The horror genre creates a unique experience, and arguably elicits the great emotional response from viewers. Screwball comedies make us laugh, melodramas make us cry, but horror films shake us to the core. The blend of suspenseful shots, elaborate music, and the shrill screams of the unfortunate souls in the story composes an authentic construction of fear and vulnerability.
“When exposed to film or to other aesthetic forms, viewers do not perceive unreality, but discount extant unreality cues and engage in the suspension of disbelief – something made possible by the degree to which the film’s substance is convincing or ‘real’ enough so that viewers do not need to think about its fictional nature” (Weaver, 104).
By acknowledging the perceived unreality of horror film audiences, this genre has created niche audiences through the last century of film making.
This genre has been in development even before the age of film. Georges Melies often thrilled and chilled audiences through trickery. Many of his early films included optical illusions and objects to suggest the supernatural. He would even play magic tricks in his films, transforming his characters into skeletons, or inflating a head until it would pop.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) represents an early example of the silent horror film. I find silent horrors to be the most frightening, due to the organic approach to makeup and lighting. Films like Caligari, which is more of a psychological thriller, evoke a particular type of darkness. Since dialogue is already absent, the stark silence of the suspenseful moments leave me breathless.
My favorite horror films are B-movies from the 1950s. Films like Attack of the Puppet People, Them!, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers have this irreplaceable charm.
If the horror film is well made, it will take the viewer beyond simple fear into profound anxiety about the forces that threaten his or her well-being and sense of meaning and justice. As long as the spectator shares the vision of the film, permits the fear to rise, and keeps a sense of aesthetic distance, the horror film will transport the viewer into a dark world rarely imagined in most other genres” (Gehring, 219).
A true pioneer in the production of horror is the one and only Alfred Hitchcock. His films redefined the expectations of a standard scary movie. Through extensive camera work and elaborate Bernard Herrmann scoring, Hitchcock films wholeheartedly define this classic genre.
“Hitchcock used a leering, voyeuristic camera to peep into the lives of the film’s adulterers, thieves, and psychopaths to the point where the audience feels uncomfortable with looking, guilty for watching. To this discomfort he adds disorientation when first the heroine and then the private investigator are murdered. Used to identifying with one character or another, the audience is even led to see the action through the eyes of Norman Bates, the psychopath. By breaking the rules of the traditional horror film, Hitchcock raised the anxiety level of the viewer, expanded the use of subjective camera for manipulation, and created new, more self-reflexive ground for the horror films that would follow” (Gehring, 217).
If you are looking for the quintessential horror film, I would start with Hitchcock. If you are seeking a psychological thriller, start with Psycho. If you are leaning towards more film noir, start with Shadow of a Doubt. If you are interested in voyeuristic suspense, start with Rear Window. Hitchcock’s repertoire was so vast, his films define what is frightening – isolation, loss of identity, and the tragic horror that encapsulates us all when we join together in a dark theatre.