The genre as a concept arises from the accrual of texts and conventions. This includes texts and conventions both within a specific genre and texts and conventions in otherwise unrelated genres. The addition, transformation, variation, alteration, and/or reproduction of these texts and conventions causes the genres to shift in composition, creating a malleable form which can vary significantly from viewer to viewer and when looked at during different historical contexts.
Genre theory provides multiple possible explanations for the appeal of both genre films as a whole as well as the appeal of specific individual genres. Shatz, for example points out that different genres provide different pleasures. The musical provides enjoyment for those seeking song and dance, while the detective story caters to audiences looking for a narrative to unravel. Shatz also believes that genre pictures have a ritual quality to them which appeals to (white) audiences. Other theorists (such as the writers in Screen) take an ideological approach to the pleasures of genre. Here, genre films are comforting in their repetition and their grounding in the logic of their genre, which is opposed to grounding the film in a sociopolitical context. Still others use an economic-based approach for genre films and point out that Hollywood’s emphasis on making money through movies provides an incentive for them to continually reproduce successful formulae. Then, audiences are able to provide input by voting with their wallets for which formulae they wish to see repeated.
Theories as to the appeal of genre films, however do not necessarily discuss the ontology of genre, which Steve Neale describes as being “conceived of as processes” (217). By definition, this method denies that genres have some sort of eternal or fixed structure or other essential qualities to them. Neale notes, for example how social problem films of the 1930′s were assumed to be about topics such as legal injustice or political corruption. This cannot be taken as an essential aspect of the social problem film, as 1950′s social problem films were more often about racial prejudice. Due to the presence of change within this model, attempts to try to find essential qualities of genres often degenerate into tautology or extreme generality, such as defining musicals as being films which have singing and dancing, or defining the social problem film as being a film about social problems.
Other theories of genre frequently attempt to explain away these variations. The most pessimistic theories, generally drawn from Romantic views of genre, degrade the variation within genre as being merely adherence to formulae, stereotypes, and cliches. Variation may also be ignored by frameworks which stress the repetitive aspects of genre, such as the presence of a rise-and-fall storyline in gangster films or the American West in westerns. The conception of genre as a process, however embraces the mutability of generic conventions, semantic and syntactic elements, and audience beliefs and expectations within genres. Here, the way that the rise-and-fall is structured, for example is emphasized and the numerous different takes on this concept (is the gangster defiant? is the fall not his fault?), along with any instances of simple repetition, are the focus of the conception.
Formulations of genre also require a necessary grouping of generic texts and conventions. As Gallagher notes, audiences do not necessarily have a grasp of how genres were historically conceived. Revisionist westerns during the 1970′s appear to be self-conscious when compared to classical westerns from the studio era. However, Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), which may be considered typical of this era of westerns that the 1970′s westerns would be compared to, draws upon earlier westerns as a source of comparison as well. These Westerns may not be known to the “modern” viewer watching Stagecoach, and thus comes off as naïve without this frame of reference (208). Gallagher’s audience, therefore creates the grouping for “western” which only consists of specific texts from specific time periods, which in turn colors the audience perception of what makes up a western.
The concept of grouping also accounts for audience involvement with the conception of genres. According to Cohen, “each member alters the genre by adding, contradicting, or changing constituents, especially those of members most closely relating to it” (204, emphasis mine). Cohen’s usage of “most closely related to it” implies that audiences and their perception of a genre are the final arbiters as to what does and does not matter in a genre. This therefore requires genre theorists to pay attention to exactly which audiences are being considered and who they compose of. This is also a reason for the weakness of ritual-based genre theory, as it posits that all audience members share the same cultural views, regardless of nationality (American or overseas markets), race, class, and any other cultural dividing lines.
Process-based genre theory also allows for the more nuanced interplay between genres with regards to genre hybridity. Aesthetic theories of genre which outline specific aspects of specific genres often end up creating situations where according to the theory, certain genre hybrids cannot exist. Schatz’s conception of genres which take place in “determinate space” and “indeterminate space”, run into problems with hybrids like musical westerns, since westerns are a determinate space genre and musicals are an indeterminate space genre. Thus, these films would need to arbitrarily be considered as one genre or the other.
The changes in perception of the Hollywood horror film are more easily explained when the genre is thought of as a process. However, because of the aspect of grouping films in process-centric generic analysis, this essay will be unable touch upon every type of horror film, every horror film convention, and every historical period’s conception of what makes up a horror film. Like any audience in any specific time period, my perception of what horror is will be colored by the horror films that I have seen or know about. Thus, my own personal conception consists of studio-era monster movies, 1960′s and 70′s zombie movies, 1980′s and 90′s slasher movies, and Hollywood J-horror remakes. I have not paid as much attention to genres such as 1950′s B horror films, old dark house films, or mad scientist films, and thus their absence will affect my discussion of the horror genre and how I understand it.
Furthermore, because this conception relies on my own memory, my personal conception tends to stress more influential films and conventions while ignoring repetition. Neale establishes that this practice is dangerous and that “routine differences, ‘minor’ variations and uninfluential innovations are important too, if only because they always actualize (and thus exhaust)one particular set of generic possibilities, and if only because they always contribute in some way to the generic corpus” (218). While these minor aspects matter to the generic corpus, they cannot factor into my own personal conception due to the failings of my own memory.
At the same time, the process of writing this essay has changed my perceptions of horror. While rereading Neale, I learned about how the old dark house film is a type of horror film which also introduces comedic elements, which I did not know about before. This element is now “in play” as a kind of horror film in my mind. With this knowledge in mind now, I would most likely have a different viewing experience of a film like The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932) where the silly lines like “Have some gin—it’s my only weakness” would play off of my recently-changed expectations rather than confusing me because my original concept of horror did not include this element which has existed in a particular subgenre.
Despite my knowledge coming into this paper and the added knowledge gained while researching for it, I cannot consciously consider every horror film, convention, and feature. However, this also does not mean that they have no effect whatsoever on me and my knowledge and practice. Neale notes that “the repertoire of generic conventions available at any one point in time is always in play rather than simply being re-played, even in the most repetitive films, genres, and cycles” (219). While these forgotten features or films do not spring to mind in a context such as my current situation (as an academic attempting to wrestle with the idea of genre as a process and my own understanding of the genre of horror as a process), these elements may resurface in various ways in my own viewing of horror films.
Even the viewing of horror films, however is still fraught with instability and variance. The “any one point in time” is not only for example, a cycle of films or a point within a cycle of films, but can also be any specific point within the viewing of an actual film. While watching the film, the film can evoke any number of references to the viewer of horror films, cycles, conventions, and so on. This creates a new grouping for the spectator, which in turn alters the spectator’s expectations, generic knowledge, and perception of the genre. The “process” of genre thus functions both on a macro and a micro level.
Additionally, the elements of a genre that are grouped together in the process of genre creation are by no means exclusive to specific genres and cycles. The very practice of establishing a cycle requires for texts and conventions to accrue, which in turn are copied, changed, altered or transformed. Neale extrapolates Cohen here to conclude that the films that make up a genre “have multiple relational possibilities with members of other classifications as well” (ibid). As these elements and conventions which make up a film accrue, they may bleed over into other film genres as well. Mad scientist films, for example are related to science fiction films in that both genres utilize science for some purpose. In the mad scientist film, science generally creates the monster or monsters of the film.
The horror film has had numerous distinct patterns, subgenres, and hybrid genres. Early horror films during the studio era often featured monsters (Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931), Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)) who also possessed aberrant sexuality. In contrast to the models which claim that genres need to first saturate their audience in the conventions before they can assume a reflexive, opaque position, there is still the issue of Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935). Bride of Frankenstein adds a deliberately campy tone to the genre (especially when compared to Frankenstein) and emphasizes the Freudian undertones of many of the monsters in these films. Yet, this film did not signal an end to the “transparency” of the genre and a move towards the opaque, as dozens of other monster horror films, many of them sequels, continued to be made such as Son of Frankenstein (Rowland Lee, 1939), The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941), and the crossover Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neil, 1942).
The concept of crossover horror films (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man spawned three sequels, and brought in Dracula for House of Dracula (Erle Kenton, 1945) further emphasizes the accrual of titles and conventions. Crossovers first require the existence of pre-existing titles to provide the characters and storylines to crossovers. They then rely on the audience’s knowledge of the monsters and the conventions of those films in order to maintain the generic logic. Furthermore, the presence of these films introduced the monster crossover storyline into the realm of monster movies, thus also allowing for the creation of other monster crossovers such as Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003) or Alien vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004). Crossovers can also fail, as in the case of Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2003), when they fail to properly draw upon the generic corpus and disrupt the current audience’s conception of the generic components (in this case, vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster.)
However, the monster film was only one type of horror film, and furthermore, not even monster film was also a horror film. King Kong (Merien Cooper, 1933), for example is a monster film that is not a horror film. Other subgenres, such as haunted house films (The Cat and the Canary, Paul Leni, 1927), mad scientist films (Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon, 1985), zombie films, (Night of the Living Dead, George Romero, 1968) and slasher films (Halloween, John Carptenter, 1978) also exist within the umbrella of horror, along with hybrids such as horror comedies (Evil Dead 2, Sam Raimi, 1987), horror westerns (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, William Beaudine, 1966), sci-fi horror (Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979), superhero horror (Blade, Steven Norrington, 1998), and horror musicals (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jim Sharman, 1975). Even more elaborate hybrids also exist, such as Cannibal! The Musical (Trey Parker, 1996), a cannibal horror musical western, Scream, Blacula, Scream! (Bob Kelljan, 1973), a blaxploitation vampire horror comedy, and The Sexy Adventures of Van Helsing (Max von Diesel, 2004), a monster crossover horror softcore porn parody.
Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) plays with the mid-1990′s audience’s understanding of the slasher horror subgenre. The opening scene establishes this quickly. Drew Barrymore receives a phone call from a menacing-sounding individual. He firsts asks her what her plans for the evening are, and she responds by saying that she and her boyfriend are going to watch Halloween. With this comment, the generic conventions of the slasher film are now “in play”, not only with the characters and story of the film, but with the audience.
He then asks her if she wants to play a scary movie trivia game. His first question for her is to name the killer from A Nightmare on Elm Street. She correctly answers by saying “Freddy Kruger”. At this point, the film indulges the audience’s pre-established knowledge of the genre. Freddy Kruger, along with his iconography such as his knife-laden glove, burned face, and red sweater are iconic images of the slasher film in American popular culture. The reference to Freddy Kruger and the Nightmare on Elm Street series may trigger two subsequent associations. For horror buffs watching the film who have a broader understanding of the generic corpus of slasher films, this may appear as a sly nod, as both Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street were directed by Wes Craven. It may also trigger further associations to other Craven films, such as Last House on the Left (1972) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
For the general (and thus less-learned) audience, the grouping of conventions and films which constitutes slasher films may provide different associations to the idea of Freddy Kruger and the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The popular image of Freddy Kruger often focuses on his portrayal in the series’ later entries. In these films (which teeter dangerously close to self-parody), he is portrayed as a wisecracking prankster. This is in stark contrast to the earlier films which portray him as a sadist bent on revenge. To an audience associating the references to Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street with reflexive irony (which is one of the many elements “in play” at this moment for this audience), Scream‘s usage of these references may disengage the audience from creating a generic perspective of slasher films that includes actual fright.
The next question plays off of that attitude any more. After correctly answering the first question, she is asked to name the killer in Friday the 13th. Barrymore (along with myself and many of the people in the audience in the theatre when I first saw Scream) answers that the killer is Jason. Jason is the most enduring figure in the Friday the 13th series (and in the horror genre in general), so the reflexive answer (both by her and by us) is understandable. It is not, however, correct. The killer in Friday the 13th is actually Jason’s mother. This part of the scene underscores Neale’s points about the importance of forgotten or otherwise non-influential aspects of the generic corpus. Jason’s mother had been ignored by the public perception of slasher films because of the addition of Jason to the series, and by extension, the generic corpus, in the second film.
The molding of the audience’s concept continues. Barrymore tells the caller that her boyfriend will be there soon, and he’ll get rid of the stalker. Unfortunately, she has forgotten another important element of slasher films: the boys are generally useless and die quickly. Sure enough, the caller tells her to look outside at the patio, where her eviscerated boyfriend is tied to a lawn chair. The convention of the boyfriend being useless is now added to the audience’s now rapidly-changing conception of the generic corpus.
However, there is still a remaining glimmer of hope for the savvy audience. Drew Barrymore was the most famous member of the film’s cast (and featured prominently on the posters for the film), and thus logic would indicate that she is the star and thus will need to survive so that she can eventually kill the killer at the film’s climax. She is eventually chased down by the killer and stabbed to death. This would seem to be a violation of generic elements. It is not, however something new. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), perhaps the first slasher film, also featured the death of the film’s main star during the first reel (Scream also explicitly references Psycho when Skeet Ulrich asks “Did Norman Bates have a motive?”). This element is revisited ironically in Scream 2, where Jada Pinkett (who would be less-visible to the audience than the returning cast members or newcomer Sarah Michelle Gellar) is killed during the opening scene while at a movie theater attending the premiere of Stab, a film-within-a-film based on the previous events in Scream. The role of celebrity is referenced in one of the following scenes in Scream where the various characters are sitting around watching Prom Night. A bored Matthew Lillard asks “When do we see Jamie Lee’s breasts?“, which earns him a stern lecture from Jamie Kennedy, first on Jamie Lee Curtis’s filmography (you need to wait until Trading Places in 1983 if you want to see them), then on the importance of virgin characters in slasher films, and then finally launches into his famous speech on the rules of horror movies.
The reference to Prom Night adds another element to the film’s rapidly-growing concept of the generic corpus. The film is referenced as a generic “formulaic bad slasher film”, generating notions to the audience of their own superiority. However, this element of the film overlooks the film’s contribution to the horror film corpus, namely that while the film mainly repeats common horror movie elements, these elements (as Neale has pointed out) are no less important than the influential ones. Prom Night also feature a menacing caller (although one that is not ironic like the caller in the opening scene), which may be what prompts Jamie Kennedy to say later on “They could figure out the murder if they just rented Prom Night”. He ends up actually being correct, but for the wrong reason—much like in Prom Night, the assumed killer in Scream turns out to actually be a red herring.
This scene alters one of the fundamental conventions of slasher films in the punishment of “bad” teenagers. The popular view of this convention was that sexual behavior was punished, which itself is a modification of the notions of sexuality in monster movies, where the sexually deviant monster was punished. Scream also references this point explicitly through Jamie Kennedy’s monologue regarding the “ways to survive a horror movie”, where he notes that “sex equals death”. Due to its popularization in Friday the 13th, sex = death remains possibly the most common formula. However, the other variations on this concept, despite not being as influential, are still important. The teenagers in A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, were punished by Freddy because their parents murdered him by burning him alive. While A Nightmare on Elm Street is referenced numerous times in Scream, this element of is not explicitly referenced. It is, however potentially the most relevant to Scream‘s plot, as we learn at the climax of the film that Neve Campbell has been targeted because of her late mother’s affair which broke up Skeet Ulrich’s family.
Thus, Scream perhaps best exemplifies the concept of genre (in this case, the slasher film subgenre of the horror genre) as a process on both a macro and micro level. Scream draws upon both the entire generic corpus of horror films in its plot, while at the same time causing the audience to continually alter their own personal grouping that creates the genre of slasher horror to them at that specific time. Ultimately, the teenagers in the film are rewarded or punished based on their ability to realize that genre is a process which differs at any specific period of time and thus adapting when new elements are added, altered, or forgotten. Ironically, Scream‘s most famous scene, the so-called “laws” of horror would seem to imply that genre is eternal and unchanging, yet throughout the course of the film characters frequently break those laws and are not punished, or obey the laws yet break other “laws” which are not mentioned (but still exist in other horror films), demonstrating the process-centric nature of genre.