Horror movies are, at their core, about abuse and violence. Audiences undergo a cathartic response to viewing acts of abuse play out in the pictures they watch. There is always a chance of an individual experiencing abuse and violence and we all try to minimise the potential for this on our lives. Though we may not always consciously acknowledge it, we are all scared of being violently abused. By having our fears presented to us in the guise of entertainment, we are able to face our fears over the potential of violence in our lives, and come to terms with it. Seeing abuse play out on the cinema screen demystifies it and so while the fear of violence may still remain in the viewer, it is now a known quantity. We see how it looks and through empathising with characters on screen that experience this violence, we understand its consequences.
The cathartic element to horror cinema has been present since the beginnings of the genre. The modern horror movie was arguably created by Universal Pictures in the 1930s with their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein. These two pictures proved hugely successful and led to a number of sequels. The Mummy soon followed which also led to a successful series of films and in 1941 The Wolf Man appeared, rounding out the classic monsters.
What makes these four characters and their series of films particularly interesting when understood to be part of the representation of the abuse that audiences fear, is that each set of movies presents a different type of abuse; Dracula presents sexual abuse, Frankenstein intellectual abuse, The Mummy emotional, and The Wolf Man physical.
The sexuality of vampires in fiction is well established with the exotic charm of Bela Lugosi to the bad boy love interest of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel, vampires are intrinsically sexual. One need only think of the modus operandi of cinematic vampires, descending open mouthed onto the faintly trembling pulse on the lily white neck of a virginal young woman to feed greedily upon her.
The vampire’s feast is an act of violence which serves as the climax as he overpowers his usually female victim and forces his will upon her. It is innately sexual in execution. The aftermath of this violently sexual encounter leads to the newly born female vampire no longer being viewed as virginal and has instead become a sexual being in her own right.
Further enforcing the violent, as opposed to erotic, nature of the male vampire/female victim feeding scene in vampire movies is the manner in which female vampire/female victim scenes are presented. When both parts are female, the act becomes purely one of sexual titillation for the male viewer; it is only when the vampire is a man and the victim a woman that the scene is also violent.
The intellectual violence of the Frankenstein sequence of movies presents the modernist fear of science and industrialisation and what the unchecked advance of scientific knowledge and understanding can mean for mankind. The mad scientist trope focuses the fear of what men can do when they are guided by a quest for knowledge with no concern for morality. For a contemporary audience, still coming to terms with the industrialised warfare of World War One, Victor Frankenstein represented the immorality and inhumanity of mustard gas, of enhanced artillery, of men bending science to evil ends.
The Mummy allows audiences to confront fears of emotional, or psychological, abuse. A trope of mummy movies is that the resurrected mummy sees in the heroine or protagonist’s love interest something that reminds him of his old love. This is commonly achieved by having the same actress play both parts as with Zita Johann in the 1932 film. The modern day character is presented as a vehicle for the villainous mummy to fulfil some sexual or romantic longing. She is merely a cipher for his urges and longings and her own feelings are disregarded. She is stripped of any agency, emotionally unimportant; she exists only as a means to an end and as an object for the villain to use.
The last of the classic Universal monsters is the Wolf-Man who is the embodiment of physical violence. Larry Talbot, the poor soul who is cursed to turn into a werewolf and attack the woman he loves, represents the innate physical threat which exists around us at all time. He is a nice guy, ‘pure of heart’, but is unable to control the aggression that lives within him and which periodically explodes from him no matter how much he tries to control it. Talbot shows us that we live in a world where violence can come from anywhere. It is unstoppable, it is nasty, and it is inevitable.
And so we watch horror movies. The films make real our deepest fears and allow us to confront them. We see the horror and we know it, and by knowing it we demystify it and we understand it. And we can always keep repeating to ourselves:
‘it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…’