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Horror versus Terror in the Body Genre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Leatherface, wearing a mask of human skin, is ready to grind through his victims’ bones with his chainsaw.

Horror versus Terror in the Body Genre

Janelle Vermaak   |   December 2020

[T]error is of violence, of the violence I might do or that might be done to me.

I can be terrified of thunder, but not horrified by it (Cavell 1999, 418).


The horror film, as a genre, holds a particular fascination for both audiences and scholars. The content of the horror film is often explicit, brutal and intimate; both repulsive and captivating. Yet the genre often serves as a blanket term to denote any film that contains gruesome violence or causes fear and terror. It is, therefore, necessary to differentiate between films that merely deal with violence and terror and ‘true’ horror films. As Varma (1966) indicates, horror and terror are not synonymous:

The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realisation: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse. Horror [as] a genre of film and fiction…relies on horrifying images and situations to tell stories and prompt reactions in [its] audiences. In these films, the moment of horrifying revelation is usually preceded by a terrifying build-up.

The horror film has the ability to tap into man’s primal fears, thus eliciting the desired response through its use of ‘horrifying images and situations’. Audiences’ reaction to the violence on the screen is testament to the horror film’s accurate reflection of the beast within us all. The terror is experienced in the development of suspense and the fear of the unknown. The horror is manifested through the unknown becoming the ‘known’, and the fear being realised.

The conventions of horror films delve into our fears and bring to the surface the degeneracy of the human mind. We are confronted with images of violence and the unnatural, or other; images that disgust us. Yet, we cannot turn our gaze from the screen. It is this tenuous balance between revulsion and enthrallment that is innate to the horror genre.

This article seeks to investigate this balance and to interrogate the difference between horror and terror in an attempt to understand the contemporary horror film, paying specific attention to the relationship between violence and horror, the theme of sacrificial violence, and the transgression of ‘natural’ laws.

Linda Williams has developed the notion of the ‘Body Genre’, a concept that encompasses three film genres, which are defined by their “promise to be sensational, to give [the body] an actual physical jolt” (1999, 701). According to her, the categories “gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence and terror, [and] gratuitous emotion, are frequent epithets hurled at the phenomenon of the ‘sensational’ in pornography, horror, and melodrama”. She goes on to explain that the ‘sensational’ aspect depends on “… the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion …The body spectacle is featured more sensationally in pornography’s portrayal of orgasms, in horror’s portrayal of violence and terror, and melodrama’s portrayal of weeping” (Williams 1999, 703). This concept of the body spectacle is inherently part of the Body Genre theory. It will be explored in an attempt to explain the fascination that the genre holds for audiences and scholars alike.

Three contemporary horror films will be discussed, namely The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974), A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven 1984), and Saw (Wan 2004). In these discussions, the investigation into the relationship between violence, terror and horror, the transgression of ‘natural’ law in terms of biological classification and ideology, and the concept of sacrificial violence will be of crucial importance. The importance of the role that the sacrificial ‘object’ – be it animate or inanimate – plays in the horror film shall also be discussed. Rene Girard’s (1986) theory on sacrificial violence will be adapted in an attempt to explain audiences’ fascination with violence in the context of the horror genre, in particular regarding the notion of the transgression of the ‘natural order’ of things.

Contemporary Horror versus ‘Classic’ Horror

When asked to name a ‘classic’ horror film, titles such as Dracula (Browning 1931); Frankenstein (Whale 1931); Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson 1920), and The Curse of the Werewolf (Fisher 1961), are perhaps some that come to mind. These films are modernist, pre-1960s fare, which deal with universal horror topics, such as the drinking of blood, sexuality, playing God, schizophrenia, and the blurring of the boundaries between human and animal. Many themes that were common in the ‘classic’ horror films are still prevalent in contemporary horror films today. As John C. Lyden (2003, 228) notes: “All horror films, classic and modern, wrestle with the continued existence of evil in the world and allow the viewer to wrestle with this fact as well.”

Contemporary horror films, however, portray violence explicitly and graphically, whereas ‘classic’ horror films’ portrayal of violence is more suggestive. Another marked difference exists in terms of the underlying world view, as Pinedo (1997, 94) explains:

[In the classic horror film], [g]ood triumphs over evil; the social order is restored. In contrast, the [contemporary] paradigm blurs the boundary between good and evil, normal and abnormal, and the outcome of the struggle is, at best ambiguous. Danger to the social order is endemic.

The classic horror film provides closure; the transgression of the ‘natural order’ is ‘restored’; life resumes meaningfully. The end of the ‘classic’ horror film delivers a resolution, providing audiences with the satisfaction that the ‘horror’ has been dealt with. For example, in Browning’s Dracula (1931), the vampire shall not awaken again; in Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Frankenstein’s Monster shall not rise from the grave. The audience leaves the cinema feeling comfortable that all is well.

The contemporary horror film, on the other hand, does not allow the audience the luxury of escaping into a world of horror and returning to their lives within a ‘normal’ social order. Rather, it takes them into their own world, and “exposes the terror implicit in everyday life: the pain of loss, the enigma of death, the unpredictability of events, and the inadequacy of intentions” (Pinedo 1997, 106). Pinedo, however, ineffectively differentiates between terror and horror. In the context of the argument that I shall develop, terror should be interpreted as horror, as this quote explains.

Evolved world views underlie the differences in modes of representation and themes vis-a-vis classic and contemporary horror genres. Pinedo (1997, 87) argues that contemporary horror is a postmodernist project resulting from:

the cumulative repetitive historical stresses including the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cold War, Vietnam, and antiwar movement, and the various liberation movements associated with the 1960s: civil rights, black power, feminism, and gay liberation.

The typological elements of contemporary horror can be theorised to have originated from our postmodern society that is characterised by “frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, greed, possessiveness, jealousy, [and] neuroticism” (Wood 2002, 25). One would add, the pervading sense of meaninglessness; the lack of a master narrative.

The difference between Terror and Horror

Pinedo’s (1997) themes of death, loss and unpredictability are evident in the three contemporary horror films under discussion; particularly in the film Saw (Wan 2004). In Saw, (2004) the ‘victims’/captives of a vigilante serial killer, known only as ‘Jigsaw’, are abducted against their will, placed in an inhabitable warehouse and are forced to solve unsolvable booby-trapped puzzles and tasks where they need to ‘redeem’ themselves from the perceived wrongs they have committed. Failure to solve puzzles and complete tasks leads to death, and most captives fail to figure out the puzzles or complete the tasks. The victims are exposed to the ‘pain of loss’ and the ‘enigma of death’ – the loss of their own lives (or of those close to them), and the enigma of their own impending death. Saw (2004) highlights the difference between terror and horror in the sense that the victims are aware; they are terrified of what they are about to do, or what is about to be done to them. Real danger is imminent, and there are, indeed, fatal consequences for them. The horror is in the realisation that they have no agency. The victim who realises that he has to saw off his foot to escape the shackles embodies the sense of horror in its purest form: he has to commit a violent act upon himself, in order to prevent further violence from occurring, sacrificing a part of his body – a part of himself –for the rest of his body to survive. The audience also experiences a sense of horror, in the sense that, although they cannot be harmed by what is happening on the cinema screen, there is the belief that such degeneracy is possible in the postmodern society in which they find themselves.

Saw: What the audience has given to the horror film, the horror film has repaid – with interest. Instead of their minds being filled with images of bloodshed and violence, only one reflection remains in the back of their minds – they see themselves, as the primal beast, the original sinner, the ultimate horror monster.

Horror resides in the transgression of the ‘natural order’ of things. Since the ‘natural order’ is circumscribed by ideology, it stands to reason that it has metaphysical as well as physical dimensions. Hopper (2001) distinguishes between the supernatural and ‘natural’ horror: “Two types of horror exist – supernatural horror, and a horror which is not supernatural, but based around the horrors of our real-world – hate, murder, cruelty.”

‘Horror’ based on our real-world, is portrayed in Hooper’s (1974) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which deals with very real, very tangible acts of depravity committed by humans on other humans. A family of redneck cannibals commits unspeakable acts of violence and evil on a group of teenagers who stumble upon their house. The backwaters cannibal family once ran a swine abattoir, until it went bankrupt; now, instead of butchering pigs, they slaughter people. The characters experience terror when Leatherface chases after them; the audience experience rising anxiety and fear that culminate in repugnance and horror when Leatherface amputates, decapitates, and or eviscerates the young adults in gratuitously violent scenes, filled with gushing blood and manic screaming – of both the victims and the chainsaw, grinding through their bones. The horror resides in the depravity of the acts, the transgression of society’s moral order of society, and the realisation that it is a potential reality, given the realities of the contemporary society.

The classic horror film emphasised the importance of appealing to its audience’s imagination. There was hardly any gratuitous, explicit violence in either Dracula (Browning 1931) or Frankenstein (Whale 1931). The violence was implied. The audience was not ‘shown’ what happened; they were, in a way, ‘told’. Curtis Harrington (1952, 15) states that regarding the classic horror film, “you must only suggest horror; you cannot show it, or at least, if you do, it must only be momentarily, for you cannot sustain it. It is the audience’s own imagination, skillfully probed, that provides, out of its well of unconscious fear, all the horror necessary”.

The appeal of the classic horror film was (and still is) its power to allow its audiences ‘free reign’ over their own imaginations:

Everyone harbours a host of weird and wonderful images in his or her private mental dreams of anxiety. Maybe the uncanny, intriguing power of horror films helps exorcise what William Blake called ‘these specters around us, night and day’ ( 1958, 52).

The contemporary horror film seems to take those thoughts and images from our imaginations and represent them in gruesomely explicit detail. No longer are we prevented from looking into the abyss of human psychopathology by social mores and censure; instead, we are encouraged to explore it in detailed graphic representation. In this regard, Robin Wood (2002, 30) notes:

[Horror films] are our collective nightmares, the conditions under which a dream becomes a nightmare are that the repressed wish is, from the point of view of consciousness, so terrible that it must be repudiated as loathsome, and that it is so strong and powerful as to constitute a serious threat.

Our imaginations are most active while we sleep, during our dreams, and when our dreams revert to nightmares, we experience terror and horror. When we are awake, we are still haunted by the images that invaded our dreams. We are unable to control what we dream and unable to prevent images and thoughts from the id to enter our consciousness. The postmodern horror film exploits this, and its horror is rooted in this: true horror of waking up in the middle of the night, screaming and realising that the nightmare did, in fact, occur. The cinema is similar to a dream-like state, plunging the audience into darkness, and dominating their senses with its images and sounds:

The moment you put out the light, man reverts to the primitive. What is the cinema? It’s the place where the lights are put out. Enjoyment of horror is one of the deepest things. Electric light can’t kill horror any more than it can kill a nightmare. And do you know what the worst horror is? It’s when you switch on the electric light and the ghost is still there (Fisher 1961, 67).

The contemporary horror film, as previously noted, does not allow its audience the satisfaction of a ‘happy’ ending, or any closure at all. “Not only do [horror] films tend to be increasingly open-ended in order to allow for the possibility of countless sequels, but they also often delight in thwarting the audience’s expectations of closure” (Modleski 2000, 289). Isabel Pinedo (1997, 99-100) echoes Modleski’s sentiment, that:

Violating narrative closure has become the rigueur for the genre. The film may come to an end, but it is an open ending…Although in the end the monster appears to be vanquished, the film concludes with signs of a new unleashing; the apparent triumph over the monster is temporary at best. Evil prevails as the monster continues to disrupt the normative order.

The audience leaves the theatre feeling unsatisfied; they have not received closure; the nightmare is still haunting them. This nightmare is experienced during the waking hours, not during sleep, echoing the premise of the postmodernist horror film that dream is no longer discernable from reality. Moreover, dreamed objects can attain a physical presence in the real world. One then needs to ask: How do you wake up from a nightmare when you are not asleep?

Violation of the ‘Natural Order’

I have touched on the violation of the ‘natural order’ in my discussion of the postmodernist horror film, where the natural distinction between the realm of the mind and the real world is suspended or ‘transgressed’. The transgression of the natural order also refers to the transgression of ethical, moral and religious codes. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974), incest and inbreeding lead to dementia and depraved acts of violence. A third transgression of the natural order is as old as the genre itself; the physical presence as the body of a monster. The monstrous body conjures up images of the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, and the psychopath. No matter how diverse, how ‘original’ the monstrous body is presented and represented, one cardinal criterion applies: some form of transgression of the natural order, lies at the centre of its existence as ‘monster’. Often, the moral, psychopathological transgression is concretised, made physically present, in the body of the monster. The power of the ‘monster’ is embodied in its ‘otherness’, physically or psychologically. The ‘monster’ is a physical representation of transgression of the natural order. It represents all that is repulsive and offensive, as it cannot (and will not) submit to reason or rationale:

Horror exposes the limits of rationality and compels us to confront the irrational. The realm of rationality represents the ordered, intelligible universe that can be controlled and predicted. In contrast, the irrational represents the disordered, ineffable, chaotic, and unpredictable universe that constitutes the underside of life. In horror, irrational forces disrupt the social order (Pinedo 1997, 94-95).

Human nature is such that we cannot function in a chaotic, disordered world. Humans need rules, boundaries and definitions of ‘normal’. Anything that disrupts definitions of ‘normal’ is seen as something ‘else’; something ‘other’ than normal; something abnormal. Schneider, quoting Douglas, states that “monsters are unnatural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme; they violate it” (2000, 177). Yet, it is the human mind that wishes to free itself from rules and boundaries. The ‘monster’ in the horror film represents our own desire to be free, to break the chains that restrict us and be unleashed on those who placed the shackles on our feet in the first place. The ‘other’ is, in fact, within us and is part of who we are. This is perhaps why monstrous depictions of ‘otherness’ are so disturbing. We cannot stand to see reflections of our anarchic selves portrayed on the screen. “Horror tends to concentrate on another type of ‘Other’, an ‘Other’ which is very familiar and because of that much more frightening, an ‘Other’ which is rooted in our psyche, in our fears and obsessions” (Ursini 2000, 4). We experience horror when we contemplate how the world would be if humans allowed their anarchic selves free reign. True horror is felt when the ‘monsters’ on the screen embody and act out our anarchic fantasies.

The ‘monster’ displaces our beliefs and understanding of the ‘natural’. It creates disorder in an otherwise ordered world. Stephen Neale (1980, 20) states:

The monster, and the disorder it initiates and concretises, is always that which disrupts and challenges the definitions and categories of the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’…[I]t is the monster’s body which focuses the disruption. Either disfigured, or marked by a heterogeneity of human and animal features, or marked by a ‘non-human’ gaze, the body is always in some way signalled as ‘other’, signalled, precisely, as monstrous.

Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy Krueger invades his victims’ dreams, entering the most intimate and secret (and frightening) of all places – the human mind.

An example of the monster’s ‘disrupted’ body can be found in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974), as Leatherface disfigures himself by wearing a mask of human skin. Freddy Krueger, from A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven 1984), has burned skin covering his entire body, which seems to be oozing with a clear, viscous fluid. His hand is disfigured by the bladed glove that he wears. In Saw (Wan 2004), Jigsaw presents himself as a puppet, thus removing any hint of his humanity and ‘disrupting’ his victims’ perception of him, because he is watching them through a ‘non-human gaze’. The Jigsaw killer is, in fact, a ‘monster’ that tries to restore order; he is attempting to restore balance by punishing the wicked (his victims) for their sins. In essence, he has taken on the role of the avenging angel, the ‘restorer of order’. In Jigsaw’s victims’ minds and lives, the ‘natural’ order has been grossly disrupted, and the killer is still perceived as the ‘monster’; the one who challenges the bounds of the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’.

The ‘monster’ is represented in many forms, for example, the psychopath, the shape-shifter, or the alien. Most of the forms in which the monster is manifested are abominations; repulsive, and not ‘natural’. The monster embodies the ‘unnatural’. In its broadest sense, ‘unnatural’ can also refer to our concept of right and wrong. Murder is wrong – is it therefore unnatural? Not all killings depicted in film are part of the horror genre. What differentiates murder in a cops-and-robbers film from murder in a horror film? Murder in a cops-and-robbers film is justified; it is allowed, and ‘legitimate’. There is a reason behind the violence and killings, and the audience can rationalise the brutality. In contrast, there is no reason behind the monster’s carnage; the audience does not feel relieved when someone (or something) is hacked, stabbed, beaten, eaten, or bitten to death. Even when the ‘monster’ meets its grisly demise, there is no sense of closure; there is no satisfaction. The true horror is the irrationality behind the murder and the violence – the unreason.

One cannot rationalise with the ‘monster’. It is impossible to reason with nor negotiate the extent of its murderous rampage. The monster simply is. The monster exists within a paradigm which (whether we like it or not) is a reflection of the hideousness of the human mind—the ‘monster’, which is explicitly situated in the mind; namely schizophrenia. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson 1920), madness and derangement, and psychopathology in Saw (Wan 2004), are particularly terrifying because the unwitting victim is mostly unaware of his/her tormentor’s mental ‘affliction’.

Physically, there is usually no distinction between the psychopath and a ‘normal’ human being – it is in the mind that the horror dwells; it is in the mind that the ‘monster’ lives. “When the mind is the actual stuff of horror, when madness and collapse are presented from inside, rather than viewed from without, then the solid ground itself shifts and crumbles, and we do indeed find ourselves looking into a bottomless pit” (Butler 1967, 77).

The manner in which ‘monsters’ violate the natural conceptual scheme of nature takes many forms, for instance, drinking of blood, cannibalism, and shape-shifting. Some monsters embody the violation of ‘natural laws’ through their mere existence, such as the Frankenstein monster, which had absolutely no control over his monstrosity, or his creation and abominable existence. The Frankenstein monster embodies the state of the human condition – the mishmash of cultures, religions, and belief systems, all ‘rolled’ (or sewn) into one.

The vampire, namely Count Dracula, is perhaps one of the most celebrated (and feared) of all classical and contemporary ‘monsters’. His biological need to drink human blood is both repulsive and fascinating, specifically how he ‘acquires’ this blood – he is seductive and sexy. He causes women and men to submit to him without resistance. The female vampire has the same effect on humans. The vampire’s sexuality and overt (and irresistible) sensual attraction are vital for its survival. The vampire seduces young women and men into giving, in essence, what Linda Williams (2002, 65) terms, their ‘life fluid’: “The vampiric act of sucking blood, sapping the life fluid of a victim so that the victim, in turn, becomes a vampire, is similar to the female role of milking the sperm of the male during intercourse [and fellatio]”.

An example of vampirism can be found in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974). Near the end of the film, Sally Hardesty finds herself an unwilling guest in the home of Leatherface and his cannibalistic, inbred, psychopathic family. Her finger is slit open, and the oozing blood fed to the decaying corpse of the family’s patriarch, ‘Grandpa’. The corpse begins to suck on her bleeding finger feverishly, and ‘Grandpa’ seems to come back from the dead; the blood sustaining him and feeding his rotting and (un)dead organs. The terror is felt when the corpse of ‘Grandpa’ is revived. The horror is experienced when the ‘life fluid’ of someone else is used to bring the corpse back from the dead. Cannibalism, as is prevalent (yet merely suggested) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974), is perhaps one of the most horrifying practices portrayed in the horror film. Drake Douglas (1967, 73) states:

The eating of human flesh was something unnatural, something beastlike. [The Romans believed that one] who indulged in this particular kind of feasting must be very close to an animal; from here, the next step was belief that such a person actually transformed himself into an animal.

Leatherface has the visage of a pig – he grunts and squeals (mostly in delight at dismembering his victims); he is overweight and has, behind his mask of human flesh, tiny pig-like eyes that look greedily upon his victims. His incestuous family can be characterised as a pack of Hyenas. They laugh hysterically as they torment and ‘play’ with Sally, who’s seen shrieking in fear and agony. Their animalistic behaviour, in turn, reduces Sally’s status from a human to that of an animal. One can describe her experience as an analogy of a ‘pig in a pen’, chased around endlessly by her tormentors.

Examples of other abominations include the zombie, and the walking dead, which fill the human psyche with dread and fear. “There is no horror like that which comes from the grave. People of all lands, regardless of the advance of their civilisation, have always been unwilling to believe that death means an end” (Douglas 1967, 174). Freddy Krueger, from A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven 1984), is an example of the abomination that is the ‘undead’. He returns from the grave in the form of a ‘nightmare’. Freddy Krueger haunts the children of the people who killed him. He invades his victims’ dreams, entering the most intimate and secret (and frightening) of all places – the human mind. He does this when his victims are physically unable to defend themselves – when they’re asleep. An example of Freddy Krueger’s power extends beyond merely invading his victims’ dreams. He is able to maim, torture and kill his victims in their dreams, while their physical, sleeping bodies experience the same punishment. When Freddy Krueger’s victim is murdered in their dream, their physical body dies in the same gruesome manner in the ‘real’, waking world. This aspect of the contemporary horror film can be closely linked to the postmodern notion of the waking nightmare.

Other forms of ‘monstrosity’ and ‘otherness’ are evident in the issues of female sexuality and feminine liberation. The woman is punished by the monster for performing impure acts, or for preparing to perform impure acts. It is the power of female sexuality that is so terrifying. It can even be suggested that the ‘monster’ embodies the intensity and mystery of female sexuality, which is why it is so frightening:

The monster’s power is one of sexual difference from the normal male. In this difference he is remarkably like the woman in the eyes of the traumatised male: a biological freak with impossible and threatening appetites that suggest a frightening potency precisely where the normal male would perceive a lack (Williams 2002, 63).

Female sexuality has the potential to overpower the ‘normal male completely’. The ‘monster’, in most cases, is also able to overpower the male. The monster holds the power; yet, there is often ultimately a force (such as the hero or heroine) greater than the monster that may, at some point, wrest that power from it. This is not always the case. Often, especially within the contemporary horror film, the monster maintains its power, even after its demise. The audience is lulled into a false sense of victory when the protagonist slays the monster. In the back of the audiences’ mind, the monster is not entirely dead and gone.

Blood, Violence, Sex, Sacrifice and Satisfaction

In the introduction of this article, I referred to Girard’s theory on sacrificial violence. In this section, I shall adopt a crucial part of his theory in an attempt to explain some aspects of the fascination of the horror genre. This fascination exerts itself even though our morals and values are violated.

What is the appeal of watching (and consuming) gratuitous violence, explicit sex, gushing blood and evisceration? And why do film audiences feel exhilaration when victims are hacked to death by a buzzing chainsaw, or when a monster is gruesomely dispatched? Andrew Tudor, quoting Grixti, states that:

‘…human beings are rotten to the core’…, whether by nature or nurture, and that horror resonates with this feature of the human condition. The genre serves as a channel releasing the bestiality concealed within its users. If the model is that of catharsis, then the process is deemed beneficial: a safety valve. If the model is one of articulation and legitimation, then the genre is conceived to encourage consumers in their own horrific behaviour. Either way, the attraction of horror derives from its appeal to the ‘beast’ concealed within the superficially civilised human (2002, 48).

Girard (1986) presents a different explanation than the ‘rotten to the core’ premise. Since sacrifice is a key element in the horror genre, it makes sense to explore Girard’s argument that violence, “if left unappeased…will accumulate until it overflows its confines and floods the surrounding area. The role of sacrifice is to stem this rising tide of indiscriminate substitutions and redirect violence into ‘proper’ channels” (1986, 10).

Within the contemporary, Westernised society that today’s horror audiences exist, there are no ‘proper channels’ through which one can direct their primal thirst for violence. Audiences are unable to find an outlet; a ‘surrogate victim’ to unleash their wrath on. There is no sense of release; humans are unable to escape the ever-tightening noose that is frustration and pent-up anger. There is, however, one such outlet; a safety-valve: the horror film. Audiences can watch horror films, and replace the image of the screaming, writhing victim with the image of that which is causing them such anger and frustration. The victim would thus pose a resemblance to the object of the audience’s violent desires, allowing them to indirectly lash out at the object of their antagonism, thus relieving them of that need to commit violence in the ‘real’ world.

Although Girard was speaking of sacrificial violence within an anthropological context, the following quote can, in a sense, be used in my discussion of horror as a film genre: “All victims bear a certain resemblance to the object they replace; otherwise the violent impulse would remain unsatisfied” (1986, 11). In a sense, one could argue that the ‘replacement’ on the screen, therefore, becomes the audience’s sacrificial victim – the representation of all that is frustrating and violence-invoking: “The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict; we must divert that impulse, therefore, toward the sacrificial victim, the [person] we can strike down without fear of reprisal (Girard 1986, 13).

The audience of the horror film shall not be punished for revelling in the slow, painful and bloody death of the representation of their anger. They are allowed to experience it fully, and visually take part in the torture:

The sacrifice serves to protect the [audience] from its own violence…[Sacrifices are designed to suppress the audience’s] internal violence – all the dissentions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels within the [lives of the audience]. The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the [audiences’ lives], to reinforce the social fabric (Girard 1986, 8).

Violence and sacrifice in the horror film serve “a variety of psychological functions in society. Like tragedy, horror promotes emotional catharsis of audiences; like fantasy, it offers viewers an escape from the tedium of everyday life” (Schneider 2000, 168). Sacrifice in the horror film allows its audience an outlet, a ‘catharsis’, for their repressed anger and violent tendencies. “Violence is not to be denied, but it can be diverted to another object [the on-screen victim], something it can sink its teeth into” (Girard 1986, 4). An example of sacrifice within a horror film is portrayed in Saw (Wan 2004). Dr Lawrence Gordon, in a desperate attempt at saving himself and his family, saws off his foot in order to escape. He sacrifices a part of himself so that his family can survive. In an earlier flashback, the audience learns of Amanda, who had to sacrifice the life of her cellmate in order to ensure her own survival. Violence is particularly prevalent in many film genres today, but more so in the horror genre. Yet, not all violence is horrific. One then needs to consider what it is about violence in the horror film that evokes such strong responses:

[V]iolence…marks the horror film, most evidently in films where a monster – werewolf, vampire, psychopath or whatever – initiates a series of acts of murder and destruction which can only end when it itself is either destroyed or becomes normalised… (Neale 1980, 21).

The monster communicates through violence, and it has already been established that there will be no reasoning or moralising with it. The only ‘language’ it understands is that of violence – that which it could do or what could be done to it, if I may use Schneider’s statement as such. The characters, therefore, have to deal with the monster in the manner that it deals with them – through violence:

[V]iolence in the horror film is not gratuitous but is rather a constituent element of the genre. The horror narrative is propelled by violence, manifested in both the monster’s violence and the attempts to destroy the monster (Pinedo 1997, 91).

J. David Slocum (2001, 2) states that violence is inherent in human nature – deep down, we are vicious hell-hounds that need a release from our bourgeois, pseudo-civilised cages. Hell is in the mind; the horror film emphasises that. The horror film “explores the capacity for experiencing fear, hysteria and madness, all that lies on the dark side of the mind and the near side of barbarism. What lurks on and beyond the shifting frontiers of consciousness (Cuddon 1991, 417).

Blood, sex and violence often go hand in hand in the horror film. Any type of bloodletting – be it through open wounds, internal bleeding, or menstrual bleeding – rouses fear. Menstrual blood is particularly disturbing, as it is so closely linked to sexuality, which in turn is closely linked to violence:

The fact that the sexual organs of women periodically emit a flow of blood has always made a great impression on men; it seems to confirm an affinity between sexuality and those diverse forms of violence that invariably lead to bloodshed (Girard 1986, 34-35).

Girard also states that menstrual blood is impure, which leads to the conclusion that sexuality is impure because sexuality is so closely connected to violence:

Sex and violence frequently come to grips in such direct forms as abduction, rape, defloration, and various sadistic practices. Sex is at the origin of various illnesses, real or imaginary; it culminates in the bloody labours of childbirth, which may entail the death of mother, child, or both together (Girard 1986, 35).

Blood, sex and violence have been around since the first child was born. These three elements combine to create a compelling horror film and allow the audience all the catharsis they need to purge themselves of their need for blood and violence. The three elements allow viewers the opportunity to sacrifice the characters on the screen so that they can be relieved of their desires and frustrations.

The catharsis that audiences feel leads to a type of satisfaction, a sense of relief that they have been purged (at least temporarily) of their aggravations. The audience experiences this catharsis by, in a way, physically taking part in the violence on the screen. As mentioned, Linda Williams (1999) has identified three specific genres that deal with excess, sensation and excitement. These three genres are the melodrama (the ‘tearjerker’), the horror (the ‘fear jerker’) and pornography (the ‘jerk-off’), and she places them within an overarching category called ‘The Body Genre’. According to Williams:

The ecstatic excesses [of] pornography’s portrayal of orgasm,…horror’s portrayal of violence and terror, and…melodrama’s portrayal of weeping…, could be said to share a quality of uncontrollable convulsion or spasm – of the body ‘beside itself’ with sexual pleasure, fear and terror, or overpowering sadness. Aurally, excess is marked by [the audience sharing in the characters’] inarticulate cries of pleasure in porn, screams of fear in horror, sobs of anguish in melodrama (1999, 703-704).

There is a sense, says Williams, of a lack of proper esthetic distance; of over-involvement in the film – the audience goes ‘too deep into the rabbit hole’, and becomes immersed in the fantasy world of the film. Often, it is the number of screams that a horror film can elicit from its audience that determines its success – the audience mimics the characters’ shrieks of pain and terror and revels in the violence and bloodshed. The audience is able to expel their own demons and sacrifice their own lambs during the course of a horror film. They exit the cinema, feeling purged of their desires to be violent, and return home, climb into bed, and turn off the lights. Yet, what the audience has given to the horror film, the horror film has repaid – with interest. Instead of their minds being filled with images of bloodshed and violence, only one reflection remains in the back of their minds – they see themselves, as the primal beast, the original sinner, the ultimate horror monster.


In this article, I have explored some definitive characteristics of the horror film as a manifestation of an ancient genre, and some key issues revolving around the relationship between violence, terror and horror, which are frequently confused in literature on the horror genre, have been clarified. In this regard, I have shown that horror films do contain violence, but that very few violent movies can be categorised as horror. Terror, as the superlative of fear, is linked to a real danger of bodily harm. Horror is as much an emotional as it is a physical reaction to the depravity that underlies those actions or manifestations, in the form of the monstrous body that causes the terror.

Schneider, quoting Cavell, states that “terror is of violence, of the violence I might do or that might be done to me. I can be terrified of thunder, but not horrified by it” (2000, 168). Terror is the fear of what could happen while horror is the awful realisation of the extent of human depravity and excess. Terror is the result of real, imminent danger to us, while horror lies in the realm of the mind and is evoked by the images and representations of the horror film – of that which we try to contain behind the thin veneer of civilisation.

Janelle Vermaak

Contributing Writer

Janelle Vermaak is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communication at the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, and teaches in a varied range of disciplines including, but not limited to, Scriptwriting, Film Studies, Communication Studies and Written Communication. Her primary research interests include fan studies, film studies, and television studies. The topic of her PhD was understanding fans of the Alien film franchise, and is currently writing a number of works for publication.

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