Fear of the Real in Film

Representations of the real are arguably more frightening than fantasy; we take a look at how the trend started and where it is now.

When thinking of horror movies, many people may be reminded of extra-terrestrial monsters, the flesh eating dead, ghosts, creatures created in a mad scientist’s basement and vampires… and while such beings have spawned masses of successful and popular films by frightening movie-goers, many are plagued with gimmicky characters, unrealistic settings and unbelievable monsters. Horror films certainly don’t need to be realistic, as viewers do enjoy the fantasy aspect, but it can be argued that those that incorporate realism and scenarios that could happen in real life are the most terrifying of the genre. Many sub-genres now exist, including the psychological horror, slasher and torture porn.

Since film’s inception and up until the late 1950s, horror films centred on out-of-this-world antagonists; protagonists would stumble upon the evil in distant lands, aliens would invade and brainwash American citizens, man-beasts would dwell in the woods and ghosts lurked in old houses. Paired with a classic melodramatic acting style, such examples do little to scare modern audiences, but they were popular amongst movie-goers of the time.

In 1960, one of the world’s most famous directors, Alfred Hitchcock, created a film that now epitomises the horror genre; its theme is synonymous with knife stabbing and its famous plot shift and killing of its protagonist early in the film is a technique employed by many other filmmakers. Psycho did something new and unique after a period of Cold War fears which produced endless amounts of invasion horrors; it introduced the calm, nervous and shy young man next door who just happened to murder unsuspecting victims in bouts of schizophrenia. Psycho made audiences aware that any one of us could be murdered if we choose the wrong motel or happened to be traveling at the wrong time of day, and this is arguably more terrifying than any gruesome monster.

Through the decades, the horror genre has shifted to and from representations of the real or the fantasy, from the slasher genre’s Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees to the supernatural Poltergeist and Evil Dead. In the 2000s, after the unbelievably tragic events of 9/11, the horror genre took a shift into the hyper-real subgenre of torture porn, a group of films, including Saw and Hostel, that graphically and realistically depicted torture and presented antagonists that were in the streets, preying on innocent people.  However, at the end of the decade, the supernatural horror became extremely popular with Paranormal Activity, and it has influenced the creation of more ghost-themed films.

While this shift back to the films that rely on cheap scares is disappointing, the realistic horror is still present in television; Bates Motel, based on the novel and film Psycho plays on audience fears of the real, as its main character Norman Bates is a normal high school student but is prone to murderous rages. Freddie Highmore’s portrayal is excellent, as he can transform from the sweet and shy mummy’s boy to jealous, angry and psychotic in a matter of seconds; his eyes and facial expressions become terrifying, making viewers think about mental health issues that actually exist, and can really cause such rampages. We have been stricken with more fear in a matter of seconds from Bates Motel than whole episodes of other horror shows such as American Horror Story, and we sincerely hope realistic horrors continue.

Do you share our opinion on the fear of the real?

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