Friday, October 29, 2010

The Decaying American Family

In honor of Halloween, I wanted make an observation about one of my favorite genres: 70s horror.

Movies exist as a sort of window into the subconscious of the society in which they are produced.  They reflect people's hopes and fears - both purposefully and accidentally - just like every other form of artistic expression.  This has always been especially evident in the American horror genre where clear connections can be drawn between the subtext on screen and real-world events shaping American society.  When Universal released films such as Dracula and The Mummy during the 1930s, there was fear of exotic terrors from far-away places.  In the 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare, Americans were afraid that their neighbors could not be trusted.  Fear had moved to U.S. soil and films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out.  Then, it the late 1960s, another shift occurred.  American horror films began depicting terror as coming from within people's own families.

During this time, divorce rates hit record highs, abortion became legal, the feminism and gay-rights movements were on the rise, thalidomide was causing birth defects, and children were having sex.  The nuclear family concept that was so popular during the 50s was being destroyed.  The horror was coming from inside the house!  Some of the horror films that were released amidst this familial chaos (spoilers ahead):

  • Rosemary's Baby (1968) - husband lets Satan rape his wife so she can give birth to the Antichrist
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968) - girl eats her mother
  • The Last House on the Left (1971) - nuclear family is tormented by a roving band of murderous hippies 
  • Sisters (1973) - woman is tormented by her former conjoined twin
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) - a family of inbred cannibals go on a killing spree (see also The Hills Have Eyes (1977))
  • The Exorcist (1973) - daughter tries to kill single mother
  • It's Alive (1974) - baby tries to kill parents
  • The Omen (1976) - child kills adoptive mom, adoptive dad tries to kill child and dies trying
  • Carrie (1976) - daughter kills single mother and herself
  • Eraserhead (1977) - father kills freak-baby after the mother walks out on them
  • Halloween (1978) - brother kills sister
  • The Amityville Horror (1979) - dad tries to kill his entire family
  • The Shining (1980) - dad tries to kill wife and son

      The question is can this really be called a subtext when nearly all of the great genre films of this era contain elements of this theme?


        1. Also, 'Don't Look Now' (1973) a daughter drowns in opening sun, husband and wife try to hold onto their relationship while abroad. Meanwhile the father sees (and rejects the possibility of) what may be an image of girl in the canals of Venice. their sun is at a boarding school in another country.

        2. I thought about 'Don't Look Now', but I think that movie is British so I didn't include it. Good movie though...

        3. Truth is always scarier than fiction. Great article.

        4. It's Alive - the baby didn't try to kill the parents. It killed everyone else, including the family cat, but it never harmed it's big brother nor parents.

          You forgot The Stepford Wives, BTW.

        5. Point noted about It's Alive, but it definitely fits the mold of an attack on the family unit...