Horror films occupy an interesting place in audience discourse. A genre based on fear and the macabre, horror proves to be one of top-selling forms of entertainment. Group viewings of horror cinema have become a cultural staple, especially during the Halloween season. Characters as diverse as Dracula, Freddy Krueger, and Hannibal Lector have become a part of the cultural lexicon. What is it that creates such a phenomenon, and who exactly make up the audience and fans of horror?
Before discussing the collective experience of horror films and this experiential relation to the audience, one must first assess the underlying premise on an individual level. What causes the paradoxical phenomenon of one pursuing fear as entertainment, or is it fear that is being pursued at all? Posing the question “Are you a fan of horror films?” and subsequently “Why or why not?” in an online survey, respondents offered a wide variation of answers.
Some referenced the excitement, the fear, and the adrenaline rush. But some answers had nothing to do with fear directly at all. One respondent referenced the implications of horror films as a bonding experience when dating, ignoring any pleasure derived from the actual text and rather perceiving the film as a catalyst in a social sense. Another individual referenced the eroticism often found in horror, also giving no reference to fear at all. Also apparent was a tendency to back-reference, displaying a knowledge of past horror and viewing later horror texts as simply rip-offs, with the respondent taking on the role of a sort of genre connoisseur. Lastly, there was the anti-fan response, which seemingly took a certain level of pride or assuredness in not watching (“Sorry, Hollywood.” was the respondent’s dismissive conclusion).
What is one to make of these varying responses, and the seemingly non-sensical way in which fans often claim there pleasure in viewing a genre based on gothic themes and the macabre has virtually nothing to do with fear? Mark Kermode explains both this paradox and the casual viewers’ response to it in his work on horror fans:
“The horror fan… is… not not only able but positively compelled to ‘read’ rather than merely ‘watch’ such movies. The novice, however, sees only the dismembered bodies, hears only the screams and groans, reacts only with revulsion or contempt. Being unable to differentiate between the real and the surreal, they consistently misinterpret horror fans’ interaction with the texts that mean nothing to them.” (1997, p. 61)
In fact, theorists argue that it is safe to say that fear would be considered an inappropriate response to horror by genre fans, as the horror genre is inherently self-referential and reliant upon past genre texts, giving horror films an innately intertextual quality. In the words on Matt Hills, “Fans do not ‘cringe.’ They get the in-joke rather than being grossed out” (2005, p. 75). Mark Jankovitch takes this concept of the connoisseur a step further:
“Within certain circles, the very value of watching these films, or at least the value of saying certain things about the viewing experience, is to assert that they do not frighten but only amuse… within certain contexts, it would be inappropriate… to admit to being frightened by horror films.” (2000, p. 32)
This unique reliance on intertextuality along with a certain level of fan awareness that is not anywhere near as pervasive within other genre texts accounts a great deal for the zealous fan response to horror. But aside from this base group of horror aficionados, there is still a large segment of the viewing audience that is decidedly mainstream, and do not fit into this category of genre fans to the extent of those previously discussed. In fact, these mainstream audiences are often considered to occupy a certain level of amateurishness in their readings by the ‘serious’ horror fan base.
This mainstream demographic of viewers are a bit more perplexing, as their pleasure in viewing is derived from both a dizzying array of social forces often heavily related to the concept of fear as entertainment. But using a “uses and gratifications” approach to the viewing audience, the reasons for the mainstream viewer or non-fan (as opposed to the “anti-fan”) deriving pleasure in viewing are not particularly as counterintuitive as the concept may appear.
Assuming an active audience, free of pure manipulation by the text, the encoded message of fear is often re-interpreted and decoded in a decidedly different manner than the actual text displays explicitly. For example, a large number of individuals when questioned regarding a preference for horror films cite an “adrenaline rush” or “excitement.” This reading of horror as excitement makes sense on a social level, as the audience is aware of the text’s temporal nature and surreality, rendering the fear inherently encoded into the text as “non-real” to the viewing audience, causing the audience to view the experience in much the same way as a thrill-ride, temporal excitement with little to no actual danger inherent in the activity.
This concept as horror as “unreal” is thought to serve as an important genre component by audience theorists. Matt Hills discusses the way in which “true horror” as a genre is categorically different from what is considered culturally reprehensible, such as “snuff films” (2005, p. 131). It is often suggested that even the psychological approach to the pleasures of horror would be rendered bizarre and irrelevant if applied to horror in its natural sense. Robert C. Solomon states:
“Regarding… movies… it is all well and good to ask what pleasure people find in the fear of horror that otherwise would seem to be a most unpleasant emotion… But it makes no sense at all… to ask such a question of real-life horror.” (Solomon 2003, pp. 230-1)
Solomon carries this thought to its logical conclusion by comparing the pleasures of “art horror” to the disturbing nature of actual horror by contrasting the cognitive effects of both:
“Art-horror is a good way to re-iterate trauma in a safe… way, if only because it… is obviously not real. By contrast, real horror repeated – like the continuous repetition of television images after September 11th– can contribute to and even cause mental illness.” (2003, p. 253)
This argument holds a certain level of weight, but as Matt Hills points out in his work on horror, it is somewhat logically problematic. (2005, p. 134) The problem in such an argument is that the assumption regarding horror as always being surreal to at least a large extent is countered by such texts as The Last House on the Left, texts that are based purely on natural horror and offer no escape or surreality.
However, there is a certain level to which these texts are categorized differently in a cultural manner and read differently by viewing audiences. While texts embodying such disturbingly realistic horror as The Last House on the Left often occupy a certain place of taboo in cultural discourse, they often still retain a high level of audience attendance and enjoy a cult status when released for home viewing.
Interestingly, most audience members experience a level of displeasure after viewing such films, not claiming to actually enjoy them at all. As it pertains to The Last House on the Left specifically, Steven Jay Schneider analyzed the audience response to this film at length. He says that:
“Two basic types or patterns of response can be distinguished; the amazing this is that, contrary to what one would expect from such a profitable and long-running film, neither of these response types involved declarations of pleasure.” (Schneidier 2003, pp. 87-88)
This would lead one to conclude that the audience draw to such films is largely based in the social fear, rather than the traditional assumption that horror audience view films for the pleasure of viewing. In fact, it seems the actual reasoning is often quite opposite, with displeasure actually becoming a draw of the viewing. Schneider continues:
“Adult viewers, especially those of the middle-class and from suburban locales, were furious after watching Last House… A little harder to make sense of is the fact that most young people who lined up to see the film… didn’t ‘like it’ in the traditional sense all that much either.” (2003, pp. 87-88)
In my own viewing of a large portion of the film, I remember being perplexed by the concept that audiences would find it in any way entertaining or pleasurable at all. If Schneider is to be believed, they didn’t. However, Schneider notes that teens often viewed participating in the experience as a ‘rite of passage’ or sorts, gaining them admittance into a certain ‘insider’ group (2003, p. 88).
Hills refers to this seemingly contradictory phenomenon as “philic displeasure” (2005, p. 208). He goes on to say that such audience responses to these texts often arise from predefinition of the texts as problematic (controversial) in a social sense. The resulting response is that, “attempted predefinitions of textual worth (or lack thereof) lead to audiences reflexively treating such texts as ‘controversies’ through which in-groups of ‘experienced’ or ‘tough’ viewers can be constructed (Hills 2005, p. 208).
This further explains the life these films often experience outside of the theater as “cult films,” as the majority of mainstream horror viewers would not experience such philic displeasure, rather simply displeasure. Also problematic with the “natural horror” sub-genre is that its audience must often seek non-traditional methods of viewing in many countries due to the high level of film censorship. This can be seen especially in the UK, where many such films were banned by the sensor board throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Censorship has actually, and uncannily, served to legitimize the concept of ‘rite of passage” fans in the sense of philic displeasure. In recent years, a unique subset of horror films became increasingly popular, ofter referred to as “torture porn” or “gorno” films. A few examples of this new subgenre would be the Hostel films, the Saw films (with the possible exception of the first), Captivity, and High Tension.
Major American theater chains have a policy of only playing films up to an R rating, disallowing the NC-17 certification from screenings in theaters. As such, most of these torture-horror films are edited multiple times to pass R certification. For example, the third Saw film was edited seven times to receive the rating. This editing gave relatively mainstream audiences the opportunity to view these slightly sanitized versions and still be given a certain cultural “in-group” status.
However, upon DVD release, every single one of the previously listed films was packaged in both R-rated and “Unrated” versions, with the “unrated” versions being essentially the banned versions of the film rejected by the MPAA for R-rating. As such, connoisseurs of this “gorno” subset were still able to differentiate themselves from the “weaker” fans by purchasing and viewing these hyper-violent unrated versions of the film. These double-releases have continuously resulted in high sales, most likely because they have been able to secure both sets of audience groups, the mainstream viewers and hardcore fans.
Another modern horror trend has actually been a bit of a back-lash against both “natural horror” and “traditional horror” (“torture porn” films, while viscerally distinct, are here noted as “traditional horror” due to their lack of substantial textual difference). This new subset of the horror genre is often referred to as “postmodern horror” as it relies so heavily on its own intertextuality that it requires viewers to possess a wealth of past textual knowledge to be able to read the modern texts in any coherent way. This new subset of horror has experienced both a wide acceptance in the mainstream but often a backlash from serious fans, who tend to consider the subgenre to be a perversion of horror, or not horror at all.
This “postmodern” horror can be most readily epitomized by the hyper-successful Scream franchise of the late-90’s to early millennium. The initial film operated as both a horror film and parody of horror. The plot revolved around a group of teenagers at the mercy of a serial killer, but their only chance of survival was to follow the rules set forth by the film’s predecessors (Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, etc.)
Naturally, this set-up was immediately problematic for horror fans, as the premise itself assured the audience that no new territory would be breached. The series was intertextually tied to its predecessors in such a way that it was disallowed to break from the formula. The film actually was the formula. Yet it proved to be incredibly successful with mainstream audiences, who were all designated automatically as the “in-group” since the film relied purely on past horror texts, but only texts that were mainstream hits.
Academic studies of this “postmodern” horror genre, especially as they relate to the genre’s frontrunning Scream franchise, have been largely negative, branding it dismissively as “masquerade mastery” (Lake Crane 2000, pp. 58-9). However, Hills takes a different approach to analyzing this sub-genre and its relation to and connection with audiences. He offers that the film is “double-coded” in its “self-reflexivity and subcultural intertextualities” in a way that they can be accessed differently by both “autonomous” and “heteronomous” audiences, all the while not ceasing to work as a “referential/indexical” horror film (2005, 192).
While horror discourse is usually focused on film, horror has found a niche on television, especially in recent years, causing quite a stir for many audience analyses which recognize horror purely in its film form and as it relates to the theater audience. Shows such as The X-Files and more recently Fringe have managed to pull in both critical praise and high audience shares, proving that an audience does in fact exist for television horror.
The first glaring issue facing television horror is censorship. While film is virtually unrestricted in-so-far as it is in fact not real (such as a “snuff film”), television is both restricted in terms of content and times when such material can air. The style of violence seen in even the “cleaned up” versions of such popular films as Saw and Captivity can not even be nearly approached on television, leaving some horror fans to decide that restricted horror is really not horror at all.
Even so, this television horror has found a dedicated base, albeit often distinct from the film horror fans. These television horror shows absolutely do not operate in the realm of philic displeasure, and therefore intentionally skip the ‘rite of passage’ crowd that often makes up a large segment of the horror film audience, especially with the modern gorno franchises. Television horror instead courts both the science-fiction and mystery fans, often relying on subtlety and the unknown to produce fear.
Matt Hills makes an interesting suggestion regarding the targeting and framing of horror texts in television to attract an audience. Recognizing the inability of horror television to reach a truly mass mainstream audience (as these shows air after the 9 PM watershed), Hills argues that the texts retain a fan base by positioning themselves as niche brands (2005, p. 125). He claims that these shows are able to secure high shares by being “distinguished from textual competitors by virtue of aesthetic and diagetic ‘uniqueness'” (2005, p. 125).
This positioning of uniqueness proved especially successful with cult shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files. A strong fan base still exists for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as the DVD’s remain popular sellers among the niche market. The X-Files has also retained a cult following with all episodes being released on DVD, but unlike the Buffy series The X-Files attempted to expand its market from a niche one to include a more mass audience with two subsequent film releases. Overall this venture proved very successful in introducing the filmgoing audience to the series, which, not inconsequentially, was recently re-released in a box set on DVD.
From a psycho-analytical standpoint, television horror must also occupy a different place in theories of audience pleasure than horror films as pervasive theories regarding philic displeasure and audience connoisseurship (aside from niche branding of specific texts in a non-intertextual sense) cannot hold true. Theoretically, the psychological response to television horror should bear a strong resemblance to the previously discussed pleasures derived from the mainstream audience (horror as temporal fear/adrenaline).
But there is an important distinction from this temporal fear concept associated with mainstream horror films and audiences, as television, due to the censorship of the texts, cannot create instantaneous scares that rely on a heavily visceral system of response in audiences. It must also be assumed that given the medium, the collective group dynamic found in the theater would be heavily reduced or non-existent. Therefore, audiences need to receive a comparable level of “thrill” from the text, but the text must be encoded in a substantially different way without compromising the responsibility to evoke the same psychological response.
Television horror achieves this audience response by strictly adhering to two main tenets:
The “fourth wall” is never broken. Unlike postmodern horror films that actually engage the audience by consistently relying on a self-referencing intertextuality, horror on television must remain purely autonomous with any intertextual reference used as nothing more than a cultural marker and with no “wink and nod” at the audience.
Temporal visceral fear is replaced by self-reflexive fear. Quick shocks are traded for brooding plots that remain unresolved in relation to the horror aspect. So even though an individual situation may be resolved for the purposes of plot continuity and familiarity, the actual cause or source of horror must remain existent after and outside of the text.
These guidelines were put to expert use in The X-Files, which has become a sort of cultural icon in both science fiction and horror television. Audiences were presented with stories of government cover-up, extraterrestrial invasion, and things that go “bump in the night” with no clear sense of resolution ever. Long after switching off the television, the fear remained. It could happen to you.
Audiences responded strongly to this style of horror as it was perfectly suited to the television medium, as the group dynamic of a theater would actually lessen the psychological sense of vulnerability necessary to engage such a fear response. But given the fact that audiences could remain assured that this television horror would never exceed certain levels of visceral shock, the fear was maintainable. Unlike “real-life horror,” the whole experience may stick with a viewer when they go to sleep, but more than likely it wouldn’t remain on their mind after waking of the next day. “Fear” never led to “terror,” making this subgenre of horror both thrilling yet never terribly uncomfortable for the ‘light’ horror viewers.
But for the more seasoned crowds, plots are crafted in a way that such non-resolution allows the horror to go as far as the viewer’s imagination allowed. This non-resolution as it related to the source of horror allowed the viewer a sort of extratextual control, rendering them a large part of the textual process. Such textual control allows for a highly personal experience in a psychological sense, with the personalization of the experience resulting in a certain “fan dedication.”
Also worth mentioning is the extreme level of liberty taken in terms of genre with television horror. Given that more traditional methods of coaxing fear viscerally are disallowed in television texts, oftentimes cultural and textual elements are poached from other genres (namely science fiction) and re-textualized to produce a fear response. Ironically, this method was first seen in film, namely Alien and The Thing. However, unlike television, these texts still resorted to traditional methods of visceral horror.
The tie between horror and science fiction is nearly unavoidable in television, with nearly all current horror shows in circulation having strong thematic ties to the genre. But in terms of the audience for these texts, a certain unusual dynamic occurs in that these texts are accessible to both horror and science fiction viewers and genre fans, much in the way horror and comedy are often tied in film.
All of these unique elements in television horror have led many to conclude that most progress in the horror genre in recent years has occurred on television. With many of the censorship and time-slot issues being resolved satisfactorily, horror is becoming an increasingly common staple on television, and television audiences have responded enthusiastically. It remains to be seen if television horror will find a way to reach those fans still reluctant to engage the texts given their “weaker status” in relation to visceral shock.
As discussed the realm of horror audiences, fandom, and mediums for transmission is both vast and intricate. The genre enjoys a certain cult status displayed only equally or more apparently in the realm of science fiction (and the genres’ intertextual relation was discussed briefly here). With theories involving psychological fear/adrenaline response, philic displeasure, cultural capital, and social imperatives, much work has been done in the realm of horror studies already. But given the often non-congruent and oppositional nature of the varying theories, much study still needs to be done.
It seems that what textual producers have recognized and tapped into in audiences for years is only beginning to be seriously examined by audience theorists. While audiences’ love for horror remains abundantly clear, the intricacies of their pleasures, displeasures, and fandom still elicit closer analysis. Hopefully the research an theories will become increasing clear in the years to come.
Hills, Matt. 2005. The Pleasures of Horror. Continuum. London/New York.
Kermode, Mark. “I was a teenage horror fan: or” How I learned to stop worrying and love Linda Blair.” Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate. Eds. Martin Barker and Julian Petley. Routledge. London and New York.
Jankovitch, Mark. 2000. “A real shocker: Authenticity, Genre, and the Struggle for Distinction.” Continuum. 14:1.
Solomon, Robert C. (2003) “Real horror.” Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror. Eds. Steven J. Schneider and Daniel Shaw. Scarecrow Press. Lanham, MD.
Schneider, Steven Jay. (2003) “The legacy of Last House on the Left.” Horror at the Drive-in. Ed. Gary D. Rhodes. McFarland. Jefferson, NC and London.
Lake Crane, Jonathan. (2000) “A body apart: Cronenberg and genre.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Flicks Books. Trowbridge.