How Cultural History and Trauma Shape Our Fears in Film

Written by Kelly McNeely

Horror is a rich part of every culture – each has its own distinct fears, tropes, and trends. When comparing horror films from country to country, the ways that each filmmaker will approach a theme are undeniably tied to their shared cultural experiences. The ghostly apparitions of Japan, for instance, are significantly different from the way that hauntings and possessions are portrayed in American horror cinema. The former has been influenced by traditions in folklore and spirits like the yûrei (The Ring, The Grudge), the latter related to a puritanical past and the moral – and often psychological - struggle between good and evil (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Evil Dead, The Amityville Haunting).

The elements that influence what – and how - horrors are shown on screen are tied to the cultural identity and history of their countries of origin.

Trauma shapes us. It shapes our fears and how we respond to them. Like a wound, it will fester if untreated, and one broadly accessible method of addressing that pain is through a creative outlet. As one of the masters of horror, Wes Craven, has so eloquently phrased it, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it”.

A common subgenre of horror films is that of the violent invasion. This concept of an invasive external force is often seen as a metaphor for xenophobia; a threatening “other” that residents and protagonists are wholly unprepared to fight against. It speaks to the fear of outsiders and the helplessness found in an intrusion of your own private sanctuary.

While this is a big theme in American horror, the home invasion subgenre is thoroughly explored across many cultures. Spain’s Kidnapped and Sleep Tight, and Germany’s Funny Games are examples that both deal with social class conflict, but from dramatically different angles.

Invasion is also a common theme in New French Extremity films like Ils, Haute Tension, and À L’interieur (Inside). This cinematic movement has produced a long list of films with an intense approach to violence and sexuality, with elements of body horror and exploitation cinema (with a heavy lean on “torture porn’).

New French Extremity is unyielding, showing the full extent and aftermath of a sudden, violent attack (ie. Irréversible). Others take a more gradual turn towards the deeply traumatic (like Martyrs, Frontiere(s), Sheitan, and Calvaire).

But there is a method to the madness. The films reflect France’s own struggles with xenophobia and a far-right government (an anger punctuated by the 2005 French Riots), and a general distrust and anxiety (which could be traced back to conflicts like the French Revolution and the German occupation during WWII).

The Guardian

The Guardian

Now, let’s be perfectly blunt – America is a nation that was built on violence. The country has faced a long history of trauma and turmoil; the massacre of the Indigenous population, slavery, the Civil War, Prohibition, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, The Salem Witch Trials, assassinations, volatile cults, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow segregation and the KKK, the LA riots and police brutality, mass shootings, school shootings, rampant sexual assault (against men, women, and children)… the list goes on.

Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s just start with a few specific examples within the home invasion subgenre.

In American home invasion films (like The Strangers, Straw Dogs, and You’re Next), the concept preys on the idea that Americans often feel the need to take their safety and security into their own hands (for further reading, see every argument against gun control).

The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are fuelled by paranoia and distrust of both outside forces and the potential danger from those close to them who may have been “taken over”. When considering McCarthyism and the second Red Scare of the 1940s-1950s, it’s easy to see where this idea comes from.

Other films in this subgenre – for example Green Room, Get Out, The People Under the Stairs, and the entirety of The Purge franchise – shake up the fear of “otherness” by injecting a socially conscious and historically poignant message to reframe the narrative.

Bill Hudson, AP

Bill Hudson, AP

Another trope with great historic relevance is the idea of the creepy child. During the Spanish Civil War of 1937, a common practice under Francosim was the separation of children from their incarcerated political prisoner parents. These children were often either killed or sent off to state-run orphanages (or outright adopted into Francosit families). Ripped from their parents, the children suffered through atrocious conditions. This lasting trauma can be seen through the tropes of ghostly or feral children in films like The Others, The Devil’s Backbone, The Orphanage, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill A Child), and Tras el Cristal (In a Glass Cage).

Canada has its own set of trauma with First Nation Residential Schools, which were designed to take children away from their families and Native culture and assimilate them through (essentially) cultural genocide. Of the 150,000 children placed in the care of residential schools, at least 6,000 died while in attendance. This idea of a tragic ghostly child trauma is explored in The Changeling. In combination with the more polite concept of Canada’s multicultural blend, themes of metamorphosis, assimilation and a loss of humanity are seen in films like The Fly, Ginger Snaps, The Void, Bite, Rabid, and The Brood.

The National Post

The National Post

Cultural history has roots in our environment as much as the way that we act within it. Japanese horror films, for example, developed larger-than-life beasts like Godzilla and Gamera as a somewhat light and campy response to the country’s first-hand encounters with atomic energy during World War II.

Because of the dangerous and dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution on the lower class, British horror put a focus on the hidden seams of strangeness in urban environments that release stalkers, sadists, and threatening hoards (as seen in 28 Days Later, Attack the Block, Under the Skin, Peeping Tom, Tower Block, Death Line, Comedown, Creep, and The Limehouse Golem).

Class division and - as Plan B explores in his socially charged protest track, Ill Manors - society’s failure to nurture its disadvantaged youth were echoed in events like the 2011 England Riots.

In another – more remote - example, Australian and Canadian horror feed off of their wilderness. Canadian films often focus on an idea of isolation and madness (developed from Canadian literary themes of survival), seen in titles like The Mask, Session 9, Pin, Black Mountain Side, Grave Encounters, My Bloody Valentine, and Black Christmas.

Australia’s entries in the horror genre embrace the dangers of the outback with creature features (like Razorback, The Pack, Long Weekend, and Black Water) and human hunters (Wolf Creek, Road Games, Night of Fear, Dead Calm, Fortress, Killing Ground, and Wake in Fright). The latter threat perhaps borrows from Australia’s history as a penal colony – that idea that truly anyone could be out there (although it was mainly those convicted of petty crimes like theft that were shipped to these colonies).

But while Australian horror highlights the terror of their rural boogeymen, America’s obsession with rogues and rebels - and the celebrity status surrounding real-life killers like Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer - have helped to create a feverish fan culture around horror’s iconic slashers.

The villains in franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are often both antagonist and hero. The audience roots for their kills – the bloodier the better.

Message from The Lipstick Killer via Tumblr

Message from The Lipstick Killer via Tumblr

Of course, these examples are still just barely scratching the surface. 

Horror films are far more than just blood, guts, and boobs. The whole genre is designed to challenge our fears and cause us to reflect on the trauma we hold inside us. When we watch horror, we find elements that we can relate to on a deeply personal level - themes emerge and define themselves by our history. We feel it in our bones, even if we’re not exactly sure why.