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Essay

Backstory: Horror 101

In Rapture, Blister, Burn, as rockstar academic Catherine whisks her motley class through a survey of feminism in the 20th century, she finds startling resonances in the history of horror flicks. "Horror movies can be read," she tells them, "as the collective nightmares of the generations that produced them." Taking a cue from Catherine, a quick look at the trajectory of the horror genre reveals an unexpected history of 20th century culture, as the anxieties and stresses unique to each decade are personified by the monsters we imagine, from zombies to psychopaths to enemies of state.

The '40s: As a real monster terrorized Europe, Americans were falling for "monster-horror," most notably The Wolf Man. Hitler often referred to the SS as "my pack of wolves," and gave Nazi bases names such as "Wolf's Lair" or "Wolf's Gulch."

The '50s: Nuclear Annihilation. Aliens. Communists. We feared everything from post-nuclear monsters like Godzilla to an Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which aliens invade Earth and replace humans with clones -- a parable that was either anti-McCarthy or anti-communist, depending on where you stood.

The '60s: After a decade of Cold War with nary a Soviet invasion, paranoia gave way to optimism. While everyone was turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, horror turned its critique toward American society. Often considered the first-ever subversive horror movie, Night of the Living Dead follows a black hero who survives an undead invasion only to be shot dead by the redneck living.

The '70s: Vietnam. Watergate. Oil strikes. Hostages in Iran. Disco. The progressive optimism of the '60s gave way to a "silent majority" in the '70s that feared a disintegrating national moral character. A monster could lurk within any normal American family. Whether it's your Mom (Shivers), Dad (The Shining), husband (The Stepford Wives), son (The Omen), or daughter (The Exorcist), the killer is inside... the... house!

The '80s: The conservative worries of the '70s came to a head in the era of New Coke. Someone had to bring the hard drugs and sexual liberation to a gruesome end. Somebody like, say, Freddy Krueger? Enter The Slasher Film, in which promiscuous teens avoid unwanted pregnancies and the threat of AIDS entirely by losing their heads before they can lose their virginities.

The '90s: By this time, America was just, like, so totally over horror. Flush from the tech bubble, we laughed at our old fears. Horror films were dominated by post-modern commentary on the genre in films like Scream or Peter Jackson's Braindead.

Which brings us to a new millennium and the trend of "Torture Porn," a subject that (as you'll see) proves divisive in Catherine's increasingly volatile classroom. Showing us every grisly detail, torture films reflect (according to academics and critics) a palpable feeling of American vulnerability. InHostel (2005), for example, American backpackers go for a jaunt in a former Soviet-bloc country, only to be captured and tortured by foreigners. Whether this can be read as a comment on American exceptionalism or a reaction to Abu Ghraib, it's a possible insight to the American mindset, as pointed out by Gionfriddo's play, and evidenced by our relationship to horror films over time.

- Jerry Lieblich, Literary Resident