Through the Cracks (2): A Brief History of Psychological Horror

 

After an age of remakes and jump-scare-laden ghost stories, the indie world has seen a resurgence of a classic genre: the psychological horror film. I personally find this genre to be the most rewarding, not only because of its inventiveness and surrealism, but also its ultimate truth. CHAOS THEORY fits firmly into this arena, and because of this, I’d like to explore the history – to further trace my own work’s origins.

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Psychological thriller/horror films involve the deterioration of the character’s reality, often as a result of some deep-seated fear or anxiety. The cinematic medium works fascinatingly for this type of plot – the audio-visual tricks can place an audience inside a character’s head, using fictional sight and sound to create a disturbingly realistic mindscape. While this genre has developed in literature for some years – the classic Gothic novels, Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” are prime examples – films only began fitting this mold in the 1960s. There are, however, a few early efforts at the genre, mainly Val Lewton’s infamous films such as “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie.” In spite of their B-movie titles, Lewton’s work always used their macabre elements to express real anxiety.

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The 60s saw a surge of psychological horror and thrillers. Monsters became your next-door neighbor, a contrast to the atomic and alien nightmares of the 50s. This can, perhaps, be attributed to Alfred Hitchcock’s massive success with “Psycho” – a dread-filled vision of mundane madness with a killer twist. Many subsequent films, such as William Castle’s “Homicidal” or Hammer’s “Scream of Fear” (one of dozens produced by the company at that time), adopted those same elements.

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As the decade moved forward, a number of directors made their own unique stamp on the genre: Robert Aldritch with “Baby Jane” and “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte;” Robert Wise with “The Haunting,” an adaptation from psychological genius Shirley Jackson; and Roman Polanski with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” These films not only made the mundane frightening, but also explored taboo fears – the deterioration of an aged mind, pathological anxiety, and the horrors of being a woman in a patriarchal society. At the decade’s close, Ingmar Bergman – the master of psychological drama – even added his own addition to the genre, 1968’s disturbing “Hour of the Wolf.” This film was admittedly personal for him, an exorcism of an artist’s demons.

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The 70s saw a shift to occult and gruesome horror, yet in many cases the psychological elements remain. “The Exorcist” is visceral, but even more so for its depiction of a mother’s darkest fears; “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” only seems violent because of the characters’ mental torment – there is hardly a drop of blood in it. When slasher films became popular in the 80s, psychological terror became scarce, but choice films still display its influence: namely Kubrick’s “The Shining” and John Carpenter’s paranoid take on “The Thing.” These classics still found their roots in the human mind, with monsters and blood acting as a manifestation of that dark territory.

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With slashers dying out, the 90s marked an exploration of psychological thrillers – decidedly less nebulous and surreal than their horror counterparts. Thrillers (in my view) are more mathematical, with a distinct set of clues and a path to the end. The psychological aspect comes into play when these clues affect the character’s mind. Notable examples include “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Jacob’s Ladder” and “The Sixth Sense” – both films that popularized the twist ending. The new millennium continued this trend, with a smattering of mind-bending stories that required a twist at the end. These include “Donnie Darko,” “Memento,” “Se7en” and “The Machinist.”

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When writing “Chaos Theory,” these recent films were at the front of my mind – but my process took me closer to the psychological horror of the 60s. I wanted to embody horror, and I didn’t want to subscribe to a clear twist ending. My film became far more surreal and unexplained as a result. It excites me, then, to see other films following these same guidelines – such as “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and upcoming releases like “Trash Fire.” We are exploring the dark corners of the mind again.

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Join the CHAOS THEORY RELEASE EVENT to keep up on trailers, articles, and the film’s release on April 14th! Help support this return to psychological horror.

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