Review by Ryan Wilson

Every year around Halloween, I assign my freshman composition classes an essay by Stephen King titled "Why We Crave Horror Movies." Aside from a few dated references to Diana Ross and Leonard Nimoy’s poetry, the 1981 Playboy article holds up pretty well, especially its central thesis, which claims that horror films sate our psychological need toward violence. King argues that we all have "anticivilization emotions," that they never go away, and that like mental illness, we can measure them. Horror films, King argues, satisfy these emotions, keeping, as he puts it, "the gator fed."

My students usually enjoy discussing this essay, mainly because they are so used to hearing the more negative adult arguments concerning violence in their movies and video games. King’s essay tips a parent’s case on its head, making the argument that horror movies are in fact healthy because they release harmful emotions in a harmless environment: the movie theater. It’s sort of like the ancient Greek theater, which was also pretty violent, in which terrible events were witnessed in order to bring about a catharsis or purging of emotions. By watching such horror, we learn how not to act, how not to anger the gods.

But my students are usually quick to point out that if mental illness can be measured in degrees then so too can the movies that seek to quell our anticivilization emotions. And what does it say about our civilization as a whole if the movies we use to suppress our darker impulses are becoming more and more brutal? As one student wrote in her response paper, "We went from The Blob to Saw 3-D, which isn't even suspenseful anymore; it’s a straight up sadistic, torturing blood fest." She goes on, incidentally, to say that she’ll be the first one in line to see the latest Saw movie.

If I were to point to a specific watershed movie that shifted horror films from campy fun to visceral carnage, I'd probably lay blame and praise on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which is appropriately celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

What makes Psycho so great is that, for its time, it was so utterly unpredictable. Audiences in 1960 weren't accustomed to having their lead actress hacked to bits less than halfway through the film, let alone naked in a shower, but that's what happens to Janet Lee.

To dwell on that infamous shower scene is necessary because it’s actually more notable for what Hitchcock doesn't show. That is, we don't see Janet Lee hacked to pieces. Instead we get the violence of the shower curtain opening, a dark wigged figure, the knife, and blood swirling down the bathtub drain. Hitchcock was so meticulous about how he handled the moment that it supposedly took him days just to get the sequencing of images correct. The scene, of course, is tame by today’s standards, but it unleashed our worst imaginations and opened a Pandora's Box of horrific new tropes for filmmakers, few of which would apply the genius or the restraint of Alfred Hitchcock.

Psycho also introduced us to a new sort of horror protagonist, Norman Bates, not a ghost or ghoul, but a real man with a real condition. Bates seems closer to us because he's the boy next door, the sort who, as the film says "wouldn‘t hurt a fly." Played so timidly by Anthony Perkins, Norman is the only likable character in the film for a time. But as Stephen King reminds us, "sanity becomes only a matter of degree." Something’s not right about this boy who's content to get scolded from his mother. And so we, along with Janet Lee, mistake his psychosis for neurosis. So many horror films from Friday the 13th to the Halloween films have played the childhood trauma card in creating their killer, but none of the modern slasher films care enough to look this closely, this clinically at the fascinating face of crazy.

Psycho is a brilliant film for a many more reasons, not least of which for its subtext concerning death and rebirth using a number of bird references. Even Janet Lee’s face resembles a bird.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, the film also deserves some blame for where it’s taken our screen culture. Though Psycho hardly shows any true gore, it unlocked something in our collective consciousness, daring us to go even further, to show more, and to give us more twisted figures to consider.

We’re so far into the abyss of cruel madness on the screen these days that it has become predictable and cliché, as parodied by the Scream franchise, which simultaneously wants to scare us while holding a meta-conversation about the slasher genre.

How can King’s claim that horror films satisfy our darker urges still be true if we have already watched the very worst that we can imagine? It's like already knowing how the story ends? Can we still attain a catharsis without the shock or even a narrative challenge? Even Greek tragedy got old and died out, didn't it?

I'm certain that more horrors still exist to be filmed. But I don’t sit around imagining them. That would ruin all the fun.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit rel="nofollow" deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010