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The Horror Movie Game...

by James Bray Rating: Release Date:

...Who's that ghost? What's that monster?

There are already many games involving horror movies, most of which stipulate that the players consume a certain amount of cheap liquor at specific intervals throughout the film; for example when someone is killed or when a scary-movie cliché is particularly obvious, like when someone goes to investigate a strange noise. This game distances itself from such conventional irony; it's much more genteel, it's maybe even a bit academic. It involves the unmasking of the killer or the monster in any given horror movie in order to see what they really represent. 

Horror films tend to be rich in clumsy (yet effective) symbolism and metaphors. The 'demons' in these movies are often manifestations of society's anxieties and problems. If we start very early on in cinema's history with old Dracula movies like Nosferatu, you can see that the Count represents a sexual threat of promiscuity and the concurrent risk of STDs; this is obvious in the concentration on blood, contamination and penetration through the vampire bite. American sci-fi horror films from the 50s such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing and The Blob made the most of Cold War tension; however, with regard to the latter, a case can be made that the blob is a manifestation of the threat of the burgeoning sexuality of American youth or even the "threat" of menstruation if you want to take things quite literally.

In the 60s, Alfred Hitchcock brought a new word into common parlance with his blockbuster movie Psycho. The suspense in this film derives from the psychological volatility and perversion of the American psyche; this resonated particularly well in a time of political and ideological tension and, also, a time when Sigmund's Freud's theories on the subconscious were coming to prominence. The Roman Polanski film Rosemary's Baby is another prototypical horror movie from the 60s, and this one retreads conventional Gothic-horror fears of childbirth, motherhood and femininity but makes effective use of a contemporary context; such fears resonated with the public and would later be exploited to great effect in The Exorcist which was released in 1973 or even in Ridley Scott's Alien which originally appeared in 1979; regarding birth-anxiety, think about John Hurt's famous stomach churning scene where the alien makes it's first appearance.

In the 70s, films like The Omega Man and Dawn of the Dead discernibly exploit the fear of war and apocalypse but they also play on the theme of entropy and the anxiety caused by urban social alienation. John Boorman's Deliverance meditates on fears of America's (specifically corporate America's) irresponsible and exploitative attitude toward the environment. This tale of suburbanites who are set upon by sadistic hillbillies is also concerned with the fear of decadence in American society and the degeneration of those who are banished from 'civilization'.

Things get even more interesting in the 80s, with movies like David Kronenberg's cult classic Videodrome which is an unsettling meditation on man's relationship with technology. John Carpenter's superior remake of 50s monster movie The Thing can be interpreted as a manifestation of society's anxieties regarding the AIDS virus, as the "thing" can be contracted by anybody and the characters use a blood test to check for infection. Another movie which exploits the fear and ignorance surrounding AIDs and, more specifically contraction of the virus through drug use, is Kathryn Bigelow's excellent vampire western, Near Dark. The killer doll in Child's Play which terrorises a poor, single parent family symbolises the more vicious and sadistic sides of 80s materialism and corporate culture. Another popular horror film from the 80s is Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street. In this film, the monster, Freddy Krueger, can be seen as a manifestation of people's inner demons, the debauchery and brutality of ordinary folk that threatens to undermine the genteel veneer of suburban American.

In the 90s, innovative films like Scream and The Blair Witch Project revitalised the horror movie genre. Scream's self-referential style and effective subversion of horror film conventions exalts the killer to a representation of the audience themselves. The iconic 'Ghostface' is a stylised and horrific manifestation of the fatalism, cynicism and indifference that characterized the MTV generation. The terror of The Blair Witch Project's 'found footage' presentation stems from the fact that the audience is now completely implicated in the action rather than simply being detached observers; the abstract, spotlit, terrorised eyes of star, Heather Donahue on the film's poster symbolises audience complicity. These two meta-horror films left contemporary directors with little distance left to run; this resulted in the unfortunate slew of mediocre horror-remakes that we saw throughout the 00s. However, interesting films like REC and Diary of the Dead have developed the documentary or found-footage horror movie sub-genre; these films exploit and make interesting statements about our hyper-mediatised society and it's biased and often exploitative coverage of certain events. In my opinion, the best horror film of this decade is Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage which brings horror back to it's Gothic routes and uses evocative themes such as family, disease, bereavement and motherhood to build tension and a palpable sense of dread.

There are plenty of films that I've missed out on but there are just too many interesting movies to mention. If speculating about latent social fears that find form in horror movies doesn't appeal to you, then you could always play the other alcohol based game that I referred to off-handedly at the beginning of the article; however, that's no excuse to watch Saw 4 and drink Jägermeister on your own.

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