The Changing Face of Fear-Part One

Quite a few years ago, my Mum related the story of how she and my Grandmother were alone in the house (This was many years before Mum and Dad emigrated to Australia from England.) and both of them were reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula . When it came time for them both to go to bed they were both too terrified to climb up the stairs.

We can laugh at this today but it does illustrate how, just like society, the things that we find scarey change over time, both in literature and film and television.

Bram Stoker's novel terrified my mum and gran.

Bram Stoker’s novel terrified my mum and gran.


Books became an extension of our story telling tradion. Our ancestors would sit around a fire and tell stories of Gods and Monsters, of great hunting trips and so on. This story telling is now actually hot wired into our very being. It explains why we seek out stories that feature a hero or protaganist, a struggle, whether it be within the hero’s psyche or some external force and a resolution to the conflict or struggle. The hero or heroine having learnt a valuable lesson along the way or even overcome a personal character flaw. Books or other entertainment that don’t provide these elements usually fail simply because, the elements of story telling are so deeply ingrained within us that we reject any story that doesn’t satisfy this basic criteria.

You may not realise it, but almost all forms of story telling use this tradionally method. Look at Children’s stories, let’s take Cinderella as an example. Cinderella (the protaganist) is forced to work in slave like conditions for her stepmother and her ugly stepsisters (the antagonists). Cinderella’s problem is that she has no money or power to escape her situation (the struggle). With the help of her fairy Godmother, Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a beautiful ball gown. A pumkin and six mice are transformed into a coach and horses and she is given a pair of glass slippers. However she must return before the final stoke of midnight from the ball as the spell will fade and she will return to her drab self minus her coach and horses (temporary victory over struggle by the protaganist.) At the ball Cinderella dances with the handsome prince till after midnight and must flee before the spell wears off, leaving behind her glass slipper (protaganist failing to heed a warning or taking postive action to avoid a disaster. The Prince, now besotted with Cinderella, sends his men out to find the woman whose foot fits the glass slipper.

Needless to say it is Cinderella and they live happily ever after.The moral ends the story and teaches the reader a life lesson (A kind heart will triumph over power and cruelty, i.e Cinderella’s personality was stronger than the Stepmother/Sister’s power and dominance.)

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney's live-action CINDERELLA, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney’s live-action CINDERELLA, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Think of some of your favourite books, every single one of them will follow the path I’ve outlined, even if it may be somewhat obsure. Horror stories are no different. Their classic overriding them is good vs evil. Dracula is a prime example of this. Jonathan Harkness (the protaganist) must overcome many obstacles and terrors to stop his beloved Mina from being turned into a vampire and becoming the consort of the evil Count Dracula (the antagonist.)

You know, just reading this story description I can understand why Mum and Gran were too scared to climb the stairs all those years ago.


NEXT POST: In Part Two we’ll look at horror in film from the 20’s!

About Michael J. Elliott

14 Responses to The Changing Face of Fear-Part One

  1. Great post. I agree that today many are desensitized to art. What once had me jumping out of my skin now only causes some to blink. As artists we must draw inspiration from the past while forging using new techniques. Can’t wait to read part 2.

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      Thanks Dawn
      I feel part of the trouble is with cinema (and this applies to all genres.), if Hollywood finds itself with a hit on it’s hands it churns out sequels and parts until the public just yawn. As authors it’s natural for us to draw on our race memories such as Vampires, werewolves etc but as you so rightly pointed out, we must use new techniques or risk our readers feeling like they’ve ‘been there, done that’.

      • I completely agree with both of you. If you find The Ring scary, they come out with The Grudge and 20 more films with the same graphics. If you like the concept of Freddy vs. Jason, let’s make 5 of them. Without the course to be original, we all become desensitized to these same visuals and stories and ideas. I won’t get into how video games have desensitized us to violence. ANYWAY 🙂 Yes, I agree, we naturally tend to seek out “checkpoints” in stories that we recognize and that help us identify stories and things we appreciate and like. Something that doesn’t satisfy those checkpoints can leave the reader wanting. Luckily many reads want different checkpoints, but there are always the basics. This could really turn into an enormous discussion. Great post!

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          Thanks Christie,
          Some very valid points indeed. It seems to me that movie studios try to outdo each other with the biggest car chase, the biggest battle etc. What they don’t seem to realise is that they are increasing the viewer’s tolerence level and making we as movie goers, readers etc bored far more quickly. It’s already been proven that today’s generation has a far lower attention span than we do. I think its partly due to the plethora of quick money makers that churn out on the back of a hit and of course, we are bombarded with promos etc on social media!

          • Well, I have a slightly different take, especially when it comes to sequels. While I will agree that Hollywood tries to hit us over the head until you are in a Jason vs Freddy coma. Hollywood can not absorb all the blame for that. Most filmmakers, especially in Horror, make the first film with the intention and idea that there is going to be sequels. They feel they get to tell the expanded greater story by minimizing the effect of the 1st film, leaving the origin stories and new Protagonists to opportunities to slay (or outsmart) the Protagonist for many installments.

            They also know that because Horror is genre that lends itself to be serialized that they have that mindset going in that it succeed and when it does they can bank on telling the story they want to tell later on.

            However Horror is not alone in this thought process. The Wachowski Brothers had this very principle in mind when they created The Matrix. They had already written the 2 sequels prior to be greenlit for it. They knew alreay that’s how they were going to tell the story but if it hadn’t been the box office dynamo it was, those sequels would have probably not seen the light of day (too bad for us, just kidding).

            That’s why Horror is such a focus for that because there is a marketplace to sell it, regardless of it’s box office. Which does pretty well anyway. Especially if the horror is inventive, like an Insidious.

            So if we are going to talk about Horror filmmakers in this way, are we going to slam Fantasy writers for the same crime? Most Fantasy writers write the first book knowing they are going to create a world beyond that in many, many volumes. Some I have seen have upwards of 10 sequels or as we call them “series”.

            The only reason Fantasy series are more acceptable than Horror Sequels is because a novel or novella or even short story lends itself to more a descriptive narrative that film is restricted by in principal of the writing process. Film needs to hold a 2 hour attention span, 90 minutes in some cases. A book you can get lost in for days and because it’s your time you are dictating the amount in which you spend. You don’t get that luxury with a film. How many times have decided not to go to a movie because it was over 3 hours and you aren’t in a position to spend that kind of time?

            Quentin Tarantino had to cut Kill Bill into 2 sections because his studio didn’t think anyone would sit through 4 hours not to mention a 4 hour movie lent itself to fewer showings= less box office.

            So sometimes we blame a studio system, and don’t get me wrong, they deserve ample blame for a lot of what they regurgitate and try to sell us, when in fact it’s the filmmaker who didn’t have the luxury of hundreds of pages and a reader’s undivided attention, to tell their story.

            Just a different perspective. 🙂

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            Hi Joe, Thanks for that very insightful comment. Yes you are correct I probably should have balanced some of my replies out with those very revelant point you have just made. What you’ve said would also explain whty there is usually a battle between the studios and the director over the final product, ususally resulting in two products, the theatrical version and the director’s cut.
            The Matrix was just too huge to be told as a stand alone so I agree with you that the writers had to tell the story the way we eventually saw it. It was a huge risk (as are most movies) but those stunning visual effects certainly made audiences clamour for more 🙂

  2. Great post! I’ve always felt the unseen was much more frightening than the “seen.” When I was a child, lo, those many years ago, the best part was shouting, “No! Don’t go in there!” although we had no idea what was actually lurking. Unfortunately, today, it is very “in-your-face.” Looking forward to Part II!

  3. Very good stuff Michael. I’m late to the party but I’m intrigued. The only bit I think you missed was the competition with reality. Horror not only suffers from the repetition of the newest big thing, but it competes with reality. The scarier the world is the harder it is for horror to frighten people. In part because you have to be horrified by sympathizing with the monsters (even the ones in human forms) and that isn’t as terrifying when you already kind of understand some scary people. Also because the fright factor has to compete with things in the real world that are scary on a massive level when horror can only touch us on the personal. That’s why books like Dracula are so amazing, that they stand the test of time. I find it funny that with all of that competition it is horror stories that seem to stay relevant the longest.

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      Hi Patrick,
      I thoroughly agree. Our news and mesia are full of horror stories from life and does make us somewhat numb, but as you point out, “otherwordly” mosnters such as Dracula, the wolfman remain popular because they are so divorced from the real world. Horror is one genre that can constantly reinvent itself and I think that’s what keeps it popular 🙂

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