CU Boulder sociologists who teach courses on the sociology of horror talk about their podcast, why horror films are popular and their favorite scary movies
For many people, Halloween is a good time to get scared, and a great way to feel the fear is by watching horror films.
Marshall Smith and Laura Patterson, who are instructors of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder and experts on the horror genre, teach courses on the sociology of horror. Since 2017, they’ve also produced a podcast called Collective Nightmares.
The experts recently answered questions about the sociology of horror films, Squid Game and their top-10 horror picks. The questions and answers follow:
Question: How do you apply the discipline of sociology to the study of horror movies?
Answer: Sociologically, we consider how societal norms, ideologies and power dynamics are reinforced or challenged by the stories told in horror films. We discuss who and what these films call “good” and “bad.” This includes how different groups of people are represented in horror films and how ideologies (e.g., heteropatriarchy, consumerism) pervade these types of media and the moral lessons they deliver, intentional or not.
Horror is a genre built on transgression, so these films are designed to violate norms, test boundaries, question values, and complicate established truths. We watch to see which of these are challenged, by whom, and if the normalcy established at the beginning of the film is restored or replaced by the end of the film.
Q: Are horror movies more popular or less popular in different cultures, and, if so, what factors could be driving this?
A: The popularity of horror films varies across cultures, but all cultures have some version of scary stories. Various cultures have different fears, anxieties and tensions. Scary stories, of which horror films are one popular modern version, help us as a culture process these feelings.
One of the foundational essays on horror films by the film scholar Robin Wood argues that horror films may be interpreted as the "collective nightmares" of a culture. The fears, anxieties and tensions present in different cultures will therefore impact the popularity of horror films generally and certain horror sub-genres specifically and will play out in the representation and narrative content of individual films.
In other words, horror films can be seen as mirrors, reflecting back to us the fears, anxieties and tensions prevalent in a given society at a given historical moment. We consider all of these factors in our podcast, particularly focusing on the waxing and waning of the popularity of different horror films and sub-genres in the U.S.
Q: In real life, people don’t generally like being scared, so why do they flock to horror movies?
A: Audience studies aren't really our specialty, but there are some prominent ideas. Horror films are a relatively safe space to be scared. The horror is constrained to the film experience. These films serve as an escape and a reassurance from the open risks and uncertainly of just living life. This is especially true for horror films where the threat is avoided, the ghosts banished or the killer is locked up. For others, horror films may be cathartic, intellectually interesting, a testament to their endurance, or exciting for being taboo. Still others intensely dislike horror films and avoid them altogether.
Interestingly, much of the horror experience is tailored around quelling our fears, rather than accentuating them. When the killer is locked up, the threat is avoided, or the ghosts are banished, the audience is reassured that normalcy has triumphed over the transgressor. In other words, horror stories can be seen as an affirmation of societal norms, a type of love story for the culture of the film’s makers.
Our podcast digs deeply into these norms, parsing out exactly what version of “normalcy” the films are promoting—and particularly whether the films help or hurt the plight of social justice efforts. For more discussion on this, we suggest our episodes on Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Sholder 1978) or Black Christmas (Takal 2019) as good starting points.
Interestingly, much of the horror experience is tailored around quelling our fears, rather than accentuating them. When the killer is locked up, the threat is avoided, or the ghosts are banished, the audience is reassured that normalcy has triumphed over the transgressor. In other words, horror stories can be seen as an affirmation of societal norms, a type of love story for the culture of the film’s makers."
Horror films that reinforce problematic social hierarchies (see, for example, our episode on Wan’s 2013 The Conjuring, which details how the film serves to reinforce gender, racial, religious and socioeconomic inequality) can quell the fears of the privileged. By reinforcing current (and problematic) societal power dynamics, horror stories can teach the powerful that their power is deserved and justified—essentially that they are one of the “good” ones. While these viewers may experience jump-scares in the theater, their deeper-seated fears of being undeserving of their privilege can sometimes, counterintuitively, be assuaged by the horror experience.
We’ve also had discussion on our podcast of the privilege associated with seeking out fear in the form of horror films. See, for example, our upcoming episode on His House (Weekes, 2020), a film about the horrors—real life and otherwise—faced by South Sudanese immigrants in England. Is the desire to be scared a reflection of the relative ease privileged groups in America experience?
Q: Would you classify Squid Game as horror? Regardless, what is your perspective on the series and the controversy about it?
We define horror broadly, and Squid Game (Dong-hyuk 2021) definitely has enough components of horror for us to count it! We’re recording an episode covering season one next week, so be on the lookout for that episode for a deep dive into the questions you’ve just posed.
It’s through our dialogue on the podcast that we learn not only what each other’s viewpoints are, but often what our own are, and frequently we both come out the other side feeling differently than we went into the conversation! So, for now, those answers remain to be determined. This will be our first ever episode covering a full TV series, and we’re really looking forward to recording it.
Q: What was the first horror movie you saw, and how did it affect you?
Marshall: Two early memories stand out. I remember my dad having rented The Terminator for himself and my older brother. I was deemed too young and so I snuck down to the TV room to watch it from behind the couch. I should not have done this. I was so scared I had to go tell my mom what I had done so she could help me get to sleep. Now it is one of my absolute favorite films.
Second, at a sleepover party we all watch The Goonies (Donner 1985). Everyone else had a wonderful time. I was traumatized and had nightmares about that film for weeks.
Laura: That’s a hard question to answer because I have so many early memories of terror associated with films that only vaguely qualify as horror—for example, Clue (Lynn 1985), Teen Wolf (Daniel 1985) and a particularly disturbing episode of Scooby Doo.
The first time I remember watching a “real” horror movie was Friday the 13th (Miner 1980), alone, on cable TV in my parents’ bedroom, and I remember feeling so grown up. I think that’s one of the draws of horror for me, feeling strong enough to handle the experience.
After an admittedly rocky start with Scooby Doo, I’ve spent much of my horror life searching for more, more, more in terms of fear and brutality. For a discussion of the ethics associated with this kind of horror viewing (I haven’t yet decided if I’m ethical or not!), listeners may want to check out our series on all three of the Human Centipede films (Six, 2009, 2011 and 2015) and our episode on the notorious Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato 1980). Whether you want to view the films themselves or just listen to our discussion … that’s up to you.
Q: What are your top 10 favorite horror movies?
- Martyrs (Laugier 2008)—The single best modern horror film without question. It is a masterpiece in terms of the emotional experience, the ideological exploration, the filmmaking execution, and the contributions to the genre. We caution that this is not "fun" horror. This is a hard, brutal, unflinching, emotionally exhausting watch. We’ve seen this film three times, and each time, the depth of our emotional experience is startling. After watching, if you choose to watch—please don’t spoil this remarkable film for yourself—listen to our full podcast episode to hear why we consider it a modern masterpiece.
- Get Out (Peele 2017)—A film that deserved all the laurels and fanfare it received. A film that balances important social commentary with tension and dread. It rightly challenged the erasure of race within the genre of horror and used that as a platform for addressing broader cultural issues of race as well. This was one of our earliest podcast episodes, and we’ve evolved quite a bit since then—but if you dig back into the archives, you can find a 2017 episode on Get Out, and we also have an upcoming episode on Candyman (DaCosta 2021) that was co-written and co-produced by Peele.
- Black Christmas (Takal 2019)—An intersectional feminist, horror film that offers important commentary on the rape-culture pervasive on college campuses. It also manages to symbolically address how the history and culture of heteropatriarchy (a socio-political system where cisgender, heterosexual males have authority over everyone else) serves as a divisive impact on the relationships of women. What Get Out did in recent years for issues of race, this film did for issues of gender, sexuality and, to a lesser extent, intersectionality with race. Listen to our podcast episode on this film to hear how it systematically delivers its feminist commentary, which may not be apparent at first take.
- Funny Games—Haneke's (1997) original version is a study in tension, dread and the terror of sadism. This is impressively intellectual, Brechtian, horror. Like Black Christmas, this, too, is a film where some of the commentary may be lost if you’re not aware of its underpinnings. We recommend a listen to our podcast episode after viewing to dig deeply into these ideas. Also, this film has one of Laura’s favorite openings in the history of horror. No spoilers—you’ll see.
- Monster (Jenkins 2003)—Serial killer films are a popular sub-genre, and this first film from Patty Jenkins is at the top. Just watching the film is a masterclass in filmmaking. The horror here is the sexist cruelty of American culture writ large mapped onto the life of one woman. Monster is the final film we covered in a recent podcast series on serial killers (including the phenomenal Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (McNaughton 1986)). We recommend listening to this episode after viewing Monster, and, if you’re inclined to dig more deeply into the serial killer viewing experience, watch and listen to our episode on Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, as well, for some useful background to our conversation on Monster.
- Scream (Craven, 1996)—Scream both brought slasher films back to the forefront of the genre and pushed them forward into postmodern commentary. Craven is Marshall's favorite horror director and this, along with Nightmare on Elm Street, are modern classics. Both are also notable for featuring strong, savvy, capable women characters. Unfortunately, our podcast episode on Scream, which was recorded with a live student audience in Farrand Hall, was lost due to audio problems—but the film is discussed intermittently in our series on slasher films, and it absolutely deserves a place on this list, podcast episode or not.
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974)—Hooper's film is a demonstration of sheer raw talent and commitment to a project by a small group of folks. A terrifying viewing experience that holds up almost 50(!) years later. Why haven’t we recorded a podcast episode on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre yet? That is a very good question. Be on the lookout for that episode soon.
- The First Purge (McMurray 2018)—Horror is a genre that has been rightly criticized for erasure of people of color. While Get Out deserves all the credit given to it for bringing race into horror (other notable films were Rose's Candyman in 1992 and Craven's The People Under the Stairs in 1991), this is an under-appreciated film that progressively deconstructs many of the most prominent weaponized racist stereotypes of American culture. A poignant allegory of the recent political moment that is scary as a film, but even more scary because of its plausibility and prescience. Check out our podcast episodes on The First Purge (2018) as well as an upcoming episode on the most recent installment in the Purge franchise, The Forever Purge (Gout, 2021), which turns its lens on racism and immigration in America.
- I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi 1978)—The rape-revenge sub-genre in horror has been important and intensely contested since at least this film. It has been foisted back into the mainstream with the deserved recognition afforded Fennell's Promising Young Woman for winning best screenplay. (Horror remains a marginalized genre within the academic and film criticism communities). This landmark film in the genre is impressively feminist and progressive. Unfortunately, every single sequel, reboot and remake has failed—often remarkably so—to live up to the promise of the original. Listen to our podcast episode on I Spit on Your Grave(1978) for a deep dive into the feminist messaging in the original film—and to our episodes on the subsequent installments, too, if you’d like to hear us lambast their shortcomings.
- Psycho (Hitchcock 1960)—The grandparent of all modern killer horror films. Hitchcock was apparently toxic and abusive to his stars. This is clearly problematic, and yet, the film remains a significant precursor of much of modern horror. If you'd rather not support Hitchcock's content, try Peeping Tom (Powell 1960) as a contemporary alternative. We haven’t recorded a podcast episode on Psycho—and our nascent episode on Peeping Tom was recorded so long ago that it’s not included in our archives. But if you become a diehard Collective Nightmares fan, you’ll eventually hear discussion of Marshall’s dad’s lack of buy-in to Marshall’s brilliant commentary on Peeping Tom. For what it’s worth, he convinced Laura.
- Proxy (Parker 2013) —Check out our series of podcast episodes on Zack Parker’s full catalog of films, culminating with an episode-length interview with Zack Parker. The two most notable Parker films are Proxy(2013) and Scalene (2011), both of which deserve your attention. A true independent filmmaker with exceptional vision.
- Hard Candy (Slade 2005)—An excellent film, this was also our inaugural podcast episode in the archives. Recorded while driving home from the theater in Laura’s grandpa’s Buick LeSabre, which used to be our recording studio.
- The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones 1982)—Written and made by feminists as a response to the sexism and misogyny of the first wave of slasher films. This was one of the first horror films Marshall taught in a college class. It went so well that it created a monster (as it were). Now he is regularly teaching a class on the Sociology of Horror and Laura will soon be teaching her own section as well.
- Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato 1980)—Marshall and Laura still don’t see eye-to-eye on the merits (or lack thereof) of Cannibal Holocaust. Listen to our podcast episode on this film to dig more deeply into the ethics and ideology of this controversial film!
- It Comes at Night (Shults 2017)—Extra frightening as this film deals with a post-apocalyptic world that was shuttered by communicable disease. This film explores the very bounds of the social contract, balancing the need for community and connection with the risk of outsiders. Listen to this podcast episode for fascinating discussion of the fragility of the social contract—and for a snapshot into our lives at the very start of the COVID pandemic.