Denver Pop Culture Con 2019 – By The Dawn’s Early Fright: Teaching History With Horror Film

by Brendan M. Allen

Since 2005, Brad L. Duren, Ph.D. has taught a senior-level seminar History/Humanities course on the complex relationship between cultural history and horror films. The goal of the course is to better understand the significant ways that horror films reflect the social and political developments/attitudes of their origins. The readings, discussions, individual assignments, and film screenings are designed to challenge students in their role as a historian and participant in popular culture. Understanding film, both as text and artifact, equips one for a better understanding of how horror films reflect society, culture, and technology (the building blocks of history). The underlying objectives of this course include improving the student’s analytical/interpretive skills and building an increased awareness about the complex relationship between historical inquiry, popular culture and horror films. One can learn much about the culture of a society in a particular time and place by understanding what frightens that society.

By Dawn’s Early Fright is the first panel I put into my Denver Pop Culture Con 2019 panel schedule for several reasons. I mean, it’s horror, so that pretty much sealed the deal already, but it’s also dead brilliant. It’s often said that “horror is a perfect vehicle for satire,” but it never even occurred to me that the backside of that statement is that you can reverse engineer horror (movies, in this case) to map out the historical and cultural context. None of the ideas that follow are my own. They are paraphrased from Dr. Duren’s talk. This is absolutely one of those “I was today years old when I learned…” situations. 

Film serves many purposes, as a reflection and a shaper of popular culture. If you want to know what a culture is thinking about, find out what frightens them the most. Studying those fears reveals what a culture holds as essential and necessary, as well as the struggles within that society. Films can be read as text for reading the past, and horror in particular is particularly revealing.

Fascination with the grotesque and the unknown are as old as humanity itself. Stories of the monstrous and macabre can be traced back through folklore, oral tradition, religion and the occult, literature, carnivals, side shows, and freak shows.

With the advent of motion pictures in the early 20th century, horror made a natural and significant transition. Filmmakers such as Georges Melies, Thomas Edison, and others turned to horror and fantasy subjects. Horror films became prevalent both in Europe and the US after World War I. The films reflected the fears of the societies that produced them.

If you look at post-WWI Europe, there was a strong feeling of disillusionment of war, a loss of stability and normality, and the films reflected these feelings with expressionism and distorted reality, particularly in German cinema. The original version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) had intense themes of government control and citizen helplessness against it. Dr. Caligari represented the German government, and Cesare (the sleepwalker) represented the German people, helpless against the insane doctor’s control. By the time the film was screened in theaters, the themes were toned down quite a bit, but are still present in the final product.

European horror films reflected the horrors of war. Wrecked economies, death, scarred and disfigured veterans, and loss were the major themes in horror cinema. The films made stateside during the same period showed a similar interest in disfigurement and the unknown, but the similarities pretty much ended there.

The United States didn’t suffer the same economic and governmental losses as Europe. America in the 1920’s was driven by economic prosperity and a yearning for “normalcy.” The European films typically had supernatural explanations for the awful events that took place, American films had a “Scooby Doo ending” where everything was explained in a mundane and rational way.

The Great Depression brought about a revival in US horror films, as audiences sought to simultaneously face and escape their fears. Universal Pictures led the way with Tod Browning’s Dracula. It made a star out of Hungarian Bela Lugosi, and mirrored many of the popular fears of the time. Unlike previous American films, there were no rational explanations. The monsters were real, monstrous, and typically “non-American,” reflecting the prejudicial fears of the day.

Universal went to the well again with Frankenstein, setting into motion a cycle of horror that dominated 1930’s cinema. The film catapulted Boris Karloff to instant stardom, and Karloff became a mainstay in horror cinema for three decades. Other studios followed suit, including RKO with King Kong (1933), MGM with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), and Warner Brothers with Island of Lost Souls and Mystery of the Wax Museum, both in 1932. By decade’s end, “American Gothic” was losing steam and the outbreak of WWII shifted the focus of American horror.

The 1940’s saw a shift to more psychological horror. Screenwriters like Val Lewton mastered the new form, mixing “film noir” with the supernatural, leaving audiences to decide which parts of the story were real. Classic Monsters stuck around, but were unable to keep the interest of war-weary audiences.

The post-WWII era and the rise of the Cold War provided the foundation of new horrors for 1950’s audiences. Fears of Communist subversion and invasion manifested in the form of aliens from outer space bent on destruction and domination. Basically during this whole era, if you saw aliens, they were Communists in disguise. Fears of atomic contamination led to the rise of giant bugs and resurrected primeval beasts. The most famous of these was… Gojira (Godzilla), Japan’s first great post-war export. Godzilla appeals to a worldwide audience, but in Japan, the beast represents the basest fears of the only culture on Earth that has ever had nuclear weapons dropped on them.

In the 60’s, psychological horrors shifted the scares from fantasy to the stuff lurking in the world around us. The focus became decay of societal institutions and troubled minds. By the late 1960’s, films took on a greater sense of dread, with a more pronounced sense of despair. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) serves as a benchmark of this new direction.

Mirroring the horrors of the Vietnam Conflict and the “war at home,” the horror films of the 70’s became much more nihilistic and much darker in tone. Questions of societal stability and a loss of faith in traditions were common themes. Fears of escalating crime (The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and the struggle between science and faith (The Exorcist) became symbolic of the times. Nature had even turned, as films like Frogs (1972), Food of the Gods (1975), and Jaws (1975) demonstrated.

You get the point. Now, according to Dr. Duren, in order to have a successful course, there are a few things to remember. First, make it structured but flexible with the proper emphasis (history, humanities, etc.). Don’t make it a blow-off course. Make it readings and research intensive, and students must understand this fact. Balance readings, discussions, student research, and class film viewings. Don’t be afraid of studying history! Ignorance is a big factor in why we are where we are today! Most importantly, have fun. You will be surprised how much everyone will learn.

Dr. Duren ended his talk with an invitation for educators to contact him via email at duren@opsu.edu for any info or correspondence on creating a course using history and horror films

Brendan M. Allen

Brendan Allen has probably had more jobs than you would reasonably believe. Dog trainer? He’s done it. Flooring contractor? You bet! EMT? Army NBC specialist? Road dog for a Celtic rock band? Yes, yes, and och aye! Now he reads comics and writes about them. It's a rough gig. You can follow Brendan on Twitter @SaintAmish where he tweets about comic books and cystic fibrosis awareness.

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