It was my good fortune to be a program participant at the Spooky Empire horror convention in Orlando earlier this month. The main thing I learned (by viewing the many attendees in costume) is that there are three main types of zombie: nurse zombies, soldier zombies and bride zombies.
Above and beyond that, though, I was impressed by the abundance of zombies in general. Psycho killers were fairly well represented, too. But I only saw one vampire. I never saw a werewolf, a mummy, Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper, or the Frankenstein monster.
By and large, the dealers room reflected the same preferences. If you wanted to buy a zombie-themed T-shirt or a grisly DVD movie about a sadistic serial murderer, you were in luck. They were easy to find. If you wanted merchandise that referenced a different style of horror, you had to look harder.
That’s not to imply that supernatural creatures other than zombies were entirely MIA. But to the extent that anyone cared at all, vengeful Japanese ghosts and the eldritch entities of the Cthulhu Mythos were of greater interest than Count Dracula, Kharis, or good old whiny, frantic Larry Talbot.
When I thought about it, I realized what I was seeing pretty much mirrored what the horror movie (and television) field has become. We still get stories about vampires and werewolves, and occasionally we even get period pieces, but for the most part, the creators don’t even try to make them truly scary. “True Blood,” for example, is a kinkily erotic, tongue-in-cheek soap opera, and as such, it sums up the common approaches modern filmmakers bring to this traditional material.
Perhaps they’re smart to take the tacks they do. It may be that certain tropes of traditional horror are played out. Maybe we’ve all seen too many vampires and werewolves for them to have much of a shot at scaring us. The lone mad genius toiling in his secret lab may look ludicrously implausible if we know the kind of resources it actually takes to make a modern scientific breakthrough, and if we have a secular worldview, it’s similarly difficult to sell us on the idea that he’s meddling in matters better left to God.
The modern audience may know and care too little about history to respond to a story set in the past, and once you’ve come to equate horror with gut-wrenching violence and gore, less explicit material may simply fail to make an impression.
But I hate the thought that the older style of horror is doomed to be forgotten. As you may have guessed, part of the reason is that I grew up on it watching Chiller Theater in Columbus, Ohio at 11 p.m. on Friday night. (Thanks for letting me stay up, Mom and Dad.) I loved Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price is still my favorite actor. It saddens me when young horror fans tell me they don’t even know why they are.
But there’s more to my fondness than nostalgia. Many of the old Universal, Hammer, and American International horror movies are genuinely good. When they employ an exotic historical setting like Transylvania during the Victorian era, it creates a fairy-tale quality that helps the story slip past our defenses. The inability to show extreme violence and gore obliges the movies to spook the audience in different and often subtler ways.
I’d like to believe there’s still an audience for a well-made, non-campy vampire, werewolf, and/or period horror movie. How about all you Goths? I didn’t see you at Spooky Empire, which further suggests that recent horror doesn’t offer much to people with your sensibility, but I hope you’re still out there in a crypt or dungeon somewhere sipping blood-red wine from skull-shaped goblets. Tell me you didn’t all turn into steampunks when I wasn’t looking.
In entertainment, many things go in cycles, and much as I love Night of the Living Dead, American Zombie, Halloween, Re-animator, Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and S&Man, I hope zombies, inbred cannibal hillbillies, and the like don’t maintain their stranglehold on true horror movies forever. Let the Right One In proved it’s still possible to make a scary vampire film, and you never know, maybe the Dark Shadows movie will demonstrate that one can still employ all the traditional Gothic shtick to chilling effect.
While we’re waiting to find out, why not celebrate Halloween by watching (or re-watching) the Frankenstein films of Karloff and Peter Cushing, The Black Cat, Price’s Poe adaptations, the original House on Haunted Hill, and the original version of The Haunting? They just might take you to a place that modern horror movies don’t.