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Horror Hibernation

Following up on his earlier concerns that the box office failure of HOSTEL PART II and 28 WEEKS LATER (pictured at top) signals a potential long-tern downturn for the horror genre, Lucius Gore of Esplatter.Com reposts and expands upon an essay he wrote last year. The gist of the piece is that horror waxes when Republicans are in power and wanes when Democrats take over. With Democrats running both Houses of Congress, and with a likely Democratic victory looming in the next presidential election, Lucius believes that horror is doomed for the next decade.

I do believe Lucius is on to something here. There is no doubt that pop culture – including the horror genre – reflects the current cultural zeitgeist, including political changes. However, I do not think there is quite the one-to-one correspondence that he would have us believe, and if you look at the evidence he adduces to support his case, it’s a little shaky.

Lucius credits PSYCHO to the Eisenhower administration, even though it came out in 1960, the year Kennedy won election to the White House. On the other hand, he credits NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which came out in 1968, to the Nixon Administration, even though he had only recently one the election that would see him replace democrat Lyndon Johnson.

Perhaps the biggest stretch is when he credits the Republican Congressional electoral victory of 1994 for resurrecting the genre after a dearth of horror films in the early 1990s. For the record, there was only a brief two-year period, from 1992-1994, when democrats won both the White House and Congress. That period includes ALIEN 3, ARMY OF DARKNESS, BATMAN RETURNS, BRAIN DEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALIVE), Coppola’s DRACULA, CANDYMAN, CRONOS, THE CROW, DEATH BECOMES HER, DR. GIGGLES, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, JASON GOES TO HELL, JURASSIC PARK, Wes Craven’s NEW NIGHTMARE, and WOLF. Not all of them were hits, and some are only borderline horror films, but that’s not too bad a list for a short period of time.

Skip ahead to 1995 – the year year the Republican Congress was actually in power – and what do you get? SCREAMERS (a box office and critical dud); CASPER (a cartoon ghost remade as a live-action joke); BATMAN FOREVER (not a horror film but shows a distinct trend toward light-heartedness after the dark morass of BATMAN RETURNS); SPECIES (not bad but not a blockbuster); LORD OF ILLUSIONS (a heavily hyped bomb from Clive Barker, the release of which was delayed over and over while the studio tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear). The one horrifying blockbuster hit was SEVEN, but just to balance things out, this was also the year of the wonderful, whimsical BABE.

So, as the political pendulum swings, do I expect to see horror die a slow, lingering death, kept on life support only by direct-to-video releases. No, I think the current torture-trend in horror will come to an end, but something else will come along to replace it. Maybe it won’t even be called horror (a label filmmakers often eschew, preferring “thriller” or some such other label), in one way or another there will be frightening films at least as good as the ones we’ve had over the last twelve years.

Horror never dies…

UPDATE: Looking over this post, it occurs to me that I begin by saying Lucius is on to something, then spent the rest of the post only offering evidence that his theory is wrong. My take on it is this:

The great horror booms seem to be ignited by times of great stress in the culture. WWI gave us the first great wave of silent thrillers, when Lon Chaney became a star by playing deformed characters like the Phantom of the Opera. The Depression launched the Sound Era’s classic movie monsters: DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY. The Nuclear Age ushered in a decade of radioactive mutants and alien invaders. The Vietnam War begat NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

When things are bad, people look for change, and that change can involve politics. Horror films perhaps seem more apropos during cynical times. If a new election sweeps in a wave of optimism, then yes, the apetite for horror can dwindle somewhat. But how much it dwindles depends on how much the underlying desire for change is addressed. If people elect a Democratic congress to end the war in Iraq, and they do not end the war, our culture could remain in a state of anxiety that make audiences receptive to horror entertainment.