Mosters represent our fears: To produce a film that is considered part of the horror genre it needs to include the codes and conventions plus the care of a director’s passion to produce cinematic art that comes to life as in past slasher films such as the classical Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the postmodern Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). As Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod (1988) explained “Slasher films have been defined as movies that contain scenes of explicit violence primarily directed toward women, with the violence frequently occurring during or immediately following mildly erotic scenes (Cowan and O’Brian, 1990, p.187).
The underlying structure of the horror genre in general, is to create an image of evil versus one or evil versus many. This formula continues with bad versus good, normal versus abnormal, and/or virginal versus repression of sexuality. According to structuralist anthropologistClaudeLevi-Strauss(1908):
All human cultures share an underlying reliance on dualism, the tendency to see the world in terms of opposing binary oppositions-raw/cooked, nature/culture, man/woman, for example. In addition, each binary opposition reveals an underlying tension, a potential conflict that myth or art tries to reconcile. The form of such resolutions reflect the prevailing culture.
As the disturbing music of Psycho began it automatically built tension as the audience felt their pulses racing faster and more rapidly to the tempo. Their breathing became shallow as their eyes took in the shattered effects of the title in white lettering with a black background indicating fear and fright of the unknown. Psycho, was a hybrid slasher film that exposed a haunted house, an evil monster in human form and brutal bloody deaths. It was adapted by a 1959 novel written by Robert Bloch and based on the case of Ed Gein, the demented murderer and grave robber from rural Wisconsin. The book was an effective psycho thriller and had been taken to a higher level in cinema which depicted two main characters: a criminal who was female, young, blonde, busty, and sexually active while the second was a male, mentally imbalanced sexually deviant knife wielding serial killer. Whereas Scream, was a rediscovery of the hybrid slasher film consisting of blood, gore, victims, evil human monster(s) and as the title was presented, in the opening, no music just screams. It began with the title in white lettering with a black background then turning red representing danger. This one shot laid the foundation of the genre and its relationship to the film. Corresponding to the codes, while the haunting music captured the audience in Nightmare on Elm Street which was also a hybrid slasher film, they viewed an alternative technique. Craven chose to use an eerie font for the title incorporating the color red for the word “Nightmare” and white for “Elm Street” continuing to follow the convention of a black background. This created a sense of insanity within logic giving a peak at the terror that was about to unfold.
Consequently, understanding the elements of horror genre is critical to being able to recognize the structured content within a pattern.Hitchcockproduced a film incorporating plausible character behaviors to persuade the audience in focusing their attention on the protagonist,MarionCrane, a character that one could identify with. The first forty nine minutes consisted of her inner thoughts as the audience began to understand the psychological make up of an unhappy working class woman struggling with an intimate relationship in which premarital sex was acknowledged and coincided with the release of the birth control pill in 1960. The narrative exposed the rationale for her bad decisions and flight including a touch of gallows humor when a stern stereotypical, dark shaded wearing police officer advisedMarionnot to sleep in her car because it was dangerous and would be better finding some place safer like a motel. As she continued driving on a deserted highway through a frightening storm, it became difficult to see and due to exhaustionMarionstopped for the night and met a nervous, but friendly proprietor Norman Bates as he, smiled happily and mentioned that, “…she’s the first guest in weeks.” The costumes depicted the 60’s asNorman’s beige corduroy jacket befits the times andMarion’s business suits of the sixties were apparent. Her character portrayed the good girl/bad girl by symbolically wearing a black bra and slip when stealing the money and fleeing following scenes of her wearing white when she began to feel remorse. It has been said that anything concerning sex had to be approved by the Production Code Administration during the era. Therefore, when these scenes were shown in the film, she was always putting her clothes on not taking them off suggesting a strip tease.
Scream was a parody on the horror genre, with a touch of dark comedy, and considered self referential while subtly revealing the sexual coming of age. The youths were self aware as references were made of past horror movies. Craven utilized self reflexivity to bring in identification to the teenage audience including icons that were present in the period. The characters made insightful puns regarding the generic genre formula while combining the rules which should normally not be taken as a laughing matter. This was referenced in the film, “…if you want to be part of the surviving cast at the end of the movie.” For example, the character Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in Halloween (her debut in 1978 yet, in 1996 represented star power) on the television screen as Jamie, the character, noted for knowing all the horror movie rules and associated everything with slasher films watched the movie intently while lying on the couch. The camera angle titled to establish a distorted view of the killer wearing an icon Ghost masked costume who slowly approached him building apprehension as Jamie spouted, “Look behind you…look behind you Jamie” as the anxiety increased and the audience viewed a frame on the television screen of a grave ironically reflecting the impending doom.
Everybody dreams therefore everyone is vulnerable in the Nightmare on Elm Street. We all start out in life with an innate fear of the dark and jump when something goes bump in the night, at any age. This identification could be related to all who viewed the film. The premise was based on being injured in a dream therefore, hurt in reality. The incentive of the film revolved around stories of Asian children dying in their sleep. Craven read 3 articles over a year and a half period describing the cause to be unknown. Thus, resulting in the birth of Freddy Kruger’s character, a child killer who was imprisoned and released on a technicality resulting in the parents creating a lynch mob with the intent to kill him. Freddy was the “inhuman other”, literally. This film resembled a parable of teenage innocence with the main character struggling against a powerful killer, Freddy who entered one’s dreams for the kill. His character symbolized the dark side of society and good versus evil as in the same context as Norman in Psycho who created an unsettling abnormality compared to the societal normalcy of high school students or in the portrayal of a modern woman who worked in a small office. Yet, this film deviated by incorporating a shape shifter as he changed into to a teenage female hall monitor revealing the distortion of reality.
Psycho, Scream, and Nightmare on Elm Street were created by directors that expanded the conventions of the horror genre by incorporating new aspects to the formula of equilibrium-disturbance-new equilibrium by integrating a new disturbance and misdirecting the audience. In addition, as Tormey and Whiteley (2009) mentioned, “We are familiar with the structure, the beginning, middle and end in which we experience a temporal unfolding” (p.12). Norman in Psycho was characterized as the stalker and integrated a two part temporal structure which was indicated by describing past events where he had been traumatized by a psychosexual occurrence as a child resulting in his first two killings, his mother and her lover. The shadows, silhouettes, and mirror reflections are motifs that told of an imprisoned character and insight into his complex defense mechanisms centered around his core issues of fear of intimacy, fear of betrayal, low self esteem, displaying an unstable sense of self and the oedipal fixation of a dysfunctional bond with the parent who was the opposite sex. The timing of Marion entering his motel triggered past experiences and inner repressive struggles resulting in her sudden death. She was stabbed repeatedly by Norman’s knife symbolically representing a phallic object and signifying a penis in the act of a symbolic rape. Moreover, Glen the boyfriend, villain, and psychopathic killer in Scream also revealed a two part temporal structure when discussing his father’s infidelity and the traumatizing psychological effects it had on him resulting in his killingSidney’s mother, his father’s lover. According to Warwick (2006), “The figure of the serial killer is being used in ways that go beyond entertainment and police work, having more to do with ways of understanding ourselves and modern society” (p.553). The character’s past experiences related to Freudian oedipal complex disoriented both characters developmental stages resulting in their emotional breakdown and anger issues against innocent female victims and males.
Furthermore, Marion’s death in Psycho represented a two fold structure incorporating the conventions of the media institution called the star system. Janet Leigh, a famous actress at the time, playedMarion and misleads the audience regarding the expectations of a star playing their role through out an entire film. After her death, the main characters role had been spilt between Sam, the boyfriend and Lila, her sister. This twist opened the doors to future horror films. Secondly, it was the beginning of the sexual revolution and the protagonist reflected a modern woman. In his text, Belton (2009) commented, “As far as the films of the 1960’s were concerned, the women’s movement became the sexual revolution; that is its political agenda was translated in a series of superficial changes in sexual mores. (p.344). The star power not only created identification of a character but, also operated as a social cultural connection in which the director offered symbolic resolutions and as Belton remarked, “…giving expression to and providing symbolic solutions for specific fears, desires, anxieties, and/or dreams that haunt popular consciousness” (p.100).
The pattern of Psycho followed isolating the characters of all physical and social interactions from society and gradually exposing Marion alone against the unknown forces at the Bate’s Motel, as was Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street when confronting Freddy in reality. The building of tension occurred as Marion went from her motel room to an eerie house in which “Mother Bates” resided leading to confused actions and distortions while ending with a sense of normalcy back in her room, if only for a brief moment. Crowther (1960) declared:
Well, perhaps it doesn’t get her there too swiftly. That’s another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced forMr.Hitchcockand given over to a lot of small detail. But when it does get her to the motel and apparently settled for the night, it turns out this isolated haven is, indeed, a haunted house.
In addition, isolation was utilized in Scream as the audience watched the monster attack his second victim. Casey’s character played by Drew Barrymore signified by star power followed Psycho’s influence by misleading the audience about the length of the role in the film. Her character’s actions led to exposing the wide open spaces of a lonely road as her parent’s car drove up to the house following the codes of leaving open the opportunities to construct a scene of fear. The stereotypical blonde and endowed teenager was seen running towards the car during the chase scene and confronted her attacker in a window frame. There were no cuts leading into the visual shock of the killer unexpectedly breaking the window and grabbing hold of her. In Nightmare on Elm Street, isolation and alienation were explored regarding being an “other” within a group of teens that were sharing the same demonic monster within their dreams. Nancy, an intelligent protagonist, heroine, virgin, and victim was part of a larger peer group within society but tried and failed to get help from her friends as she watched them die one by one. For instance, the jail cell scene where a high/low angle point of view shot revealed a blanket turned-snake-turned-noose hanging her friend. She was secluded from society and courageously faced the ghost of the evil Freddy Kruger alone. It was here that the message of feminism and female identity stood out and even girl power was present reflecting major impacts on the film industry. As Nancy became the representation of girl power, feminine desires and influence so did Sidney’s character in Scream as Karlyn (2003), described, “…a film such as Scream provides an opportunity to sort out the relation between the highly commodified “Girl Culture” (of popular magazines, TV, film, music, zines and the Internet) and the real empowerment of girls.”
A solid rule of horror was that disorientation could only occur after orientation. Scream depicted a seemingly normal environment outside as well as within a high school. The normal societal issues played out such as sexuality, virginity adding anxiety to a young woman’s life, and the dilemma’s of an absent parent. All of the characters in school were the stereotypical stock characters portraying the average teenager who cursed, partied, questioned their sexuality and enjoyed premarital sex. The character development of the adults in the film were mostly responsible even professional symbols such as a female reporter who appeared aggressive, strong willed, and intelligent; the competent Deputy Riley, a police officer who had a heart; a camera man demoralized by a female reporter; and a high school principal incorporating a three fold structure. First, was star power of the actor Henry Winkler, the sexual tension he delivered as he touched Sidney on the shoulder and who was depicted as a hypocrite when trying on the Ghost face costume after reprimanding his students for the same action. Whereas, Sidney’s father appeared to be hard working, loving, devoted yet, an absent father. Each character represented what the audience would identify with as well as empathize. In Nightmare on Elm Street the characters were also teenagers but, the societal issues included not only premarital sex, an alcoholic parent (the role reversal of child and parent) but also divorce yet, still portrayed a loving family unit as in Glen’s parents. It was apparent that each of the films addressed sociopolitical anxieties prevailing in the surrounding cultures during the period of production.
Sidney, in Scream was a stereotypical protagonist, heroine and survival victim that was portrayed as a teenager struggling with the conflicts and forces of her innocence, her virginity amongst the social setting of high school and the isolation resulting in the scandals of her mother’s death, being brutally raped and killed. Her character was identified as good and sweet contrasting with the evil psychopath villains who went on a killing spree in the small town ofHillsboro. Although, she was not the normal victim as Craven deviated from the pattern when it came to amplifying her characteristics and making her proactive instead of passive, losing her virginity to Billy her boyfriend, and not displaying the typical protagonist with large breasts and blonde. As Karlyn (2003) commented:
The slasher film exaggerates this opposition according to its own highly stylized generic requirements: blonde female victims (“some big-breasted girl” as one character in Scream observes) and male psychopaths. Male fear of female sexuality becomes encoded in the slasher convention that only female virgins can survive—a convention that Scream notably rejects.
Psycho’s distortion occurred by establishing the character Norman, as a human monster who border lined on normal as he provided internal (psychological) as well as external (chase scenes, cross dressing, and weapons) threats to his victims. His sexual repression was explored as he adorned his mother’s personality after killing and stuffing her like his birds on display. The social concept of homosexuality and transvestitism had been a concern within the family unit regarding the audience’s reactions. During the era, the censors inHollywood would not permit the acknowledgement of the existence of homosexual individuals within films. Aguado (2002) mentioned, “Not only did it present the audience with a killer that was obviously human (albeit psychologically monstrous), but also it spoke loud and clear about the (late 50’s) family as a horrific site of repression.” Current social issues kept homosexuality in the closet but, as Thomson (2009) suggested it was an obvious observation:
Moreover, despite bland suggestions that sweet, sensitive Norman Bates may be “gay,” and more insistent suggestions that he is Marion Crane’s ideal suitor, the mother-child themes in the film are crucial to Hitchcock’s Freudian depictions of male homosexuality as inextricable from mother-son relationships (183).
Within scenes of Psycho, the villain Norman portrayed a stereotypical peeping tom linking voyeurism to the character by peering through a small hole in the wall in order to watchMarion dressing captured by subjective point of view shots. As Mulvey (1989) explained the meaning:
The voyeur is presented as a ‘diseased’, often paranoid, violent individual who violates the norms of everyday life…producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other (p. 17). He displayed his patriarchal power as he invented his own rules to his game and she became his sexual pawn through his male gaze.
As Linda Badley (1995) noted:
A woman in a scopic-phallic economy . . . is coveted, desired, by the voyeuristic-sadistic or fetishizing male gaze. Only secondary is she a coveting subject. . .[she] can covet only by means of a female gaze that does not exist. She is trespasser on patriarchal territory; she lacks a space from which to launch a female gaze, no site, except that which she makes for herself situation by situation. (MacDonald, 140).
The theme of patriarchal identity implied that there had been a crisis of masculinity within Norman, that masculinity had been torn apart by the disturbing relationship with his mother as with Glen in Screams. Within these films the “other” (gender) became a threat, and their masculine identity needed to be reestablished according to the conventional rules of masculinity, violence, aggression and control.
Similarly, patriarchal control was presented in the opening scene of Screams when piercing shrieks appeared louder and louder, turning into the ringing of a phone. Hello,Casey answered. The antagonist, villain, deranged killer responded as the phone became the object of conflict. It’s a normal evening for the young, blonde, teenage girl home alone cooking popcorn and waiting for her boyfriend. She playfully requested who was on the other end. She flirts at first, innocently enough. The tempo of the music began to increase and suddenly the call turned deadly, the caller’s voice now threatening disrupted the tone and she now feared for boyfriend’s life as a game was to be played, to live or die. She hung up. The code of horror was followed by a sense of danger for the victim as the phone rang again and the tension increased. Then the chase scene began, only to end in her brutally being stabbed to death with a knife then hung from a tree in the darkness as her blood dripped from her lifeless body. The close ups, objective/subjective and high angle shots portrayed the violence and death the audience expected from the film.
Likewise, Nightmare on Elm Street’s opening portrayed visually shocking scenes as the audience shared the subjective point of view of a demonic monster, Freddy creating his weapon of choice, a worn leather glove with four long blades replacing his fingers and symbolically representing death. Another scene of incomprehensible terror was the killing scene of Glen. A calm scene as he slept with his TV and walkman on alone in his bedroom. Suddenly Freddy grabbed him from inside his bed and pulled him down into hell (my assumption) following a volcanic gush filling the room with his blood. These are apparent conventions which are expected by the audience to be followed as a shocking visual special effect. The shower scene, a famous moment in Psycho revealed elements of the genre by subjective point of views beginning with the shower head and ended with an extreme close up of her Marion’s eye (the death look). The scene began with the Marion going into the shower. It’s an every day occurrence and something the audience could relate too. As the audience watched her bathe she was being pursued yet, we are being misdirected leading up to the moment of shock. Cutaway shots of the shower head are focused on, the tension building as the door opened on the other side of the shower curtain. She shows no fear of Norman (dressed like his mother) who slowly approached the shower. Seconds passed as he nears the curtain. When the curtain is drawn a silhouette was revealed, a woman wielding a knife. As Marion was stabbed over and over the audience realized how vulnerable they could be in that situation as blood mixed with the water and slowly emptied into the drain similar to the defenseless victims in Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.
The elements of visual shocks and surprise endings corresponded with the conventions of the genre. Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street both followed Psycho’s lead capturing fear and insanity within the world we live in and fantasize about, as Cook (1985) remarked describing the connections of our culture with the horror genre:
Social themes are based on society’s fears at the time of the movies creation, so the themes are based on the era of production. Horror genre is a consistent genre, viewers know what to expect when seeing a horror movie, yet it is still a genre which draws audiences, as viewers still can’t “resist the Aristotelian compulsion to open the door, and show what is behind it (102).
Psycho was produced in 1960 and revealed certain social aspects of a time when liberation was an issue whether it was civil rights, feminism, or gay liberation. It was a time of awakening through film expressionism and yet, stayed within the structure of the genre. Although it deviated from the formula by pulling the audience into one storyline then switching gears midstream incorporating a second plot. Norman’s character was a human evil monster and perceived as being driven or pushed over the edge into a state of insanity similar to Screams heinous killers. For the first time audiences viewed evil in human form bordering on normalcy which was far more frightening than any monster portrayed at that time. The end of Psycho was psychologically disturbing as two personalities melded into one showing the dominate won the battle. Whereas, when Nightmare on Elm Street was produced in 1984 and our society was in turmoil over the Aids virus being identified, feminism was in the foreground, divorce was high and the girl culture showed signs of power and identity. The film held true to the elements of the genre as it reflected cultural social issues of the time. The ending was symbolic leaving a message to face the realities of our world no matter how horrific and to remember that just one person could make a difference as did Nancy when she confronted Freddy and sent him back to hell (my interpretation) in the end. 1996 represented a time that Scream captured on film portraying casual living and dressing. Technology entered the film industry creating special effects to enhance the audiences viewing of a movie and social issues such the second wave feminism became on increasing controversial subject. The ending was representational of what empowered woman could achieve together.
While the director’s expressed different views on the cultural social issues touching on sexuality, abandonment, alcoholism, feminism, premarital sex, and divorce, they all were representations of isolation. Psycho and Scream portrayed the villain’s psychological dilemmas concerning the child mother complex within these films, but what about Freddy? The audience was left wondering why he chose the path he did when alive and what happened to his mother and father? Maybe in a sequel more character insight could be given on the character development. As for now he can not be considered a candidate for the Freudian oedipal complex until more feedback on his character becomes available (*wink*).
All of these films followed the genre pattern by incorporating extreme long shots to see the surroundings and to portray the victims as being weak, vulnerable, alone and helpless. The mise-en-scénes created the settings and tones of the dark and dangerous parts of our reality and the mysteriously dark recesses of the human mind. Low angles were used along with subjective/objective points of view, close ups to sympathize and tilts to create scenes of terror and distortion. In the film Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven utilized mirror reflections, slow motion techniques, a colorful palette within scenes, extreme close ups and hazing effects to create the horror tone for the film. Technical codes were followed with the lighting in Scream going from extreme high to low key revealing the danger and the final outcomes of the victims. While Psycho utilized low lighting, jump shots, mirror reflections, cutaways, and tilted camera angles to give the distortion of reality that could only be captured within a horror film. Even the props were symbolic as the stuffed birds were referenced how little Marion Crane ate and metaphorically using her sir name, Freddy’s glove was equated with death and Scream’s phone connected the killer(s) to the victim. They had been executed within a closely defined framework of codes and conventions while simultaneously surprising the audience with moments of fear and terror. Scream was conventional as the onset revealed the villain(s) immediately in the movie, dressed in an iconic ghostly black draped Halloween costume which was called Ghost face. This twist arose out of the costumes in which they wore repeatedly displaying the icon costume in every slaughter scene hiding the killer’s identity. The horror convention was followed as the discovery plot placed the faces behind the masks at the end when they were revealed. In a way, the psycho killers were introduced from the beginning of the film without actually confirming them. Nightmare on Elm Street was a film that stepped completely outside the box while still maintaining the codes of the genre by linking death and dreams. These two films incorporated the violence and disruption of everyday living, reality versus rationality and the unconscious mind versus being awake while each of the final scenes appeared open ended.
Psycho, Scream, and Nightmare on Elm Street’s established characters through cutting between shots with subjective points of view while revealing the binary oppositions and their conflicts, which keeps the audience coming back. The protagonists in Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream both shared the coded elements of female, virginal and innocent contrasting with Psycho’s presentation of an adult involved in premarital sex.
In summation, the horror genre is meant to produce emotions in which the unconsciousness of the audience needs to release. It is through this genre that the audience expects that at anytime, anywhere, night or day a monster could be lurking behind them. Therefore, the horror genre is true to reality and it’s distortions but, if reality were true to the horror film…then we would not answer our phones, take showers or sleep ever again. Thank goodness these are only movies and not real…right?
Aguado, V. L. (2002). Film genre and its vicissitudes: The case of the psycho thriller 1.
Atlantis, 2, 163-172. Retrieved May24, 2010, from http://www.atlantisjournal.org/Papers/24_1/luzon.pdf
Belton, J. ((2009). American Cinema American Culture.New York; McGraw-Hill Companies.
Cook, P. (1985). The Cinema Book.New York, Pantheon Books.
Cowan, G. & O’Brian, M. (1990). Gender and Survival vs. Death in Slasher Films: A Content Analysis. Sex Roles, 23( ¾). Retrieved May 30, 2010, from http://www.springerlink.com/content/k7754366j346887t/
Crowther, B. (1960, June 17). Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ Bows at 2 Houses. The New York Times. Retrieved June 3, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/061760hitch-psycho-review.html
Karlyn, K. R. (2003). Scream, Popular Culture, and Feminism’s Third Wave: “I’m Not My Mother”. Genders Journal, 38. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from http://www.genders.org/g38/g38_rowe_karlyn.html
MacDonald, D.C. (2002). Trespasses into Temptation: Gendered Imagination and The Blair Witch Project. AmericanaJournal, 1(1). Retrieved May 23, 2010, from
Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and Other Pleasures. Houndsmill: MacMillan.
Thomson, D. (2009). The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock TaughtAmericato Love Murder.New York: Basic Books. Retrieved June 4, 2010, from http://www.cineaste.com/articles/the-moment-of-empsychoem-web-exclusive
Tormey, J. & Whiteley, G. (2009). Telling Stories: Countering Narrative in Art, Theory and Film. Retrieved May 27, 2010, from http://www.c-s-p.org/Flyers/978-1-4438- 0532-2-sample.pdf
Warwick, A. (2006). The Scene of the Crime: Inventing the Serial Killer. Social Legal Studies, 15, 552-569. Retrieved June 1, 2010, from