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Nonfiction

The H Word: Victims and Volunteers

“My kind of horror is not horror anymore,” an aging Boris Karloff laments in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets. And judging by the rest of the movie—which concerns a mass-murdering sniper taking aim at the patrons of a drive-in as they watch a revival screening of one of Karloff’s films—he’s not wrong.

“Between 1968 and 1976, all the films that redefined the horror movie were made,” Roy Olson of Booklist observes in his review of Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, the book that first introduced me to Targets. In Shock Value, Zinoman argues that—alongside the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s that gave us auteur directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese—“a few eccentric outsiders” were creating a “New Horror” on the fringes of the studio system.

What sets this “New Horror” apart from the creaky, theatrical horror films of yesteryear—Karloff’s “painted monsters” that no one is afraid of anymore? Zinoman examines a number of angles, but I’m just here to focus on one. A stark difference that speaks not just to the changing face of horror cinema from the ’60s into the ’70s, but to what we expect from a horror story altogether, whether it’s on the screen, on the page, or anyplace else.

With rare exception, the targets (to borrow Bodganovich’s title) of most modern slashers, serial killers, ghosts, and monsters are victims. That is to say, they are frequently—and often pointedly—chosen at random, marked for death or terror at most because they transgressed against some minor taboo that often involved simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Read any number of the YouTube comments on the trailer of the 2008 home invasion thriller The Strangers and you’ll find people saying, again and again, that the scariest thing about the movie is the invaders’ stated motive: “Because you were home.”

While much has been made of the puritanical morality of ’80s slasher films, and flicks like Scream and Cabin in the Woods have attempted to codify the patterns of mass production into “rules” by which these narratives function, the victims in most horror movies made after the 1970s didn’t ask to be put into this situation and, once in, they have no hope of escape except to survive the night or, if they are lucky enough to be the so-called “final girl,” slay the slayer—at least for a time.

By contrast, let’s call the protagonists of the horror films of yesteryear “volunteers” who, more often than not, put themselves into whatever situation they are currently facing and have every chance to leave but opt not to, whether due to greed, curiosity, love, duty, revenge, obsession, or the moral sense that they have to do what is right.

They may be detectives, reporters, scientists, soldiers, or even the friends and family of the monster, but they almost always have the option to walk away, but choose to press onward instead. Even in 1940’s jokey The Ghost Breakers, cowardly Bob Hope continues to explore the seemingly haunted castle out of love and a desire to protect Paulette Goddard’s inheritance.

The most famous and obvious of these is Professor Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula—an inveterate vampire hunter who not only pits himself voluntarily against the eponymous undead, but actually goes far out of his way to do so, traveling all the way from Vienna to England.

The echoes of these characters can be seen in some of the banner movies of the “New Horror” of the 1970s, in figures like Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis in Halloween or the three men in the boat at the end of Jaws. By then, however, they were already becoming the exception, rather than the rule.

Early “old dark house” films such as The Cat and the Canary frequently featured a cast of eccentric characters who had gathered to hear the reading of a will, only to get knocked off one by one over the course of the night. Yet even those characters, who came expecting an inheritance and not murder, could usually spare themselves the danger by simply leaving at any time.

In many of the Universal monster movies and Roger Corman’s Poe films, the “monster” even pulls double-duty as both villain and protagonist, with the audience spending at least as much time tracing the inevitability of their tragic denouement as we do with whoever our ostensible lead is.

When that same approach is taken in the “New Horror” films of the late ’60s and beyond, as it is in Targets or in George Romero’s Martin, or William Lustig’s Maniac, or even, to some extent, Hitchcock’s Psycho, however, the killer is altogether too pitiably human. We see only a person broken in monstrous but familiar ways, not the Shakespearean tragedy of figures like those Vincent Price so often played in Corman’s Technicolor gothics.

So, what changed? In Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, W. Scott Poole argues compellingly that the First World War gave rise to what we understand now as modern horror—specifically, the horror films of the ’20s and ’30s. Certainly, the long shadow of the war can be felt in films like 1934’s surprisingly vicious The Black Cat, in which the villain is a Satanic war criminal whose house is built on the ruins of a World War I battlefield.

If that is true, then something similar can be said about the Vietnam War and the “New Horror” of the ’70s. Several films make this overt, such as Bob Clark’s Deathdream from 1974, a take on “The Monkey’s Paw” in which a soldier killed in Vietnam shows up back home with tragic results. Even Targets tackles the influence of the war head-on, making its murderous sniper a Vietnam vet.

If the earliest horror films were a direct response to the horrors of World War I and II, then the shift from volunteers to victims that accompanies the formation of the “New Horror” can be seen as a reflection of changing public opinion about the wars themselves.

While World War I and II were horrific events, they were widely regarded as necessary, the people who served in them as heroic. The soldiers who fought and died in the World Wars were perceived as at least achieving something. They were facing horror—maybe even perpetrating it—but it was for a greater purpose.

The war in Vietnam was different. For many, it felt pointless, meaningless, far from the “just wars” (bit.ly/2KvHFvT) that had come before. Our troops were no longer confronting some great evil. There was no vampire there to slay, only the faceless horrors of American imperialism run rampant. As near as anyone could tell, we were simply feeding children into a meat grinder for no reason other than because it was there.

While the draft had been implemented in World War I and II, as well as Korea, it became notoriously unpopular during Vietnam. The monster was inescapable, and those who had grown up in its shadow found themselves consumed by it, whether they volunteered or not.

At the same time, photographers and TV cameras brought the horrors of the war into the living rooms of America in ways that they never had before. And, as the war dragged on and on for decades—four times longer than either of the World Wars—shellshocked troops began to come home while the conflict still raged and we started to understand, for the first time, some of the real implications of things like PTSD.

The horrors of the World Wars had been faced—at least in America, where the nascent horror film was taking shape—primarily by those who had fought overseas, who were famously stoic about what they had witnessed there. In Vietnam, we saw the images of those wars on our television sets, and we saw the aftereffects on those who had served when they returned home.

Is it any wonder, then, that heroes were harder to find in the “New Horror” that flowed from the 1970s? Americans had watched intimately as people on both sides of a conflict they didn’t understand fought and died for what seemed like nothing—or seen their loved ones come back horribly changed by their experiences—all with no grand morality or greater narrative to explain it all. Like the masked killers who so often populated the films that this “New Horror” would come to spawn, the war seemed pointless, faceless, and inescapable.

If World War I and II were Dracula—a terrible and foreign evil that needed brave souls to confront it—then the war in Vietnam was the Sawyer family in Texas Chain Saw Massacre: random, indiscriminate, and unshakably American. And the people at the focus of these stories changed accordingly, from the brave volunteers of the old horror to the hapless and luckless victims of the new, who, even when they made it through the night, seldom did so undamaged.

“Who will survive,” the tagline of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic asks, “and what will be left of them?”

Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, amateur film scholar, and monster expert who was born on the night before Halloween. His stories of ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including The Best Horror of the Year, and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. He can be found online at orringrey.com.