Posted: 11/17/1999


Horror Films: The Decline of Fear

by Del Harvey

Film Monthly Home
Wayne Case
Steve Anderson
The Rant
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
The Indies
Film Noir
Coming Soon
Now Playing
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Interviews TV

When I was a kid, there was something kind of wonderful and thrilling about Halloween. For one thing, it signaled a new crop of horror films and monsters, and things meant to frighten. My friends and I would go to the second-run movie house and watch the previews with eager anticipation, imagining the most gruesome creatures ever to walk the earth. This being long before Star Wars, the special effects people were somewhat limited in their capabilities to match our fantasies, so we were generally teased with actors in strange looking rubber costumes and reaction shots of people trying to look frightened while screaming at the top of their lungs.

Fear was something we kids could understand. There are plenty of things to be afraid of when you’re a kid, including bad actors in rubber suits. That scenario might sound like a trip to the erotic ball to some of you, but imagine yourself as a child. Okay, so that’s another type of erotic trip for still others. Look—you know who you are and you know what I’m getting at.

Is it growing up that has changed what triggers our fears? Or is it that we’re all growing up too fast? When I was a kid the term “serial killer” had yet to enter the language. Street gangs used weapons with cute sounding names like “zip” guns. Now they use automatic weapons that fire a thousand rounds a minute. A “zip” gun fired one bullet, and usually never hit anything except perhaps the person firing. Back then, kidnapping was a cause for citywide concern, not a new design for milk cartons.

Okay, so change is inevitable. Still, it seems as though we’ve given up something by taking the innocence out of fear. Contemporary horror films feature serial killers, psychotics, or creeps which, let’s face it, are generally no different than someone we might bump into on the street. Science fiction films have evolved the rubber-clad alien to a higher art form, often so real that few of us would glance twice if we bumped into Robocop on the street. And don’t let me get started about kids with plague tattoos and studs through their tongues.

So, how radically have our monsters changed? Bela Lugosi’s Dracula became the elegant Christopher Lee before metamorphosing into the chameleonic creature in Coppola’s latest incarnation. Lon Chaney’s Wolfman has become a snarling, spitting, multi-fanged “Wolfen.” The Creature From The Black Lagoon is hiding under a rock and refuses to show himself. (He saw The Mummy and was, well, embarrassed for his friend.)

The Invisible Man is haunting Chevy Chase’s lame excuse for a career. King Kong was so revolted by Dino DeLaurentiis’ remake that he refuses to return his agent’s calls. The Hunchback of Notre Dame sold out to Disney. And, while Frankenstein appreciates the artistic quality of an actor such as DeNiro, he is reported as having complained that Bobby’s performance as The Monster wasn’t very far from his portrayal of the killer in Cape Fear. Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde have no more audience since O.J. did his thing. Godzilla is about the only one who has been given any respect on the big screen.

Today’s monsters either have normal names like Jason, Freddy, or Michael, or they’re given cutesy, emotion-personified labels, such as Alien or Predator. This just goes to show you what trend-setters Norman Bates and The Thing were. Jason, Freddy Keuger, and The Alien all possess weapons of gross destruction which offer them more opportunities for blood-letting, disemboweling, and beheading. These are all very admirable accomplishments for any fiend. But after a while it all seems so much like the 6 o’clock news or, perhaps, outtakes from an episode of Julia Child gone horribly wrong.

I was excited when I heard the news of a remake of “The Haunting of Hill House” last summer. As a child this was one of the scariest films I had ever seen. Years later I saw it at a revival theatre, and the film was just as scary as I remembered. Anyone who went to see this wretched mess of a remake, please take the time to rent the original. A story about ghost chasers investigating the unhappy spirits in an old English manor, this film holds some of the most heart-pounding moments caught on celluloid. And they were accomplished with almost no special effects.

As this Halloween season becomes a distant memory, and before the next one springs itself upon us, I leave you with my list of favorite horror films. They may not all be fine art, but they are all good.

The Haunting (original), Halloween (original), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Last Man On Earth, Psycho (original), The Horror of Dracula, Theatre of Blood, Black Sunday, Evil Dead, Near Dark, Night of the Creeps (campy good fun), The Lost Boys, Nosferatu (original—silent), The Thing (directed by John Carpenter), Cemetary Man (with Rupert Everett), The Exorcist, The Phantom of The Opera (1925—Lon Chaney).

There are many, many other great horror films out there. Below are a couple of places to check them out. Good hunting, and remember to watch with the lights out!

Del Harvey founded Film Monthly. He is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

Got a problem? E-mail us at