This may seem obvious to some given the origins of the modern horror film, but for those who feel they’re too squeamish for horror flicks, maybe this will prompt you to give them another chance: modern horror movies (particularly slasher films) are our modern folktales.
Horror engrosses and fascinates us despite being gross or frightening, and there’s a long tradition of this in the form of folk and fairy tales; what is a horror movie, if not the film version of a scary story told around a campfire? However, there’s more to this comparison than just the frightening tone.
Let’s have a quick look at what folktales and horror have in common:
- Folktales: Character traits are often exaggerated, so that who is Bad and who is Good is unambiguous; character’s capabilities are often equally exaggerated.
- Horror: There’s a pretty clear baddie who is generally defined solely by their badness, and by contrast the good guys are equally clear. Just as with folktales, who is Good and who is Bad is unambiguous.
- Folktales: Heroes/Heroines in folktales are generally kind, caring, unselfish, and principled, often exhibiting some strength of character not necessarily found in their fellows for which they are greatly respected.
- Horror: This is naturally exemplified in the victim-hero commonly referred to as the Final Girl. Often pure of heart (and sexually pure), somewhat sheepish, and kindhearted, the Final Girl is both traumatized by the events and charged with overcoming them.
- Folktales: Settings are often removed from day-to-day reality, and described in a fashion that is somewhat vague and thus not limited by time or local changes; “Once upon a time in a land far away…” Yet, at the same time, the setting often reflects the culture of the area the folktale is originally from, whether it is mountainous or flat or crossed by water.
- Horror: Usually also removed from day-to-day life, and strongly tied to the local culture. Related to the threshold of evil idea, these horrifying events are usually tied to a place. Whether that’s the creepy house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the bedroom in The Exorcist, or the good ol’ standby of a Cabin In The Woods, there’s often a relatively remote area where this horror is taking place, and may incorporate local legends or what are reputed to be local legends.
- Folktales: The plots in folktales are typically formulaic, and oftentimes the same tale will be repeated in several different iterations.
- Horror: It practically goes without saying that the same holds true for Horror, 100%. In Men, Women, And Chainsaws, Carol J. Clover notes:
“…the fact is that horror movies look like nothing so much as folktales — a set of fixed tale types that generate an endless stream of what are in effect variants: sequels, remakes, and rip-offs. ‘Basically, sequels mean the same film,’ observes Director John Carpenter, who should know.”
She further adds:
“This is a field in which there is in some sense no original, no real or right text, but only variants: a world in which, therefore, the meaning of the individual example lies outside itself.”
In short, this means that many horror films and certainly folktales follow archetypes and previously established structures, endless variations on a theme where the creativity often lies in the delivery of the tale as opposed to the tale itself.
But more than these structural similarities, there is also the meaning and themes which underlie them. Oral traditions often produce folkloric and fairy tales that focus on describing fears in supernatural terms, personifying them as a means to explore or cope with them. Using storytelling as a means to combat fear is not a purely horror thing, but it is in some ways uniquely approached in the horror genre. Vampires are often representative of fears of sexuality and sexual assault, The Babadook is grief and familial obligation, and so on.
The open secret of horror films is that they are never about what they seem on the surface; cheap thrills they may be, but there’s more to it than that. The idea of a slasher or a monster coming to harm us is frightening, but it is what these creatures represent that we are truly afraid of. They claim the lives of those they touch, whether through death or irrevocable change, and the great catharsis of these films is that fears can be defeated, managed, or otherwise overcome. There is a reason that the heroes of folktales and the Final Girls of slasher films are usually people who are pure of heart, and that is because the ultimate message of these stories is that kindness and cleverness will get you through life’s travails.
Bearing in mind the rich influence of folkloric and fairy tales, the next time you watch a horror movie, it might be prudent to ask yourself: what is it that we are really afraid of?