The Horror Genre (Paul Wells 2001)

Paul Wells, 2001. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower press, Columbia University Press. (144 pages)

Paul Wells’ The Horror Genre is a highly informative book, based on extensive research in which some of the main tendencies of horror film studies are comprehensively delineated for the reader. In its succinct and very readable introduction the critic suggests a way into reading the genre by stating that the feelings evoked by the screening are what really matters and that we should not focus too much on “the intrusions of the intellect so the thrill can precede theory” (p.1). However, it is a work that can also offer a theoretical reflection on top of this claim for the pleasures of an “altered state” interpretation of horror films. The debate proposed in the book covers various fields of study among Audience Studies, Psychoanalytic interpretations and Historical readings of several horror movies. Besides the theoretical frameworks the book also offers a two-part overview into the history of horror films, a filmography of over 300 titles, a brief glossary and a commented biography of suggested reading. It should be said the volume is designed to provide readers with introductory resources only, anyone looking for a more detailed discussion will be disappointed.

His first chapter, Configuring the Monster, provides a tour of the historical contexts. The author pithily states that “the history of the horror film is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century” (p.3). Like many other critics, Wells identifies the historical root of the horror film in the 18th-century gothic novel and then he briefly shows how they unfold into cinematic forms accompanying the major cultural shifts which fed the genre in the twentieth century. When covering the historical aspect of early horror films the critic suggests that “the genre has been used to explore modes of social ‘revolution’ in which modes of naturalised ideas about bourgeois orthodoxy are transgressed, exposing how the ‘working class’ in Weimar Germany, Depression-era America, Franco’s Spain and so on have been oppressed and socially manipulated to maintain those advantage by the late capitalism status quo” (p.4). In order to explain how films were (an still are) read, Wells draws on the main theoretical tendencies: Marx and theories based on historical materialism, he also refers to Darwinian naturalism and the “survival of the fittest” struggle to overcome and prevail, he also draws on Nietzschean Nihilism concepts to explain respectively the monstrous/deformities, life’s contingencies/apocalyptic dealings in horror films. He uses the following films to explain his ideas, Nosferatu (1922) and Frankenstein (1932) to exemplify the action of transformative social discourses; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and King Kong (1933) to illustrate the naturalistic ideas; and Dracula (1931) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to thematise the collapse of spiritual values which leaves the universe devoid of order and morality. The author saves for last the work of Freud and the emergence of the repressed, the unconscious. This interweaving of theories is actually Wells’ own insights into horror.

His next two chapters, Consensus and Constraint 1919-1960 and Chaos and Collapse 1960-2000, are equally well-researched and engaging, although, as it tries to cover long and very diverse periods of time, I did not find it as easy to follow. The arguments are not very well contextualised and signalled for the reader for a book that proposes an overview into horror movies. Also there were some monolithic interpretations of quite a few films which are very arguable. The subsections have witty names such as: Freud for the afraid, Fangs in Kate O’Mara’s Cleavage, A Virus is Trying to Live Its Own Life. Here he addresses the the influence of non-Hollywood horror, beginning with the Guignol films of Britain’s Hammer Studios and including an overview of Italian, Spanish and Mexican horror. However a clearer delineation of the influence of foreign studios is needed.

As we read on the book, the author seems to let show his preference for psychological theories. Indeed, as we move towards contemporary horror, Freud’s account of human consciousness seems to fit perfectly with the latest developments of the genre. As a matter of fact the very reading strategy proposed in the introduction, that is, the act of by-passing Reason placing the emphasis on sensation, is an indicative of his preference for psychological interpretations; an outlook seems greatly indebted to eighteenth-century ideas established by the Burkean sublime. Although modern horror does place us as victims of mysterious inner demons, individuals of gloomy psyche, subject to murky drives and desires and frequently alienated from the real sense of community life, it is my opinion that there lies the greatest shortcoming of the book. Wells’s does not explain the fact that the effectiveness of horror films (their capacity of provoking emotional response) is as also a matter of aesthetics. The migration of horror imagery into other genres is mentioned concisely but soundtrack, scenarios and other mis-en-scene elements are overlooked by the author. Furthermore, Wells seems to hold a grudge against humour in the horror film, a disdain shared by his survey group of adult film goers, who described humour as “crass and ill-suited to the genre, predicated only on attracting a younger audience and enhancing marketing practices” (p.29). I disagree that Humour should be seen as an anathema to Horror. This might explain why the book makes no mention of popular funny horror movies, such as Gremlins, etc. Modern horror films, such as Scream, are only briefly commented: “knowing deconstructions of the sub-genre speak only limitedly about the culture that produces them” (p.97). Alternatively, these “parodic”, postmodern features could also be seen as a self-conscientious maturity (as Hutchings claims) or mere exhaustion of the genre. Being a regular visitor to horror films, rather than an aficionado, I have great tolerance for such impurities and get less pleasure from watching hard-core horror.

Overall, the book provides a good introduction and a thorough bibliography, divided into essential and secondary reading, which Wells prefaces with a good description of its relationship to the text. The filmography consists of the citation of films mentioned in the text, so it would be better suited with another title such as “films quoted”, as extensive as it is many titles were left out.

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