Academics have set out to prove that horror movies are worth more than a cheap rental for a middle school slumber party.
In an uncertain moment in history, the genre may provide valuable insight into our culture, our values, and above all, our fears.
"Horror after 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror," edited by Associate Professor of English Aviva Briefel and writer-activist Sam J. Miller, was released by the University of Texas Press on November 1. Each of the 11 essays in the anthology analyzes a different aspect of the post 9/11 horror genre.
It would be impossible to understand the importance of Briefel's work without a look at the horror film in the pre-9/11 age. Briefel and Miller write that in the 1990s, "there seemed to be little at stake in public discourse—one of our greatest concerns was the president's marital fidelity." The genre, therefore, was awash in remakes and self-referential scare composites such as "Scream" (1996).
The September 11 terrorist attacks ushered in a new era in America's self-conception. Briefel and Miller write, "9/11 ushered in a period that would be framed by the government and the media as one in which the fundamentals of our society and our very existence were threatened."
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the horror genre functions as an artistic coping mechanism.
These films leave explicit stereotypical portrayals of Middle Eastern terrorists to television shows like "24," and instead adopt themes of latent domestic danger. Fear takes the form of a monster who levels New York or an insidious suburban figure.
"The person who you thought you could trust, your neighbor, the terrorists that actually perpetrated 9/11 were in our lives," said Briefel, "they weren't the other until they committed these acts."
According to Briefel and Miller, social and political issues in the wake of 9/11 are met head-on by documentaries such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), which certainly induce a degree of anxiety in their audience. Meanwhile, fictionalized accounts that dramatize 9/11 directly are frowned upon because of their proximity to the actual event themselves.
Therefore, wrote the authors, the horror genre becomes a subliminal sounding board for the exploration of post-9/11 culture: "In a context where we could not openly process the horror we were experiencing, the horror genre emerged as a rare, protected space in which to critique the tone and content of public discourse," they write.
Briefel gave the example of "torture porn" as something that results from the national dialogue on Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib facilities.
She cites films such as "Saw" (2004) and "The Human Centipede" (2009) as works that force Americans to think about their "relationship to different practices in indirect ways."
Films manipulate their viewers' perspectives, the professor explains, such as in the pre-9/11 "Jaws" (1975), in which the viewer experiences attacks from the shark's point of view.
After 9/11, the horror genre became—in part—a documentation of events via personal mobile phones. "Horror likes to imagine the idea of being there," says Briefel, "post-9/11 horror attempts to give you that direct experience...there is no comforting, controlling camera mediating the world for you, you're the one holding the camera."
It is no coincidence that many witnesses of the September 11 attacks compared the unfolding events to a movie. The post-9/11 horror genre takes that disbelief and channels it into the venue where one must expect it: a fictional narrative.
In the horror genre, the editors write, "We have come to expect that a monster is never just a monster, but rather a metaphor that translates real anxieties into more or less palatable forms."
Post 9/11 we learn the most terrifying lesson of all: "we are the ones capable of producing this horror." After all, Briefel said, "we are the alien."