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Horror Films 101

A breakdown of the horror genre from an expert



October is a time for spice lattés, pumpkin carving and being scared shitless by some of the most terrifying films of the last few decades. Professor of Film at Portland State University Drew Beard fell in love with film after a trip to Universal Studios backlot as a child. At the same time he discovered the mechanics of making movies, he found a fascination with horror films. He is currently working on a book about popular culture's role in occult panics in the U.S., linking supernatural horror movies to history and sociology discussing how some cheesy horror movie fit into the bigger picture. He will present "Beyond The Amityville Horror—Why Supernatural Horror Still Haunts Us" at the Deschutes Public Library at 2 pm Sat., Oct. 25 in Redmond and Sun., Oct. 26 in Bend. The Source picked Beard's brain about his fear and his favorite horror films.

On how he got into horror:

It was the late 1980s and I had older step-siblings who would torment me with the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies; they'd tell me Jason or Freddy were going to "get" me and I was an impressionable child with no real exposure to any kind of horror movies before that, so I believed them and had a terrible time. But I got so sick and tired of being so easily scared by the movies that I started forcing myself to watch them and study them. Shortly after, the worm turned and I became the one scaring the hell out of my siblings.

Horror, a history:

The horror genre has been around in film since the very beginning, about 1896 or 1897, but it developed slowly, like most other genres, it was a process lasting into the 1920s and '30s. Horror sort of comes and goes in popularity over the decades but it's always present to some degree and it's pretty flexible, it knows what scares people in a certain time and place. If other film genres suggest the dreams of their audience, then horror suggests its audience's nightmares. That sounds cliché, I know, but it's absolutely true. Because it scares people, it's not regarded as fondly as others. When all the film genres get together, horror is forced to sit at the back, near the door.

On why horror has continued success...

We're fascinated by scary movies because they let us take the things we're worried about or afraid of and then externalize them onto someone or something else: be it a shark or a serial killer or a demon or children of the corn. It allows people to sort through their fears, but then ultimately blame the devil or a curse or what have you. It's a scapegoating impulse that goes way back to the witchcraft trials in Salem. But these movies, where horror invades homes and minds and souls, really do speak to people and their real-life concerns and anxieties. It lets them to look at it but then blame it on something 'out there' instead.

Supernatural horror films tend to be metaphorical because people don't want to see exactly what they fear. That would be too easy. But they will watch mythical reimagined versions of it, where the supernatural helps to distance the horror onscreen from reality. So it's sort of a coping mechanism or a safety valve. It lets the audience get close to the horror, to relate to it enough to enjoy the movie, but not enough to get too close to it.

Terrors in these movies usually involve the presence of unwanted others in the home (ghosts, demons) and the inability to defend one's home or family against these attacks and assaults. Since the families in these movies are generally white and middle-class and anything that threatens them is painted as supernatural and malevolent, you can imagine how various marginalized groups and paranoid fantasies provide fodder for the ghosts and demons on the screen. People aren't scared of ghosts and demons in 2014, but they are afraid of terrorism or epidemics of illness or climate change or identity theft. It's still that sense of vulnerability, of being under attack, of not knowing where to turn and finding that even your house has been infiltrated by outside forces. Horror responds to that.

On his favorite horror films:

My favorite horror film is Poltergeist; I taped it off on television and watched the tape way too often for my own good. As I recall, I liked watching the house and neighborhood get trashed at the end of the movie. That was actually my favorite part of the movie. For some odd reason, I identified with the people buried underneath that neighborhood and was glad to see them make an appearance to air their grievances. Boy, did they ever.

The most influential horror films of each decade...

1960s-Rosemary's Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski

Because it told us that if you suspect your neighbors are witches, they probably are.

1970s-Halloween (1978) directed by John Carpenter

Because it showed us that evil can turn up anywhere and for no real reason at all.

1980s-The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter

Because it warned us that we couldn't trust each other.

1990s-Scream (1996) directed by Wes Craven

Because it warned us about popular culture, the effects of media, and the importance of knowing "the rules" of the horror genre.

2000s-The Ring (2002) directed by Gore Verbinski

Because it warned us about our technology and how vulnerable it made us. It's just one more way for "something awful" to get into the house.

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