The (Psychological) Appeal of Horror in
Fiction and Film
Honors Seminar 3213
In the Washington, D.C. area in 1949, a reported case of possession occurred involving an exorcism. At the time, William Peter Blatty was a student at the Jesuit institution of Georgetown University when this highly unusual event occurred. What fascinated Blatty as a student and served
as the subject for his 1971 novel, The Exorcist, represented a "life-affirming" event—if pure evil could be demonstrated, it proved an absolute good as well. Carefully documented, Blatty's novel became an instant bestseller and equally
popular movie, grossing more than eight times its initial investment.
However, though Blatty wrote the screenplay as well as the book, the emphases between the book and film remain clearly different. While the novel posits a life-affirming, committed religiosity, the screenplay does not; the latter plays to a different audience, and the temptation, clearly not the book's intention, exists to see the demon Pazuzu's power as victorious over the priests Merrin and Karras at the end of the film. Interestingly, another famous work that considered the supernatural forces of good versus evil by Ira Levine,
Rosemary's Baby (1967)—also a best-selling novel and popular movie—was condemned by the Catholic Church, while Blatty's more intensely graphic book and film were not.
The Exorcist represents but one novel and film that we'll study in the fall Honors seminar,
The (Psychological) Appeal of Horror in Fiction and Film. Why do people enjoy the thrill of being frightened, of contemplating supernatural and thus uncontrollable situations, or take pleasure in reading about horrendous events? Certainly, there lies a vast distinction between the pathology and study of such impulses and how, much like action films, they "entertain" us as escapist diversion: the horror genre remains notorious for its great divide between quality and exploitation—should it have higher pretensions or merely seek to entertain?
These represent but a few of the questions that this course will seek to provide. Our course syllabus includes five movies, five novels (two of which we'll both read and watch in film adaptation), and several psychological studies on terror, fear, and the supernatural. In addition to studying the style and impact of the novels, we'll investigate filming techniques, directorial decisions, and casting. This course will undoubtedly raise more questions than we can answer, because of the compendious nature of the genre, even among more recent art forms such as film.
Consider for instance that most filmgoers today fail to appreciate the impact of Boris Karloff's 1931 depiction of Frankenstein's monster, which set the tone for what we most expect from our cinematic monsters: power constitutes terror. Karloff endured more than five hours of make-up preparation per day, from an enlarged head, to boots that weighed more than thirty pounds each (taking him to a height of seven feet, six inches), and heavy leg braces that forced him to lurch as opposed to walk. Besides the enormous weight loss of the ordeal, Karloff was hospitalized at the conclusion of the film, shot in only six weeks. The emphasis, however, between James Whale's direction of the movie and Mary Shelley's classic
novel remains even more remarkable than that between Blatty's novel and screenplay. In reading and viewing these films, students will investigate the work's "appeal to an audience" and how it changes over time and with cultural tastes. Horror takes many forms. As these two novels/films indicate, it can involve the supernatural or raise ethical and moral questions, which remain no less frightening when we consider that humanity can create a hideousness that easily rivals, if not exceeds, the supernatural.
One film and another movie will demonstrate these societal manifestations of horror. Richard Brook's 1967 film of Truman Capote's "non-fictional novel,"
In Cold Blood, represents a faithful adaptation to the Capote classic: in 1959, a family of four was found murdered in their home in the small Mid-Western town of Holcomb, Kansas. People who had previously felt safe and insular from the violence of American cities for the first time locked their doors at night. The movie stands as a chilling adaptation of the psychological profiles of two convicted felons who saw their victims as representatives of a society that made them outcasts. Another novel that exemplifies humanity's propensity for creating horror is Jerzy Kosinski's
The Painted Bird, a semi-autobiographical work not for the faint of heart, which traces a young boy's odyssey through Eastern Europe during the Second World War and his journey into the darkest recesses of civilization’s primal consciousness and inhumanity.
Two additional works will fill out our reading for the semester: selections from Edgar Allan Poe's
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and Bram Stoker's Dracula—which has undergone numerous screen adaptations, though reading the book should prove enlightening for those only familiar with cinematic treatments. As for the other films, we will watch a sophisticated, yet scary movie that manages to avoid gore but offers more chills than most movies of the last two decades: "The Haunting," directed by Robert Wise, and adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel,
The Haunting of Hill House. And finally, we turn to that 1960 thriller, "Psycho," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who had never previously engaged in the genre and considered the movie as more a "joke" than a work of terror—though no one else laughed. Few know that Hitchcock based his Norman Bates character on a cannibalistic killer from Wisconsin; but perhaps even more fascinating are the behind-the-scenes travails and production problems with the film. Besides offering a fascinating psychological study of terror and horror, Hitchcock's film aptly demonstrates the intricacies of the film-maker's art and the exceptional talents of an unparalleled director making the best of some difficult decisions—the infamous "shower scene" remains a truly complex work of directorial art.
Students may find, however, they are more drawn to the psychological studies of Freud, Jung, Erikson, and others with regard to our fascination for horror. Insights into why we fear often prove more frightening than the manipulation of senses when we read a novel or watch a film, because such impulses stem from—perhaps lurk within—the human psyche. How strong is that appeal within us? What fascinates us about the dangers inherent in the darker recesses of humanity? And if those forces are supernatural, what protection do we have if, in fact, they emanate from within as opposed to without?
Join us for a frightening and enlightening semester.
Films will be shown on five different Thursday evenings during the semester,
beginning at 7:00 p.m. until the movie's conclusion in order that we may watch
them in their entirety and as a group. During the seminar, we'll discuss
specific techniques and watch selected scenes as we analyze the films (popcorn
A final word: You should be aware of the content of A final word: You should be aware of the content of the movies and novels for this seminar. Blatty's
The Exorcist and Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird are graphically violent, especially Kosinski's novel; as for the movies: "Frankenstein" (No rating); "Psycho" (NR—but only because it was made pre-code; violent); "The Haunting" (NR); "In Cold Blood" (NR); and "The Exorcist" (Rated R; disturbing scenes, language).