Real Horror Versus Reel Horror

Real horror vs reel horror 2

For most of us, a trip to the cinema is an escape from reality, a chance to put your worries on hold for 90 minutes. The horror film often provides the greatest release, giving us the adrenalin rush of a rollercoaster ride. Being terrified shouldn’t be a state we actively seek out, yet while other cinematic genres come and go, horror has been consistently successful through the decades.

The most successful horror movies are often those which tap into timely societal fears, feeding them back to the audience through a filter of shadow and fog.

The first successful wave of Hollywood horror came in the early thirties. With the US plunged into depression following the stock market crash of 1929, Americans began to grow hostile towards the immigrants who had been arriving en masse since the turn of the century, fearing the extra competition for scarcely available jobs.
Three of the biggest horror movies of the time, Dracula, The Mummy and King Kong, feature villains arriving from foreign locales to wreak havoc and have their wicked way with fair-haired American actresses. In the fifties, Britain was experiencing similar mass immigration and, once again, it was Dracula and The Mummy terrorising audiences, now courtesy of Hammer films.

Real horror vs reel horror 2

The real-life trauma of the Second World War meant the production of horror films was largely halted during the 1940s, as movie producers (naively?) assumed audiences would rather indulge in lighter fare. By the fifties, however, horror was back in a big way, this time preying on the tensions of ‘The Cold War’ and the fear of communism. Both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders From Mars feature residents of small-town America having their personalities stolen, becoming mindless drones whose sole purpose is to serve an invading alien race.

With the threat of nuclear war lingering in the air, B-Movie producers gave audiences a host of films featuring giant creatures, usually the result of exposure to radiation and secret military tests. American towns and cities were attacked by giant ants (Them), giant spiders (Tarantula) and even a giant housewife (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman). Across the Pacific, with the memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks still fresh, Tokyo was being destroyed, this time by Gojira, (or Godzilla as the creature became known to western audiences).

By the early seventies, America was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War with victory seeming less likely with every day. On a nightly basis, Americans were exposed to graphic news reports detailing the latest US defeat. It’s no coincidence then that horror hits like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes feature protagonists (usually ‘city folk’) who find themselves out of their depth and terrorised by natives (usually ‘rednecks’) in an unfamiliar and hostile locale (rural Texas, backwoods Georgia, the Arizona desert).

The 1978 Oscar-winning drama Coming Home dealt with the struggle of returning Vietnam vets in readjusting to civilian life. The ‘slasher’ genre came to prominence at this time and the most common plotline involved a young man returning to his hometown after a prolonged absence with killing on his mind. This can be seen in the film that kicked off the cycle, John Carpenter’s Halloween and many of its imitators.

In the 1980s, America was experiencing an economic boom and horror film-makers were keen to expose the unsteady foundations this new-found wealth was built on. In Poltergeist, a young middle-class family fall victim to malevolent spirits after discovering their suburban dream-home was built on top of a Native American burial ground. Dawn of the Dead has its heroes shack up in a huge shopping mall to avoid the hordes of zombies lurking outside; a thinly disguised comment on class divisions and consumerism.

The real-life terror of the AIDS virus was reflected in two of the biggest horror films of the 80s. The Thing features an alien parasite that moves from body to body with deadly consequences, while The Fly has Jeff Goldblum’s body decaying in a dramatic and shocking manner.
With American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 00s saw a repeat of the type of horror films seen during the Vietnam War. Movies like Hostel, Turistas and The Human Centipede have young Americans terrorised while visiting foreign lands in a sub-genre often referred to as ‘torture porn’.


The current trend in horror revolves around haunted houses (Paranormal Activity, The Possession, The Conjuring). This can be read as a reflection of the fear many mortgage holders have of literally losing the roof over their heads in this economic climate. To counter the old question of “Why not just leave the house?” these films usually include a scene in which the family are told the spirits will follow them, like bad debt.

The next time you’re enjoying a horror film, ask yourself if it’s an escape from reality, or a reflection of it.

Pictured from top: King Kong (1933); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); The Conjuring (2013).

By Eric Hillis