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Horror Then and Now

What scares you the most? Why are movies that were scary 50 years ago considered tame now?

SMU Professor Rick Worland traces how perceptions of horror have changed through history in his new book, The Horror Film.

He begins his book with Renaissance paintings of the Last Judgment, emphasizing "the horror of their content and the contrast they draw between Heaven and Hell. Heaven seems pretty abstract, but Hell frequently and graphically depicts the destruction of the physical body."

The fear of death and its importance and threat to the human form is a recurring theme in horror of every kind, says Worland, a professor of cinema-television in Meadows School of the Arts.

What scares audiences from generation to generation? Worland says that certain basic ideas continue to terrify through the ages, but larger societal and historical changes contribute to the fear factor. He cites 1920s and '30s horror films for how they assimilated the experiences of World War I.

"You get an awful lot of scary faces and grotesque characters," he says, recalling the devastating impact of mechanized warfare on a world that had experienced it on an unprecedented scale.

Similarly, 1950s horror and science fiction films play to Cold War anxieties. Monsters such as Godzilla are created by atomic testing and battled, usually ineffectively, by the military, reflecting fears that the Allies' conventional martial might that won World War II was essentially powerless against a nuclear threat. In every era, Worland says, "what scares people, socially and individually, is going to change."

Worland received his Ph.D. and Master's degree from UCLA in motion picture and television critical studies. He has been a member of the SMU faculty since 1991. A professor in the Cinema-Television Department of the Meadows School of the Art, Worland currently teaches History of Documentary Film and Television and Mass Communications Research.

The Horror Film is published by Blackwell Publishing and available at bookstores and online.

 

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