Art, in general, is a reflection of the society, and the horror genre represents the fears that the nation has with the depiction of monsters, ghosts, and other creatures. While it is easy to look at horror movies as a pure entertainment matter, they have a context in them that reflects national anxieties, common for the people in this country. The directors of these movies use the plot and characters to show the reality of the nation as they see it. In order to understand those peculiarities to a full extent, one must know the historical context and tradition. Carefully examining the history, social, and political factors in a country when watching a horror movie can provide a better understanding of the context of the story.
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Japanese Horror Movies
Japanese horror movies fascinate the viewer because of their unique atmosphere and specific culture that the country has. Ringu is a movie by Hideo Nakata released back in 1998 is a modern day representation of the fears that the nation has. The central idea of the plot is an investigation into the mysterious deaths of people who watch a video. The work utilizes a character that connects the society and its development to the technology and depicts the anxieties linked to the process. The Japanese horror movie genre, since the beginning based the plot around what mattered to the people in the country (McRoy 408). Thus, the movie Ringu presents specific anxieties of the Japanese people through its storyline.
McRoy explained that the genre of Japanese horror film has emerged after the World War II and showcased the problems that the nation had (408). The author stated those movies and their characters can be considered a social barometer. Most notably, the country was worried about the impact of the nuclear bombings that took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through the horror movies that had various monsters, the filmmakers expressed the fears that the Japanese people had – that the nuclear attacks from the US would have long-term effects. McRoy stated that most specifically the time in which monsters were standard in the genre began in 1954 (409). Around that time the US had been testing nuclear weapons, thus reminding the Japanese people of their tragic past. Therefore, it can be noted that the genre of horror film in Japan has been a reflection of a nation’s fears since it has first emerged.
The genre in the country has a specific direction of development. “Japanese horror cinema’s tendency toward graphic depictions of hybridity and mutation mirror both the tradition’s multiple depictions of fusion of the biological and mechanical, as well as the genre’s preoccupation with the themes of transience, mutability, and adaptation as responses to socio-cultural and ecological change” (McRoy 409). Therefore, the directors focus their attention on variations of human and technology merger.
Ringu is one of the examples of such depiction of the society’s concerns about the environment and people in it. McRoy refered to this movie and those with a similar plot as “mutant girl film” (409). The video depicts a child, which McRoy considered appropriate due to the fact that secondary schools are places of socialization (409). Therefore, the character is the reflection of the social concerns of the nation. The monsters, presented in the Japanese horror films have a unique cultural meaning due to their connection to the society.
In the movie, the main character is the reporter who investigates mysterious deaths. The main monster is a girl with long black hair who kills her victims. As McRoy stated, because of the cultural and historical value that a character of a child has and how it emerges from modern technology (e.g., from a TV) it has an exceptional value in the context of the nation (409). The issues of the contemporary world and internalization that are becoming more evident in the present times are part of the national concern in Japan, and thus it has a reflection in the art. Connecting the image of a girl and modern day technology in a horror film represents the fears and anxieties that the contemporary Japanese people have.
It is not surprising that the rapid changes the society is going through with the internet being widely used and modern technology connecting people. The nation is afraid of the unpredictable consequences it may have on the world around them. McRoy stated that the depiction of children in the horror genre is not unique around for Japan (411). However, for the country, it has exceptional value as shown by the “frequency with which the enfantterribles is linked with the technology/mechanization and hybridity” (McRoy 411).
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Another aspect, presented in the movie is connected to the industrialization of Japan. As with the modern technology and challenges brought about by it, the industrialization has changed a lot in the society (McRoy 411). While most changes can be considered positive, the fear of and the connection of people to their past is presented in the horror movies. Therefore, the Japanese movie Ringu not only display an intriguing plot but offers a viewpoint on the modern society in the country, which is industrialized and widely utilizes technology.
Indian Horror Movies
Although Indian movies are known for being cheerful and filled with musical scenes, the horror genre in the country has some pieces that are worth watching as well. As Moreland and Pervez stated, the Bollywood films have been aimed for a broader audience for many years (76). The globalization and the economic changes in the country had an impact on that aspect. According to Moreland and Pervez, “Bollywood has rearranged
its orientation to accommodate an increasingly international audience” (77). Thus, the themes that were utilized in the plot can be considered to be not only related to the Indian culture and national anxieties. The film Bhoot, for instance, does not have the typical musical aspect of the Indian movie industry. Moreland and Pervez, who pointed out the notable “limited aesthetic ambitions of twentieth-century Indian horror films”, discussed the specific features of the horror movies (78). Although the plot mimics some famous pieces that represent Western horror movie genre, it is interpreted to display the national issues and concerns.
The name of the movie translates into English as “ghost” which gives an insight about the plot. A spirit possesses the main character, which in its nature is a topic that is discussed in many countries. Just as with Ringu, the idea is not exclusive to the Indian culture. Tombs stated several critical factors that influence the genre of horror movies in India (20). Most notably, the videos are low budget, in comparison to the mainstream Bollywood films. As was previously mentioned, the plot is directed at the global audience with elements that reflect Indian culture. Then, Tombs pointed to the lack of unnecessary items (e.g., music or a well-known cast of actors) (20). Regardless of these features, the horror movie Bhoot was well received by the audience.
Firstly, Moreland and Pervez argued that the first issue depicted in the film is the masculinity crisis (79). The plot revolves around a female being possessed by a ghost and her husband who is trying to solve the problem. The crisis has a cultural background that represents the anxieties of the Indian society. The relationship between the sexes is portrayed in the movie and showcases the state of Indian culture. In addition, the film presents the “associations between the universal mammalian “home” of the womb” (Moreland and Pervez 81). The character of the wife is presented in the traditional sense as she takes care of the home. While the man is illustrated as the provider of the family, the woman “becomes possessed as a direct result of something her husband/male lover says or does” (Moreland and Pervez 85). Thus, the interaction between the two main characters present a view on societal matters that the Indian people have.
Secondly, the ghost possession of a woman is a representation of the popular in the South Asia narrative, reflecting the culture of the region. The movie depicts a couple in the early stages of their relationship, which is a societal matter of concern. Moreland and Pervez pointed out the importance of a man providing a woman with a place to live, which in the film shortly transforms into a hostile environment (79). The societal issue of the roles of female and male characters are seen throughout the story. Clover points out that the problem of female characters in Indian horror movies is that they are portrayed as“the portals of occult horror are almost invariably women” (qtd. in Moreland and Pervez 80).
Thirdly, the film is a representation of the social shift towards the Western culture that India has experienced. The plot itself was inspired by the classichorror movie. Moreland and Pervez noted that those in the Indian filmmaking industry who refuse to follow the trend of integrating the Western with the Indian will most likely be left out (80). Tombs presented a similar idea noting interest that Bollywood has for American movies (20). This issue and the inspiration for the movie Bhoot represents the cultural anxiety and the changes that the society is going through. In addition, the plot of the original film resonates with the beliefs of the nation.
Italian Horror Movies
The movie Suspiria is a representation of the giallo – a term describing the specifically Italian type of a horror movie. Needham characterized the meaning of the word as “tales of mystery and detection”. The author stated that the emergence of the genre was influenced by the British and American detective stories. Later on, due to political reasons, the publication of such work was limited and Italian writers began to produce their giallo literature. These factors had an influence on the development of the Italian film industry, in particular on the horror film genre. It is notable that these movies are not classified as “horror” but rather viewed as a specific branch of it. According to Needham “nature, the giallo challenges our assumptions about how non-Hollywood films should be classified”.
In Suspiria, the plot revolves around “murder, mystery, detection, psychoanalysis, tourism, alienation and investigation” (Needham). The themes are common for other movies in this genre as well. One of the national issues, presented in these movies is masculinity, which according to Needham “becomes the focal point” of the plot. However, in the Suspiria, the bigger issue is the representation of traveling and foreignness. All in all the characters in giallo often travel far from home and are ‘between different places” (Needham). The issue can be a representation of the national anxiety of the time. The problem is in the tendency to the promotion of the “non-national” (Needham). As was previously mentioned, giallo has begun from the literary works of foreign authors, which might have influenced the development of the genre in the movie industry. Another social anxiety often presented in the film is fashion, for which Italy is famous in the modern day. The plot of the movie Suspiria revolves around the American ballet dancer who arrives at the German Academy to study. While there, she witnesses a series of murders, conducted by a witch coven. Therefore, the story in the film has the main characteristics of the Italian giallo genre. The specific national issue presented in it is the focus on the non-national.
Austrian – Hungarian Horror Movies
Taxidermia is a movie directed by Gyorgy Palfi the plot of which revolves around the story of three men. It is a representation of the Hungarian history, thus showcasing the anxieties and fears that the people had in the presented period. Shaviro described it as a landmark work of the post-socialist country (1). The Hungarian society has undergone significant changes in the modern times, and the movie helps the viewer understand them. The plot itself tells a story of the “socio-political failures, betrayals, and disappointments” (Shaviro 1). The most notable event that has transformed the development of Hungarian society was the Communist Party that seized to exist. As Shaviro explained, the feelings of liberty filled the nation at the time (1). However, this has not lasted for a long time as the country was flooded by issues of political and social nature.
Firstly, the movie reflects the “atmosphere of disillusionment and demoralization” that the country has experienced (Shaviro 2). As was mentioned previously, although the political changes were regarded positively, the challenges which the nation has encountered turned out to be complex. Secondly, the three-part illustrate different periods of time and struggles that were present. The first part showcases the poor countryside, where the main character – Morosgoványi, suffers due to the isolation from other people. In addition, he is forced to serve a family, the relationship with which is described by Shaviro as fascist (2). To compensate for the issues, he “engaging in fantastical acts of masturbation” in his room (Shaviro 2). The main character at the beginning of the story is treated similarly to the animals that the family had. In the end, he is brutally murdered by his master. The anxieties of the nation represented in this part are the struggles that the man had gone through in his life due to fascism, inadequate treatment, and loneliness.
The second part of the film follows the life of Morosgvanyi’s son, Kálmán Balatony. He is a champion of a made-up sport – speed eating, the primary objective of which is to stuff oneself with as much food as possible. The illustration is ironic as many people have struggled to have anything to eat in Socialist Hungary. The anxieties of the nation represented in this part are connected to the treatment that Kalman received for his successes in competitions. The sport is portrayed in a comedic manner while the character gets a better treatment than most citizens because of his achievements in it. As Shaviro stated, Kalman was treated similarly to the political elite (3). The part intended to depict the socialism and the struggles that people had during the ruling of the communist party. Another issue that the film presents is the bribery that was common in a socialist society. When Kalman’s wife becomes pregnant, a doctor offers her a strict diet while the main character negotiates with him in order to avoid the new eating pattern. Although absurd, the scene shows that “everything is negotiable in actually existing socialism” (Shaviro 6). Thus, this part of the movie presents the view on the socialistic society and specific aspects of life in the political regime.
The final part of the movie tells a story of Lajos, the son of Kalman who is a taxidermist. The man had a chance to live in a post-socialist period, therefore had to experience the problems associated with it. The life of Lajos is a routine every day he does the same thing. In this part, the viewer can witness Kalman who has become extremely obese due to his eating habits. The family is unhappy, even though the country has become freer with the new political state. Additionally, the part reflects the issues of people who had been privileged during the socialist times but no longer are. Kalman in the last part has no other passion but to tell about his wins in eating contests in the past. The anxieties and fears of the new liberal society are the main issues in this part of the plot.
Shaviro stated that the movie presents the political and economic struggles of socialistic countries as a whole (7). In addition, it showcases that each political regime influences the people differently as was presented in the three parts. Therefore, the movie Taxidermia represents the fears and anxieties that the Hungarian society has had. Most notably, it focuses on the problems that existed in the communist nation, and post-communist society.
Iranian Horror Movies
The movie A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night is a modern film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. It is notable that it was created by women, as it brings up the pressing issue that Iran has regarding how the society treats females. It is a black and white story that follows a girl on her way home and the various deeds she does during the journey. The movie shows many of the concerns of the modern Iranian women, however in a reversed manner. As Mayer stated, it showcases the “occult power” instead of the fear and vulnerability of female walking home alone at night. Due to the fact that in the film the girl is a vampire, she does not have to be afraid of the dangers that come with walking alone on the dark streets. Instead, Mayer pointed out the character’s fearlessness as “sometimes she tears men’s throats out; and sometimes she skateboards’. Therefore, the movie aims to empower people through its plot.
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The issues of patriarchy that the Iranian society has are showcased in the movies as well. The girl is portrayed as a superhero in the film, unlike the typical for the culture vulnerable girl. Abdi and Carafel described the character as a feminist who wears a forlorn chador pointing out an essential aspect of the film where the main character does not need protection (1). Therefore, the movie depicts the anxiety of the Iranian society about the role of the women and their power.
Overall, the mentioned above five movies represent the genre of horror film. These pieces of work have not only entertainment value but also a historical and social one. However, they are different in many ways as each showcases specific issues, which are typical for a nation. In Ringu, the director has depicted modernization matters that concern the Japanese society. The movie Suspira represents a unique genre of giallo, the Italian film. Issues of foreignism are expressed explicitly in this work. The work Bhoot represents an Indian reality in which masculinity is questioned while a female is portrayed as a home keeper who is invaded by a ghost. In A Girl Who Walks Alone at Night, the Iranian reality of feministic issues that battle the patriarchy is shown through the story of a vampire female. Taxidermia is a movie that provides a director’s understanding of the socialistic and posts socialistic society. In it, the three stages of Hungarian history are shown, as well as the issues of bribery, the political elite, human struggles. A closer look at these works helps one understand the national anxieties and views on life that people in a certain country have.
Abdi, Shadee, and Calafell, Bernadette Marie. “Queer Utopias and a (Feminist) Iranian Vampire: a Critical Analysis of Resistive Monstrosity in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”. Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 34 no. 4, 2017, 358-370.
A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, performance by Sheila Vand, VICE Films, 2014.
Bhoot. Directed by Ram Gopal Varma, performance by Ajay Devgn, Spark Media, 2003.
Mayer, Sophie. “Film of the Week: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, Sight & Sound, 2015.
McRoy, Jay. “Recent Trends in Japanese Horror Cinema”, A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley & Sons, 2014.
Moreland, Sean, and Pervez, Summer. “Acts of Repossession: Bollywood’s Re-Inventions of the Occult Possession Film”, Haunting Bollywood: Gender, Genre, and the Supernatural in Hindi Commercial Cinema, edited by Sean Moreland, McFarland & Company, 2014.
Needham, Gary. “Playing with Genre: Defining the Italian Giallo”, Kinoeye, 2002.
Ringu. Directed by Hideo Nakata, performance by Nanako Matsushima, Toho, 1998.
Shaviro, Steven. “Body Horror and Post-Socialist Cinema: György Pálfi’s Taxidermia”. Citeseerx, Web.
Suspiria. Directed by Ajay Devgn, performance by Jessica Harper, 20th Century Fox International Classics, 1977.
Taxidermia. Directed by Gyorgy Palfi, performance by Cszaba Czene, Pool Filmverlieh, 2006.
Tombs, Peter. From Myth to Monsters. St. Martins Press, 1998.