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All throughout history, there have been tales of horror around to frighten people. With each passing time period the stories changed to mirror what society was afraid of at that time. This continued all the way from the silent film era to the time of computer generated images, or CGI. The basic root of any good scary movie is to target a fear that is already in the audience’s heads. In the past century, horror movies have reflected society’s fears of nuclear radiation, communism, war, and AIDS.
The first example of a fear that scary movies portrayed is nuclear radiation. When the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to end World War II, it affected both countries greatly. In Japan, the aftermath of the bomb devastated the country. A few years after the two bombings, a group of Japanese filmmakers created Godzilla, a movie about the radiation following an atomic bomb attack causing a lizard to mutate and attack Tokyo (Koyama, 1954). Back in America, the fear only grew with movies such as Beginning of The End and Them! (Swain, 2013). In one of the most famous horror movies of all time, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the apocalypse began with nuclear radiation. These movies allowed the public’s imagination to push farther into the mystery of what could be the aftermath of an atomic bomb.
After America’s fear of radiation, it’s next focus was on the fear of communism, or McCarthyism. During the Cold War, Americans feared the spreading of communism from Russia or Cuba into the mainland United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy only worsened this fear in his hunt for communists in the government and the public, causing widespread hysteria and accusations. McCarthyism essentially led to a fear of things that looked human but were actually evil, which can be seen in movies such as Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In the movie a small, stereotypically American town is slowly taken over by a mysterious group of humanoid lifeforms who took over the bodies of American citizens. Unlike normal Americans, these so called body snatchers were only interested in taking over society, causing the two main characters, the only humans left, to try to flee to save both their lives and their individuality. The body snatchers represent the communists because even though they looked just like Americans, they were really sinister beings whose main goals were to build their following and create a world without diversity between people. The two main characters reacted in close to the same way that McCarthy did: panicking and trying to find help, only to find that everyone was already gone to the side you were trying to avoid.
In the 1960’s, the Vietnam war broke out and that changed the main fear of society to war and the slaughter of the many young American men who were sent to fight. This was essentially the first war in which visual fighting was shown to the American public via television. The real life horror that could be seen from just turning on the news subsequently led to an increase in the amount of gore shown in movies. Before this time, scary movies had been more gothic in the way that they left things to the imagination of the viewer, but this newly increased tolerance for blood and guts soon led to a rise in slasher films where they showed visible violence and gore. A prime example is Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho (1960). This movie centers around Norman Bates, a seemingly normal man who owns a motel, but really has the dead body of his mother in the basement and sometimes dresses up as her to brutally murder people. This movie reflects the Vietnam War both symbolically and visually. Symbolically, Norman Bates’ disguise as his elderly mother represents the guerrilla warfare used in the jungles of Vietnam. On a visual level, the infamous shower scene portrays Norman brutally murdering a young woman who was taking a shower whilst he was wearing his dead mother’s nightgown. Even though the blood that was shown on screen was really only chocolate syrup, the scene still had the most graphic depictions of a murder of its time period.
20 years later, the public’s fear turned to a new invisible horror: the AIDS virus. During the 1980’s, life in big cities, such as New York City, became increasingly unsanitary due to the lack of sterilized needles for the heroin addicts and the amount of both heterosexual and homosexual unprotected sex. This all combined to lead to the outbreak of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, commonly referred to as AIDS, which could be contracted by the sharing of blood and other bodily fluids. AIDS was usually associated with sexual relations between two males, only adding to the homophobic feelings of the time. Once contracted, the disease causes the body’s immune system to become too weak to fight off diseases. The cure for AIDS is still unknown. During this time, AIDS was a shameful thing just as much as it was a terrifying thing, therefore horror filmmakers took it upon themselves to disguise the terrors of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome as normal horror movies mostly to warn it’s teenage viewers. Unsurprisingly, the first people to die in horror movies of the 1980’s, such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, were often teenagers engaging in sexual intercourse, leading to the belief that famous killers such as Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers actually represent AIDS. The best example of a movie with a killer that represented AIDS is Sholder’s sequel Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). AIDS during this time was heavily associated with gay men, so it is no coincidence that the film has a noticeable homoerotic subplot. At one point, the main character finds himself in a gay bar to distract himself from thoughts of Freddy Krueger, the killer who represented the AIDS virus. The thought of Freddy hurting his girlfriend also keeps the narrator from sleeping with her. Because of the influx of teenage independence, horror movies during the 80’s mainly focused on warning the youth about the horrors of AIDS.
From horror classics to poorly made early 2000’s remakes of said horror classics, horror movies have existed to shock and warn the public. The main principle of targeting society’s fears has not changed. In the past century alone, horror movies have reflected fears such as radiation from an atomic bomb, communism, the violence of war, and the epidemic of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
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