|The films chosen for
the analysis of the topic “censorship and genre” are DRACULA
(1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), VAMPYR (1932), FREAKS (1932), KING KONG (1933)
and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933).
All these movies can be denoted as prototypical horror films. They are characteristic productions, which shaped the conditions and meaning of the genre itself. Besides their prototypical aspects, like dialogue-parts, narrative and filmic structures or the valuing of gender, all these movies have been produced within a few years and reflect the fears and problems of two troubled decades.
A new kind of verbalizing that universal fear had to be found in these films – not only for artistic aspects, but also to bypass the censorship authorities. A useful and impressive way to shift the shock and the terror into the viewer’s mind and imagination was found by (re)activating well-established theatrical concepts. From this point of view an in-depth research of the horror genre and censorship during the 30ies should lead to a better understanding of the genre - and perhaps of the idea of censorship itself.
A short history of the horror films: From the
beginnings to the 1930s
With the beginnig of the classical horror-era in the late 20s und early 30s the US-American productions of horror films were shaped by the impact of the European filmic experiments with horror. The main idea for the US-American producers was to create an independent sub-genre of horror films, which would also include funny elements. Films like THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) and THE LAST WARNING (1929) are typical experiments for this approach.
Influenced by the above mentioned European productions and by a second wave of reception of the works of H.P. Lovecraft (De Camp 2002: 613-637) the production of prototypical horror films started. They were all adaptations of literary works. One of the innovations of these productions is the creation of a new kind of monster, a completely non-romantic evil figure.
By the end of the 30s there was a decline of the horror film, which was clearly connected to the censorship restrictions in the U.S.A. and Great Britain. A new rise of the horror film can be noted for the early 40s with the idea of RKO-manager Val Lewton (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) who tried to establish horror films as an experimental-stage for young directors and achieved some huge successes with titles like CAT PEOPLE (1942) or I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943).
The horror film integrates fundamental fears, socially and religiously determined interdictions and taboos in its narrative structure, most of the time the protagonists are offered for identification (at least in parts). During the last decades also the place of horror became again more and more important:
Fear and Fright
The idea of catharsis is of fundamental meaning for the concept of horror and the related aesthetic of effects (Turk 1976: 47-82). Catharsis is integrated into a continuous discourse of interpretation, which is always also referred to as an instrument of analysing human reception of the arts (Mittenzwei 2001: 245). Aristotle implemented the idea of catharsis in the sixth chapter of his “Tragedy”, related to his writings on poetics. His aim was to defend literature, especially the drama, against Plato, who has criticised literature as a concept of lie in his work “The Republic”. Referring to religious aspects, Aristotle stressed the usability of catharsis for releasing ourselves from our affects during the reception of literature and the lust-fulfilled experience of shock and horror.
During the following centuries the reception changed the concept; the peak of it was Lessing’s use of it as a concept of pity and betterment of the audience in a moralistic manner. Basic for this reinvention of catharsis, which was also used for a criticism on classical French drama, was the concept of identification of the audience with one of the protagonists – the so called “common character”. But there were also always alternative theatrical concepts which abode by to the original idea of catharsis, like the poetics of the English renaissance drama or the theatrical concepts of de Sade. But the main-concepts, which are also relevant for the history of the horror-movies, are based in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The concepts that truly reactivated the idea of catharsis in an Aristotelian way were the “Grand-Guinol“ and Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of cruelty“, which are closely connected with the development of horror films. The most important parallel between these is the “Schaulust”, a spectator-specific visual pleasure: The projections and presentations of monstrosities are the consequences of our iconophagic needs. Almost uninterrupted the side-shows, which were the true cradles of cinema, are connected with the presentation and also representation of horrific creatures and scenes in medieval and early modern times. In this continuity of autoeroticism and self-deception the horror found its way through time and space.
Are you ready to watch/talk?
The horror films are transporting their message of criticism, which points to the real horror of the inability of verbalizing important topics. Therefore the concept of abject-aesthetics, first formulated by Julia Kristeva (Kristeva 1982), could (and should) be used in the discussion of horror movies. With this kind of poetics of shock and ugliness it is possible to negotiate and mediate topics, usually excluded from the social discourse. The critic Aleks Sierz formulated a good explanation for this poetic principle as it works for the theatre – but his ingenuities are also valid for horror-moves as well:
by Thomas Ballhausen