot of fun. Watching horror movies for a living is nice work if you can get it. But, it has also been difficult. Looking back at early horror films is tricky because you have to try to figure out what a film like Caligari would have meant to audiences in 1920 or what Dracula meant to audiences in 1931. Even figuring out why a recent film, like Paranormal Activity, became such a global phenomenon, is tricky as it is often hard to get perspective on your own moment in history.
The kind of academic work I do can also be made difficult by people who diminish or dismiss it. Sometimes fans of horror tell me I’m overcomplicating matters. “Paranormal Activity was a big deal because it was scary and people like scary ghost stories,” they tell me. That’s a clear and simple explanation but sometimes simple just doesn’t work. There are lots of scary movies that never get big audiences (and, no, it isn’t always about promotional efforts or big stars).
On the other end of the spectrum are people who cannot imagine why I, or the many other horror scholars working out there, are wasting our time with something as trivial as scary movies. In certain academic quarters, horror movies will never be seen as important no matter how much they make at the box office, or how many fans they have, or how iconic they become.
But, for me, horror matters. It matters because what we fear tells something about us. Society has been making up stories about ghosts and curses and bogeymen as far back as we can discern. And, even in our current digital age, we still tell these stories. We turn them into novels, films, and video games. These stories, in turn, help us think through what we love and what we hate, what we can accept and what we cannot, what we desire and what we fear.
If the menacing figure of Michael Myers became the face of fear for my generation, there were reasons. Something in John Carpenter’s film struck a generational nerve and spawned a whole host of masked killers stalking the cinematic suburbs. While the face of fear may change, it is always there somewhere. I write about horror because I think the things we fear matter and our nightmares say as much about us as our dreams.
Kendall R. Phillips
Kendall R. Phillips, Ph.D. is author of numerous publications about horror and popular culture. His 2012 book, Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter and the Modern Horror Film was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction. His most recent book, A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema was published by the University of Texas Press in 2018. He is professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and holds honorary appointments at Massey University in New Zealand and York St. John University in the United Kingdom.
You can visit Kendall’s Amazon Author page here
A Place Of Darkness
Horror is one of the most enduringly popular genres in cinema. The term “horror film” was coined in 1931 between the premiere of Dracula and the release of Frankenstein, but monsters, ghosts, demons, and supernatural and horrific themes have been popular with American audiences since the emergence of novelty kinematographic attractions in the late 1890s. A Place of Darkness illuminates the prehistory of the horror genre by tracing the way horrific elements and stories were portrayed in films prior to the introduction of the term “horror film.”
Using a rhetorical approach that examines not only early films but also the promotional materials for them and critical responses to them, Kendall R. Phillips argues that the portrayal of horrific elements was enmeshed in broader social tensions around the emergence of American identity and, in turn, American cinema. He shows how early cinema linked monsters, ghosts, witches, and magicians with Old World superstitions and beliefs, in contrast to an American way of thinking that was pragmatic, reasonable, scientific, and progressive. Throughout the teens and twenties, Phillips finds, supernatural elements were almost always explained away as some hysterical mistake, humorous prank, or nefarious plot. The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, constituted a substantial upheaval in the system of American certainty and opened a space for the reemergence of Old World gothic within American popular discourse in the form of the horror genre, which has terrified and thrilled fans ever since.
A Nightmare on Elm Street. Halloween. Night of the Living Dead.
These films have been indelibly stamped on moviegoers’ psyches and are now considered seminal works of horror.
Guiding readers along the twisted paths between audience, auteur, and cultural history, author Kendall R. Phillips reveals the macabre visions of these films’ directors in Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film.
Phillips begins by analyzing the works of George Romero, focusing on how the body is used cinematically to reflect the duality between society and chaos, concluding that the unconstrained bodies of the Living Dead films act as a critical intervention into social norms.
Phillips then explores the shadowy worlds of director Wes Craven. In his study of the films The Serpent and the Rainbow, Deadly Friend, Swamp Thing, Red Eye, and Shocker, Phillips reveals Craven’s vision of technology as inherently dangerous in its ability to cross the gossamer thresholds of the gothic.
Finally, the volume traverses the desolate frontiers of iconic director John Carpenter. Through an exploration of such works as Halloween, The Fog, and In the Mouth of Madness, Phillips delves into the director’s representations of boundaries—and the haunting consequences for those who cross them.
The first volume ever to address these three artists together, Dark Directions is a spine-tingling and thought-provoking study of the horror genre. In analyzing the individual works of Romero, Craven, and Carpenter, Phillips illuminates some of the darkest minds in horror cinema.