Monsters Within Us

TUW offers a psychological impact of films and television class as part of the media and communication psychology graduate program. We examine themes in classic and modern horror and the effect they have on viewers.

The horror genre has existed prior to the inception of film, but it has arguably found its stride in film. Horror films vary in theme and style, but there is an underlying attraction for viewers. Horror offers a safe place to explore fear—fear of our environments and fear of ourselves. Within the confines of the film, writers and viewers can safely examine the darker side of human nature. Horror also offers a cathartic release for the viewer, a sense of relief when the film concludes.

For the sake of brevity, this article will focus on themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” as well as torture horror, such as “Saw,”“Hostel” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” By looking at these seemingly disparate film genres, we can explore a common theme: man’s capacity for the evil and the complex reaction that elicits in the viewer.

Transmogrification of the everyday

According to Philip J. Nickel, philosopher and essayist, “horror often dramatizes the ordinary or everyday world gone berserk and the transmogrification of the commonplace.” This familiar setting allows us suspension of disbelief, wherein the macabre and unthinkable become plausible. The most chilling horror occurs in the present tense with an open outcome. Horror is not historical, even though historical films can raise fears. Horror intrinsically violates the “now” of human experience. It is this immediacy that terrifies.

The reversal of this phenomenon is experienced when viewers leave the theater. Since horror undermines what we believe to be true in our day-to-day life, returning to normalcy undermines the fear of the film. Everyday worries and anxieties return, abating the paranoid fears of the horror world.

This everyday setting also allows us to relate to the victims and “monsters” within a horror film. We can imagine ourselves as the victim and, often, as the psychopath. This duality stirs a powerful and complex emotional reaction in the viewer of horror films.

Psycho: vulnerability and relatability

“Psycho”presents a paranoid situation in which a normal person (including the viewer him or herself) can turn out to be a monster. The cinematography and presentation of the film leave the viewer feeling that they could be in the shoes of either the victim or the criminal, which in this situation is Norman Bates. Marion, Bates’ first victim, is incredibly vulnerable. She has fled her hometown after committing a crime and has to depend on Norman, the owner of a hotel. Marion is socially isolated from everyone except Norman, and it is Norman’s violation of this vulnerability that shakes viewers to their core. Norman’s voyeurism and eventual act of murder affronts the trust we expect when relying on another human.

Equally horrifying is the viewer’s ability to relate to Norman. In the beginning, he is an affable, socially polite young man. As the film progresses, the viewer undergoes the shock of seeing Norman transition from a seemingly well-adjusted hotel proprietor into a murderous sufferer of split-personality disorder. By the film’s end, the viewer is inside Norman’s head; his internal monologue becomes audible to the audience. This shift is startling because it eases the viewer into Norman’s madness, making it more relatable, and culminates by delving into a first-person expression of his psyche.

While we abhor Norman’s actions, by peering into his thoughts we also begin to feel a sort of sympathy or compassion for him. It is this engagement of our compassion that makes horror so chilling.

Torture horror: vengeance and morose delectation

Morose delectation, or the tendency to take pleasure by dwelling on evil thoughts, is not new. It dates back to the beginning of mankind and has been expressed through history in the form of gladiator battles and public executions. Now it has evolved into film.

Torture horror takes empathy for the villain to a new and more frightening level.  Jeremy Morris writes in his essay “The Justification of Torture Horror” that “the prevailing theme of the torture-horror genre is the attempt to share the purposes, intentions and feelings behind realistic torture. By putting the audience on the side of the torturer in some way or other, the audience is disturbed in a way that goes beyond the fear generated by bare depictions of torture.”

According to Morris, there are two main ways in which torture horror forces the audience into the role of the torturer, thereby causing them to question the justification and implications of enjoying these films.

Retribution and role reversal

Many films in the torture horror genre offer the audience a retributive justification. In these films, the original victim becomes the torturer for vengeance, or the tortured victim is being punished for a previous crime committed.

In the film “Hostel,” young tourists are abducted and sold to millionaires with a sadistic appetite. One of the surviving victims, Paxton, follows the Dutch businessman who tortured and killed his roommate into a public restroom. There, he exacts retributive justice on his friend’s killer. It is easy to detest the millionaire clients of Elite Hunting, the murder-for-profit agency that abducts young tourists, and abhor their actions. When the tables turn, it becomes easy to justify Paxton’s torturous actions, although still violent and morally “wrong.”

In a similar vein, the “Saw” movies operate on a premise of punishment. Jigsaw, the orchestrator of the murderous traps set for the victims, bases his “puzzles” on the moral flaws of his victims. This placates the audience somewhat; the victims are not innocent, and are being punished for their crimes. The horrendous tasks set before Jigsaw’s victims are still morally apprehensible, but the viewing experience is tempered due to the victim’s perceived guilt.

Invoking empathy

The second and more disturbing method is to use the audience’s own morality against them. It is a common fallacy that, in order to enjoy horror, one must be morally stinted or depraved. In fact, it seems the very opposite is true. Horror is horrifying because the audience reacts empathetically. It is human nature to empathize—to cringe at cruelty and experience joy when another is elated. For this reason, torture horror films in which the villain torments his or her victims for sheer sadistic pleasure are by far the most disturbing.

In “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” the murderous, backwoods Firefly family joyously mutilates unlucky passersby. The family is demented, but in an almost comical way. Realistic depictions of torture are juxtaposed with banter and one-liners, leaving the audience emotionally conflicted. We feel pain for the victim, but know it’s also natural to feel happiness at another’s (in this case, the torturers’) joy. This contradiction raises chilling questions about the viewer’s morality and inner psyche. These questions, this ability to make us look into the dark places within ourselves, are what make horror such a powerful genre. And ultimately, it’s up to each of us to answer these questions for ourselves.

For more discussion on this and other related topics, consider an online bachelor’s degree in psychology from Touro University Worldwide.

Touro University Worldwide (TUW) believes in the transformative power of continued education. TUW students are committed to social justice, intellectual pursuit and philanthropic duty and receive a well-rounded educational experience focused on the holistic development of the individual. An advanced degree from TUW can change your career trajectory and your future putting you on a path towards advancement and lifelong success.

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