what the monsters are

A look at horror films in the 20th century
A look at horror films in the twentieth century
5th semester Bachelor project
By Malte Andersen
A look at horror films in the 20th century
This project examines the reason for why we horror films scare us as well as why we like being scared
by things that do not exist. To illustrate the point, this project uses three films as examples of horror
and the metaphors and allegories they represent.
The three films span the latter half of the 20th century with the last film in the early 21st century to
provide a broad but distinct view of the fears inhabited by Americans.
For the three films, I have chosen The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to illustrate the cold war
paranoia in the face of strangers.
I also chose The Thing (1982) for the early eighties much more visual and gory horror.
Finally, I chose The Conjuring (2013) because it is more of a throwback to older horror films by
using clever camera work with lights and sound instead of gory violence or a deeper political message.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
Table of contents
Theory and methodology
The day the Earth Stood Still
The Thing
The Conjuring
A look at horror films in the 20th century
Is it possible to illustrate and show the fear Americans feel by using cinema? For this project, I will
use three films to show that the deep-rooted fears the Americans have to prove my point. The three
films I have chosen span most of the 20th century and part of the 21st century. I chose these films with
a gap of about 30 years since I believe that that would show a more clear distinction of what the
Americans were/are afraid of and how that fear is portrayed in media. The three film I will be covering
are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing (1982) and the last film will be The Conjuring
Theory & Methodology
Since I only chosen film for the project I will use basic technical film analysis by observing how the
camera, sound and lighting work in tandem with the story to set the mood and tone. I will use the
compare and contrast method with the first two films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The
Thing (1982) with a focus on the works of art that came before and inspired the two films respectively.
For The Thing I will mainly use Torben Bille’s essay on unseen horrors from Monstrologi as the main
contributor. For the last film, The Conjuring (2013), I will mainly focus on sound since the sound is
the biggest factor in this film. The two main books I will use will be The Philosophy of Horror (1990)
since it covers both the psychology of art-horror and the metaphysical. The other main book I will
use will be Monstrologi (2012) since it covers a wide variety of each type of horror, not just limited
to film.
I have adored film ever since I can remember, I am lucky that I have both a father and a brother who
are both nerds with regards to film, TV, comics and games that then influenced and nourished my
imagination. I am not exactly sure what my favorite film is but I do know that my two favorite genres
are science fiction and fantasy. When I got older, I drifted more towards horror instead of fantasy.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
I still remember when my brother would show me the Alien, Terminator film even though he was not
allowed because I was too young, fortunately, it did no lasting damage. The first foray into horror
where I was truly scared came from two film I remember vividly. The first film I was truly scared by
was Pet Sematary (1989) a friend and I had borrowed the film from a neighbor. We did not sleep that
night! Another film I was greatly scared of as a child was the film It (1990) with Tim Curry as the
dreadful Pennywise the Clown. Of course, subsequent viewings of It now seems a bit more tame,
especially part two where Pennywise is revealed, and less scary. I have always enjoyed film that in
some way blend genres together with an emphasis on either science fiction or fantasy for example,
the earliest memory I have of being scared in a film was the nothingness and its wolf like
representation in the Never-ending Story (1984).
The blending of genres is why I have chosen the films for this project. Horror is a rather subjective
genre, as well as all media. This is why many would not recognize The Day the Earth Stood Still
(1951) as a horror film, yet I have chosen it for the reason that the underlying looming sense of danger
creates that feeling of being frightened and following Noël Carroll’s definition of monsters they are
described as supernatural forces not easily toppled.
The next film I have chosen is also a blend of both science fiction and horror although The Thing
(1982) is greatly more focused on horror than science fiction. With a nasty unstoppable monster, The
Thing is in many ways a “typical” monster story when looking at Riber’s template definition of a
monster film but the film deviates enough from the template to be a much more surprising experience
by not following a standard template.
The last film I will focus on will be The Conjuring (2013), because it goes back to classic horror roots
with new twists in the form of using a much more powerful sound in creating the tension while taking
place in the early 1970s as a way to remove the helpful tools such as the internet and cellphones.
Therefore keeping it more enclosed and since the film is based on a true story, refreshing the urban
legend philosophy.
The unseen, terrifying and mind-bending horror that has been inflicted upon us since, almost, the
inception of cinema, from the ghoulish visage of the monster in Frankenstein to the luring and
seductive eyes of Dracula to the more gory and violent films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,
The Thing and the Saw series.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
Filmgoers have always enjoyed a good scare and while some subgenres of horror may have changed
or been replaced with new genres. Horror always pops up to instill a different kind of dread to satiate
our wonderful and, slightly, odd obsession.
So what is horror? According to Noël Carroll in his book The Philosophy of Horror (1990), the type
of horror we as an audience experience is referred to as art-horror. As written by Carroll: “It is not
the task of this book to analyze natural horror, but only art-horror, that is, horror as it serves to name
a cross-art, cross-media genre whose existence is already recognized in ordinary language.” (p. 12)
Carroll also refers to natural horror as something found in human nature and uses WWII as an
example of natural horror (p. 12).
Using the three films, explained above, for this project does slightly seem to reveal my own personal
tastes in horror film insofar as the first two are more closely related to science fiction with The Day
the Earth Stood Still not even really being actual horror until the last 10 minutes of the film. However,
I do believe it is necessary to use that film as an example because of the underlying tension building
up in the United States at the time and using the public itself as the monster in film and not the
Whereas The Thing is perhaps a more “standardized” horror film on paper because it is much more
straightforward in using the alien-monster at first to divide and conquer the group which then in turn
turns the individual members against one another. Carroll argues the differences between science
fiction and horror, particularly in the fifties and sixties, as a complementary mix of both genres with
criticisms towards the “aficionados of science fiction” because of their belief that science fiction only
incorporates grandiose themes such as alternate societies, technologies, and humanism, while the
monsters and horror plays second fiddle (p. 14). Another way Carroll describes horror is the focus
on the monsters compared to a genre like fairy tales. For example in horror the monsters in that
particular universe is abnormal and evil wherein fairytales, they can be evil, are much more normal
and natural in the fairytale world.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The film The Day the Earth Stood Still centers on the alien Klaatu who comes to Earth to convey a
message to the people of Earth. Although not an outright horror film, technically more of a thriller,
A look at horror films in the 20th century
this does show the mentality of the American public in the post-WWII mentality and the nervousness
of strangers. This film can be compared to Carroll’s differentiation of fairytales and horror for the
reason that after the initial shock of Klaatu landing and conversing with the people of Earth, the genre
then shifts into more of a fairy tale of sorts. Where an alien from outer space has descended upon our
planet, but after a few scenes of normality (Carroll p. 16) life simply goes on in a rather dull way,
Before the audience sees Klaatu however, the American army radar system discovers an unidentified
flying object coming towards Earth at a tremendous speed. The first idea that pops into the Americans
heads is of course the thought of a bomb rushing towards them. One of the soldiers even mentions it
could be a buzz bomb, a guided missile used by the Germans in World War 2. Suddenly the news
goes out across the world and many scenes depicting newscasters from various countries warning the
public about the strange UFO. One of the scenes shows a radio host mentioning that: “This is not
another flying saucer scare” – referring of course to the War of the Worlds radio drama in 1938 that
had happened in real life only 13 years prior. This scene displays a breaking of the fourth wall insofar
as it refers to the almost infamous radio drama that actually had happened in real life in the film where
events of course did not happen. However, it still cements itself as being more realistic simply
because of that background story which in turn makes the film a bit scarier for the audience who
could relate to that message.
As the spaceship lands in a baseball field in Washington DC the police and army move out to
investigate the matter in a manner that seems excessive although justified since America and the
world were still tense after WWII. As Klaatu exits his ship and tells the people he comes in peace, a
soldier accidentally shoots Klaatu in the arm after mistakenly reacting to Klaatu's strange object he is
holding in his hand. Seeing Klaatu shot and fall to the ground causes Klaatus’ defense mechanism,
the mighty robot Gort, to activate and destroy the guns and tanks until a weakened Klaatu tells Gort
to stop.
Before Klaatu is rushed to the hospital, the audience learns that the mysterious object, now broken,
was simply a device for studying other planets. Thereby showing that humans are a much more
nervous and scared species because of their propensity for warfare. As Klaatu meets with a
representative of the United States’ president, Harley, Klaatu informs Harley that he needs to relay a
message of utmost importance to all the people of Earth. Harley tells Klaatu that that it would be
impossible because of current political tensions and distance to other countries. Klaatu does not care
A look at horror films in the 20th century
about, what Klaatu describes as, “I’m not concerned, Harley, with the internal affairs of your planet.
My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles.” – The reason this scene builds tension is
because Klaatu is not willing to explain his plan to Harley to be relayed and possibly wait for days or
weeks and it shows a something more sinister that Klaatu fears since he describes the war as
something as trivial as “petty squabbles”.
A few scenes later, the audience sees two doctors holding up x-rays of Klaatu revealing the same
physiology as humans but due to the advanced medicine on the planet where Klaatu comes from, his
body is 78 years old. This is not horror in any sense but it does highlight how much more advanced
a civilization Klaatu comes from where it is possible to make flying saucers, robots and cutting-edge
medicine and because of that, how imperative it is for Klaatu to relay his message to the people of
Earth. As Mr. Harley meets with Klaatu again to inform Klaatu of the responses received from the
world’s leaders, the audience learns that Russia will not attend unless the press conference will be
held in Moscow. This shows the beginnings of the cold war seeping through and affecting USRussian relations. As Mr. Harley and Klaatu are discussing the problems regarding the meeting of
the world leaders, Klaatu requests a chance to walk among the people to learn and experience
firsthand why the world leaders are making such a fuss about meeting. Mr. Harley says that; “under
the circumstances, that would be impossible.” Mr. Harley then proceeds to lock Klaatu in his room.
Naturally, Klaatu escapes and a nationwide rumor mill begins to spin with stories about how the
mysterious alien is eight feet tall with tentacles and other fallacious rumors. This scene demonstrates
the power the local city and state news had at a time before the internet, along with false reports from
witnesses. As Klaatu and the other lodgers are eating breakfast, they listen to a radio program where
the announcer is busy fanning the fire of hate and fear, one of the lodgers turn the radio off and they
start discussing what the alien wants. Naturally, they are all scared the robot might do something or
hurt someone.
When discussing where the alien might come from, one of the lodgers’ replies snidely, “Well if you
want my opinion he comes right here from Earth. And you know where I mean.” The lodger is of
course referring to Russia and the mentality that the Russians are planning something horrific. This
scene also shows how fast the fear of another war with an old ally spreads and infects the civilians.
When confronted with a retort from a fellow lodger of the Russians using airplanes instead of
spaceships the lodger replies “I’m not so sure”. This scene shows that although the two superpowers
were afraid of each other, how insufficiently little knowledge America actually had about Russia.
Thinking they had the technology to build actual spaceship when the space race was starting.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
After Klaatu and Bobby sneak in to Professor Barnhardt’s office, where Klaatu notices the professor
working on something relating to nuclear power for flight, Klaatu adds to the equation to help the
This leads to Klaatu meeting with Professor Barnhardt where Klaatu tells the professor that he is an
alien. The professor wants to know the reason Klaatu has come to Earth. Klaatu explains that the
planet where he is from has noticed that the Earth have started developing rudimentary nuclear
weapons for just war. Klaatu then explains that the order of planets he comes from cannot allow this
to evolve any further for fear of the humans creating nuclear powered flight to visit other planets and
perhaps starting war with them. This scene shows the true nature of Klaatu, even though he presents
himself in the least threatening way possible as to not upset professor Barnhardt, and his intentions.
While the scene shows who Klaatu really is, it also shows how, far superior and technologically
advanced, aliens can be scared of the humans. This is a good metaphor to show that if even highly
advanced beings are scared of you and your thirst for war then it makes sense for an ambassador to
understand and try to avoid war. In the following scene, Klaatu offers professor Barnhardt, and the
rest of Earth, a solution he will present to other scientists the professor will gather. Again, this scene
is straddling the fence between horror and science fiction with Klaatu and the professor discussing
nuclear matters and then Klaatu threatening the professor with the elimination of Earth if Klaatu is
not allowed to meet with the world leaders. The scene borders on more of creeping horror, a sense
of impending doom.
As the film nears the end the audience sees a medium close shot of Klaatu who is getting ready to
leave Earth after being brought back to life, he gives a warning to the people of Earth: “I am leaving
soon and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The Universe grows smaller every day -- and the threat
of aggression by any group -- anywhere -- can no longer be tolerated.” Klaatu gives a long speech
about the threat of nuclear warfare and if Earth’s technology should ever advance to such a level,
where space travel was possible then the inhabitants of Earth must surrender their weapons and live
in peace with the other planets. Klaatu tells the people of earth about the robots that police his own,
the neighboring planets, and the power the robots comprehend for destroying planets.
This entire scene manages to summarize, and oversimplify, the entire cold war with just a simple
speech about humans being a privileged species stuck in the darkness. This oversimplification is of
course an easier pill to swallow considering this is just a film but at the same time, it shows the
A look at horror films in the 20th century
mentality of Americans as well as Russians in the cold war. An uneasy alliance that can never be
raised to complete trust because of the power both superpowers hold.
From Anton Kozlovic's essay on the film, another interesting contrast with The Day the Earth Stood
Still and the portrayal of Klaatu, is the comparison of Klaatu's character, John Carpenter, as Jesus.
Come to Earth to spread a message of peace and love only to be shot by the barbaric Earthlings and
to then escape, become incognito and stay with kind people and when reveal his truth to Ms. Benson
receive acceptance for being an outsider. Along with the comparison of Klaatu being shot in the
street, with Gort then rescuing Klaatu and bringing him on to the spaceship where Klaatu is
miraculously healed. Only to Ms. Benson’s, surprise when she asks Klaatu if he possesses the power
of life and death to which the film backs away from the Christian allegory and Klaatu responds; “No
– that is a power reserved to the Almighty Spirit.”1
The Thing
The film The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter, a horror master in his own right, and starring
Kurt Russell, is a near perfect horror film due to the setting which consists of an harsh and desolate
arctic landscape along with small and claustrophobic living spaces. It also contains one of the best
examples of a film monster, as explained by Carroll, for the reason that we, as an audience, never see
the monster since it always manages to recreate the host organism in time and we only see horrifying
glimpses of transformations.
One of the reason this secrecy works so well in the film is because it blends light and darkness
extremely well along with the little to no knowledge of the creature. The film also creates a splendid
way of telling the “origin” of the alien without much speech between the characters. Regarding the
characters, there is actually not that much speech and interaction among the characters until the
proverbial shit hits the fan but that quickly degrades when the group learns of the alien’s replicating
capabilities which then turns into paranoia amongst the crew of outpost #31 which then creates an
enemy on both fronts.
According to Jørgen Riber in his book Monstrologi, many art-horror monster films follow the same
basic template albeit with some variation. The template consists of:
A look at horror films in the 20th century
1) One or more victims are will be attacked but it is unbeknownst by who or what.
This includes the opening scene with the helicopter chasing the dog and the pilot and gunner
dying, this description also fits when Macready and Dr. Copper are investigating the
Norwegian camp and find macabre clues. From 0:00 to about 0:20 into the film.
The first attack on base happens to the dogs at 0:27 where the audience also sees the thing
attempting to change into something else – at this point in the film though it is still unknown
what is attacking.
2) The films protagonist suspects the attacker or attackers are a monster.
At 0:27 – 0:35, at the same time as the attack on the dogs. The following autopsy scene where
the characters learn what the thing is capable of transforming and replicating host organisms
is when the protagonists realize they are dealing with a monster.
3) The protagonists attempt to prove or confirm the monster’s existence and
attempt to warn the authorities.
This point in the template is attempted, somewhat, in the film when the character Windows,
at around 0:24:30 tries to contact help concerning the Norwegian and the monster Macready
and Dr. Blair found at the Norwegian camp only to not being able to contact anyone. At
around the 50 minute, mark Dr. Blair goes temporarily insane after witnessing how fast the
thing replicates and therefore destroys both the radios and the helicopters, thereby stranding
the surviving members of the crew.
4) The monster visualization: both protagonist and audience see the monster.
This scene, prior to the paranoia and the attacks on the American outpost, shows the monster
or rather the thing in between transformations. From 0:27 minutes into the film when the
monster is attacking the dogs, same as the realization of the monsters existence. Although it
should be noted, the audience only sees parts of the “original” monster.
5) The monster is defeated.
The interesting part of this monster is that since every cell is a complete organism, the crew
manages to kill the thing several times throughout the film – the final confrontation however
happens at around 1:35 where Macready, Nauls and Garry decide to sacrifice themselves by
blowing up the outpost – thereby defeating the monster.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
6) Epilogue: the monster may still be alive and pose a threat.
As the fire scorches and destroys what is left of the outpost, at around 1:39, Macready wearily
finds a place to relax before he dies. As he is sitting in the snow, Childs reveals himself and
sits down next to Macready. As they sit and drink whiskey before the film fades to black the
audience sees, or not in this case, Childs breathing. Macready exhales long plumes of fog
from his mouth while Childs does not seem to breathe. The film then ends with ominous nondiegetic music and the film fades to black.
While this template does not fit 100 percent with The Thing, I decided to include to it for ease of
reference and to show a similar template used in the thing by way of the storytelling.
The film opens up with a grand shot of Earth and space where the audience sees the alien spaceship
rushing by and hitting Earth then the title The Thing the burns unto the screen and fades to black.
This shot establishes knowledge about the creature long for the audience before the characters realize
what the monster is. Later on in the film, we discover that the crashed spacecraft has been lying
dormant in the ice for millennia. The film then fades in with a time and place title reading:
“Antarctica, winter 1982” which then establishes the humans place in this film.
We then see a shot of a helicopter flying after a dog running away from said helicopter. The camera
angle changes to a total shot of the helicopter where you can read that on the tail of the helicopter the
word “Norge” is written. The Norwegians are frantically chasing the dog, trying to both shoot it and
blow it up with grenades. As the dog runs towards Outpost #31 where the American crew is situated,
the audience sees some interior shots of the American base and a few of the characters. As the dog
runs towards the camp and the helicopter flies closer and closer to the dog, the Americans gather
outside to look at the events happening and the dog runs into camp and jumps up on the dog handler
to safety.
One of the Norwegians attempts to throw a grenade near the dog at the expense of the American
outpost but he drops the grenade near the helicopter so both the helicopter and the pilot blow up. The
crazed Norwegian yells frenetically that it is not a dog but instead some sort of thing capable of
imitating what it sees, the Americans have no idea what the man is saying. Then the Norwegian tries
to shoot the dog but misses and hits George in the leg, the frightened crew then jumps out of the way
while the dog runs off. The crazed Norwegian walks past George with an intensely clear focus on
killing the dog but is finally shot to death by Garry, the station manager. The scene ends with the
crew putting out the fire from the exploded helicopter, looking at each other solemnly with Macready
A look at horror films in the 20th century
saying; “First goddamn week of winter.” This entire scene is quite long but it also develops the basic
portrayals for many of the characters right away and the scene also shows the method of which the
films narrative structure follows. With the unsuspecting dog, the innocent bystanders, George in this
case, Garry and his decisive action to stop the Norwegian and of course, Macready with a smart
mouthed reply without fully taking into account of what just transpired.
The quintessential “80s smart guy” learning a lesson and/or becoming the hero trope has always been
a staple of John Carpenter films and is used to ease the audience into madness more easily. Many of
John Carpenters films involve the supernatural, most notably his film In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
where the film is much more metaphysical, compared to The Thing, and slowly devolves into an
alternate reality. Similarly, John Carpenters film Big Trouble in Little China (1986) starts out with
Kurt Russell as a regular truck driver who agrees to help a friend in China town when suddenly a
magical being emerges from a street fight between two rivaling gangs. The book The Cinema of John
Carpenter accurately describes the director’s style along with the storytelling of H.P. Lovecraft as:
“Both Carpenter and Lovecraft situate the demonic within the mundane.” (p. 142)
As the crew decide what to do with the dead Norwegian, they empty the burnt out helicopter to find
fifteen cans of kerosene onboard. This serves as one of the first and quite subtle clues on how to
defeat the thing. The crew agrees to check out the Norwegian camp to check if they are any survivors
left and why they were chasing the dog. As the camera pans away from two of the crewmembers
back inside the outpost and down unto the dog lying under the pool table, an ominous non-diegetic
music builds up as a more direct clue that the Norwegians perhaps were not completely crazy. This
relatively short scene builds tremendous tension with both the music, scenery and the characters by
showing the audience the different personalities of the crew and how each of them react to being shot
at and also the mutual respect, or lack thereof, for each other. However, the dog is clearly the most
interesting part of the scene, even though it only appears briefly, because of not only the suspenseful
music but also that lack of screen time. The stranger is ignored because it is a dog and the crew
simply figures that the Norwegian crew has gone insane.
Cut to evening and most of the crew has gone to bed, the audience sees Nauls cooking in the kitchen
as the sound of music fades the camera cuts to the various rooms to show the emptiness of the outpost.
Suddenly, the dog comes through an open door and goes into a room where one of the crewmembers
is sitting on the bed. Instead of showing who the person is however all the audience sees is a shadow
of the man turning around as he notices the dog entering the room and then the scene fades to black.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
This scene also helps to build the tension, from the background music to the almost complete lack of
speech except for the interaction between George and Nauls, which was an angry and a bit hostile
interaction just to show how short tempers are in such confined spaces in such a remote location.
Cut to the helicopter flying towards the Norwegian outpost in search of survivors, the camera angle
is an over the shoulder mixed with extreme wide shot from inside the helicopter flying towards the
destroyed camp. As the helicopter lands near the smoldering wreckage of the Norwegian camp,
Macready and Dr. Copper of the crew explore the outpost; in the scorched debris, they find trails of
blood on the floor leading up to a body of a person whose throat has been slit gorily by himself. Dr.
Copper exclaims; “My god, what the hell happened here?” This scene establishes the horror,
unleashed by the thing, in a much better and more natural way than any explanation ever could. The
film is also good at not holding back the grotesque and macabre, for example, the Norwegian, sitting
in the chair, who has slit his own throat. If that was not enough, the camera cuts down to one of his
hands where the now frozen blood hangs in long menacing icicles down along and over the fingers.
The connotation in this scene, showing a graphically brutal image has always been one of John
Carpenters tried and true methods. Using this technique of shocking people in a more psychological
way compared to the standard jump scares that do also make an appearance in The Thing, but at a
later point in the film where the audience has already seen and experienced scenes involving the thing
and the horror it spreads.
As Dr. Copper scavenges what evidence he can, Macready walks into one of the rooms and spots a
strange block of ice carved into a sort of tub. Macready and Dr. Copper conclude it must have been
an animal fossil found by the Norwegian team. This scene further helps build the suspense of the
thing with the gloomy music and the lighting reduced to the lanterns held by Macready and Dr.
Copper. Macready and Dr. Copper walk outside to find a strange looking mass of flesh and tissue
burnt unrecognizable by the kerosene. Neither Macready nor Dr. Copper has any idea what it is but
somehow it looks human. This is the first scene where the audience catches a glimpse of the alien
transformation, of course, the camera angle sets the scene up in a way where the fleshy mass is never
in focus, and all the audience sees is something flesh colored with blood and burns upon it. Again,
John Carpenter throws one more clue unto the pile of the mysterious alien by almost spoiling the
ghastliness to come but without doing it in a surprise shock. The audience is already aware that the
dog is evil and what happens next will surely not be pleasant but considering this is a horror film that
is to be expected.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
The method of constructing these breadcrumb scenes at first complement what Carroll describes as
the mirror-effect wherein the audience reaction is supposed to be the same as the main characters
which the film manages to portray impeccably by showing at first that the dog is evil but not showing
why. Instead, the film shows all the horror caused by the creature looking like the dog that is now
together with the crew in their inevitable demise.
As Macready and Dr. Copper return to the camp the camera switches between two shots, one of the
dog looking out the window and a point of view shot from the dog of the crew helping Macready and
Dr. Copper haul something off the chopper. The camera then cuts to the sick bay where an overhead
shot in showing the crew unwrapping the burnt mass of flesh on a table. Everyone is of course
disgusted with the thing lying on the table, smoldering. As the camera pans slowly across the table,
the audience sees the horrified and nauseated reactions of the crew. Just before the scene ends, the
camera zooms in to reveal a strange and horrifying face that seems to be two faces between
transformations seemingly in agonizing pain.
The camera then pans up to show Macready face and then cuts to the dog standing in the doorway
looking at the thing. This is the very first scene the audience sees the closest thing to the actual alien
in the film and the interesting part is that we do not see everything in its entirety. The camera pans
around and there are bird’s eye camera angles but there are always one or two crewmembers in the
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way. This is an allegory of the alien’s transformative nature and ability to devour any living creature
and look, sound and act just like the host.
As the doctors, examine both the Norwegian and the thing, Dr. Copper mentions that the Norwegian’s
body contained neither drugs nor alcohol and by then establishing another menacing clue since there
was nothing wrong, physiologically, with the Norwegian. As Dr. Blair performs the autopsy on the
thing, he finds organs that are similar to human organs. Although this scene is quite educational
because the audience learns what the thing is capable of, it is treated as a bit of a throwaway scene
because of the following scene that throws the audience right into madness. That scene takes place
in the kennel where Clark is asked to put the dog alien in the kennel with the other dogs. As soon as
the door is locked and the lights are turned off, the real dogs become aware of the evil in the kennel
as they start growling and bare teeth the audience is finally treated to a horrifying scene where the
thing tries to transform into one of the other dogs. As the dogs whimper in pain, Clark rushes out to
see the monstrosity of the thing. As the rest of the crew gather to see what is happening Childs gets
the flamethrower and they torch the massive pile of flesh and bone.
Throughout this film, the crewmembers whittle down to a handful of scared humans until only
Macready, Nauls and Garry remain. Childs is unaccounted for and Macready, Nauls and Garry know
that Dr. Blair has become one of the things. The three surviving members decide that the only just
cause is to destroy the outpost, thereby preventing the thing from freezing itself and get transported
back to civilization, at the expense of the three crewmembers dying themselves as a method of
Compared to the original story, “Who goes there?” by John Campbell, The Thing is a much more
accurate retelling of the story compared to the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. The first
two paragraphs alone are highly comparable to the scene in the film where the whole crew sees the
The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic
camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of
melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat and
snow drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not unpleasant
smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.
Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing
and leather. Yet somehow, through all that reek of human beings and their associates -
A look at horror films in the 20th century
dogs, machines and cooking - came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a
faintest suggestion of an odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And it was a
life-smell. But it came from the thing that lay bound with cord and tarpaulin on the
table, dripping slowly, methodically onto the heavy planks, dank and gaunt under the
unshielded glare of the electric light.
This creepy scene instantly sets the mood – before the actual look of the alien is even described. The
stench of the thing could of course never transfer to film save for either the characters expressing the
smell or some other unrealistic gesture that would break the fourth wall. Instead, the film’s characters
make comments, put their hands up to their nose or cough in an attempt to convey that the thing lying
on the operating table has a ghastly smell. While this paragraph is, right at the beginning of the story
in the written version and offers therefore no context until a few paragraphs later. The film on the
other hand offers a more traditional art-horror build up for the audience before revealing the thing.
Carroll discusses in his book, a circumstance called the illusion theory that describes characters
actions in horror films as something rational people would not do but in order to advance the story
the characters need to do something Carroll describes as self-destructive and dumb. In the case of
The Thing, this theory can be applied to the film at the point where Macready and Dr. Copper return
from the Norwegian camp with the burnt mass of a thing. Why would anyone want to bring
something like that back to one's own outpost? Now, since it was alluded that the dog was an alive
thing, which technically rendered the dead fleshy mass into a McGuffin it, still begs the question of
why the two crewmembers would bring the thing back. Especially considering Dr. Blair could have
done a preliminary autopsy in the Norwegian camp.
The Conjuring
Right off the bat before the movie even starts, the Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema logo fly across
the screen the audience is “treated” to an ear deafening non-diegetic sound. That sound instills a deep
sense of fear and dread that then fades from the company logos into a black screen where the audience
hears one of the main characters talking to what is believed to be a psychologist who has a tape
recorder, as the tape recorder is pressed the film then cuts to the film's major McGuffin. All of this
creates much more depth and nuance thanks to the sound and music a mixture of diegetic and nondiegetic with the music being non-diegetic and the tape recorder and speech being diegetic.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
Before I get started with the film however, I would like to give a brief description of the film. This
film is based on a, apparently, true story revolving around the ghost hunting couple Ed and Lorraine
Warren from Bridgeport, Connecticut who for over 50 years have been involved in, and solved,
various demonic, spirit and ghost possessions and hauntings 2. The film The Conjuring is about the
Perron family who moves into a house they learn is haunted, Ed and Lorraine Warren are contacted
and help the family but not without first experiencing true hell along the way. I will not delve into
whether or not ghosts or ghost busting is real, I will only focus on the film as its own entity. The
reason I chose this film is because it is relatively new and with the film being new comes certain
visual effects I will discuss later as well as the idea of making a film that takes place in 1971. Of
course, this choice does make sense since the film is based on a true story and making the film by
retelling the story in 2013 would presumably have impaired the “urban legend” status of the story by
having it exist in an age of cellphones and internet. Due to the required length limit of this project, I
will also not describe the entire film, only the scenes really worth mentioning.
As the film starts with the fade in the audience sees two women and a man sitting on a couch
conversing with Ed and Lorraine Warren about a mysterious doll one of the women had inherited.
The woman tells Ed and Lorraine that she allowed a ghost to enter into the doll. Ed and Lorraine are
mystified as to why someone would do that and explain to the women that what is haunting the
women is not a ghost but something demonic as ghosts cannot possess but demons can and demons
possess people, the doll was simply used as a conduit. As this scene goes on and the audience hears
the explanation of possession, another close-up of the doll is shown then the film transitions into a
film seen by students at a college at a seminar held by Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed and Lorraine then
explain, when asked what their respective titles are, that they are simply known as Ed and Lorraine
Warren. The film then fades to black to show an opening credit of who Ed and Lorraine are and what
they do the title of the film The Conjuring is then revealed as the film fades in to show the house
where the entirety of the film takes place.
The reason I chose this film as the last and latest film, is because when compared to The Day the
Earth Stood Still that was made as well as takes place in the 1950's and deals with, back then, topical
issues. The Thing, which, despite the world having made extreme technologically advances since,
then, is timeless because of the location and the isolation. The Conjuring however takes place
definitely in the early 1970's, grounding it much more in reality and instilling fear in that sense, using
A look at horror films in the 20th century
real people, locations and stories is a much more effective method of scaring the audience. As well
as during the opening credit the last sentence states “based on a true story”. This involvement and
realness is similar to Carroll's definition of art-horror that draws the audience into the film because
they want to be scared even though, deep down, they know it is not real.
The next scene shows the audience the Perron family moving into their new home a standard total
shot of the family car is seen arriving as the camera pans slowly forward towards the window to
establish the house is its own character. The camera than does a horizontal pan to show the family
running into the house. The family patriarch, Roger Perron, is the last person to enter the house.
Before he enters the house, he notices that the family dog does not want to enter the house. This
scene shows a very typical horror movie setup with the joyous family starting a new chapter in their
lives. The perfect children, except for the oldest teenager who misses the city but eventually she
comes around. The father who utters the sentence: “You hear that?” to which the wife replies, “I don't
hear anything” “Exactly!” and of course, the dog whose natural instincts allow it to be more adept at
feeling evil than humans but is not able to explain it to the humans, quite similar to The Thing when
the thing looked like a dog and was placed in the kennel with the other dogs. This film, is a very by
the numbers horror film that succeeds in creating a few jump scares but not a lasting dread. Not when
compared to older films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers
whose ending is either an outright warning of invasion as in the case of Invasion of the Body
Snatchers, or a warning of annihilation if the earthlings do not agree to follow the rules.
According to Isabella Van Elferen in her essay “Sonic Monstrosity” the reason the monsters are able
to fill us with such dread is because of the sounds that they make and that the reality of sound causes
the monster to be an embodiment of reality (Elferen, 2012, p. 127). For example the scene/scenes at
about 25 minutes in, with Carolyn Perron, mother, noticing her daughter, April, sitting and talking to
someone in her room. Carolyn opens the door slightly to reveal no one is there except for April.
When Carolyn asks whom April was talking, to April replies, “Rory – He’s my new friend.” When
confronted with where this Rory is, April tells Carolyn that one is able to see Rory if you use the
music box and look in the little mirror. As Carolyn winds up the long abandoned toy, a twinkling
innocent melody plays while the camera zooms ever closer to the mirror. As the melody winds to a
close the film suspends all sounds both diegetic and non-diegetic only to reveal the first real “jump
scare” where the young April yells “boo” at Carolyn causing Carolyn to almost jump from the chair.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
As the scene goes on April convinces Carolyn to play a game wherein Carolyn puts on a blindfold
and has to find April using only the sound of April clapping as a clue. This is the first scene where
the audience sees one of the ghosts, in this case Rory, as Carolyn mistakes the claps made by Rory to
be claps made by April. This scene is a perfect tension builder as the main character of that particular
scene, Carolyn, is blindfolded and therefore unaware of the danger lurking in the house but the
audience is aware. A sort of strange or reverse mirror-effect as explained by Carroll in that the
character is oblivious while the audience is not.
Audio in this film plays an extremely vital role, both diegetic and non-diegetic sound is joined to
terrify the viewer, giving a visceral experience through the punchy sound effects of the jump scares
or the long harrowing tones of tension building. Even something as simple as complete silence before
an explosion of sound from either a diegetic source such as characters, animals, monsters or even
objects or a non-diegetic source for example in The Conjuring, at around 30 minutes into the film
where the daughter Christine sees a ghost for the first time. The sounds are mixed with the creaking
door slowly closing and raising in pitch while concurrently the sound of a fast heartbeat is mixed with
slow, almost horn like, music. All of this mood setting and the only thing the audience sees are cross
cuts between Christine and the space behind the door where there is nothing but darkness and the
suddenly the door slams followed by the screams of Christine! As the parents rush in to comfort
Christine, the audience learns that Christine is not only able to see the ghosts but also hear them.
As the film progresses, the house seems to get more and more sinister with paintings and photographs
falling off the walls, the distant sound of clapping, the strange sound of furniture being moved around.
It finally culminates at around 38 minutes into the film where the mother Carolyn is the first to
experience a direct attack by the ghosts by being locked in the basement. At the same time as Carolyn
is trapped in the basement the film cuts to the oldest daughter, Andrea, who is sleeping in her bed. In
the dark, the audience hears a constant thudding noise, causing Andrea to wake up to discover her
sister Cindy banging her head on the wardrobe. As Andrea helps Cindy back to bed and goes to close
the wardrobe door Cindy wakes with a gasp as the camera becomes a behind the shoulder view from
Cindy in the bed, that zooms up to reveal a woman sitting on top of the wardrobe. As the screams
from the woman is mixed with the horrible grating non-diegetic sound as the camera zooms right into
a close-up of the woman, revealing bloodshot eyes. As the father, Roger, returns home from work,
hears the girls screaming he immediately rushes in to the house and tries to save them – the film then
cuts in to darkness and fades into a seminar held by Ed and Lorraine Warren. This scene uses a very
effective double jump scare with both Carolyn and the two daughters. The jump scare method is used
A look at horror films in the 20th century
often in this type of horror as it is, when done properly, the best way to scare an audience. C. Robert
Cargill explains that an effective jump scare is one that follows three steps, as an example he uses the
film The Prestige. First off there is the pledge, where a character enters a room where there is certain
danger because of a sound or perhaps noticing someone. Then the turn comes, revealing nothing is
dangerous in their present location and thereby lowering the guard of the character and the audience
as well. Finally, there is the prestige, a scare that jolts the audience with both a visual and aural blow.3
The following scene shows the Warrens holding a seminar with Carolyn in the crowd, as the seminar
ends and Carolyn meets up with the Warrens and asks them to check out the house to which they
agree. This scene is an interesting mixture of Carroll’s illusion theory as well as the desperateness of
the family. If these types of attacks of such a violent nature had happened to oneself, no one would
ever return to the house where it happened. However, earlier in the film it was implied that the family
had financial woes and had therefore no other place to stay and thereby creating segue to join the
Perrons with the Warrens.
As the Warrens check the house and agree to help the Perron family by performing an exorcism, the
demonic spirits become even more violent and destructive because it is in danger. As the story
progresses the audience learns that the even the land the house is built upon is infested with dark
spirits that ultimately possess Carolyn who tries to offer Christine as a sacrifice but is eventually
saved by being exorcised by the Warrens. The audience learns that the spirit that has possessed
Carolyn was an evil witch who eventually hung herself on the gnarled tree in the yard. Thankfully,
everyone is saved and as the sun rises on the now cleansed house, the family hug each other and thank
the Warrens. As the Warrens return home to the house they reveal they brought the music box that
started the whole thing, Ed Warren places it in his museum of haunted paraphernalia.
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My topic for this project was to show and reason the fears instilled in the American horror film culture
using a wide spectrum of various points in time to show how fear in cinema, and subconsciously in
the real world, shaped the audience. I did not choose several films because of the lack of depth each
film would receive would not be enough, I believe, to highlight a proper view.
My original thesis posed the question if it was possible to show the deeply held fears that the
Americans have are shown in film. I have to answers to that: Yes, when the horror film deals with
something either topical, The Day the Earth Stood Still and cold war, or something losing something
as precious and unique as your own identity, The Thing. No if the film only relies on jump scares and
no deeper meaning or resolve, The Conjuring.
If I was to write, either another project involving three films spanning such a large number of years I
would choose films that had something a little more in common and had a red thread through them
or, perhaps, since there are so many reboots and remakes I could choose, basically, the same film.
A look at horror films in the 20th century
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Great Britain: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Riber, Jørgen & Steen Christiansen, eds. Monstrologi: Frygtens Manifestationer. Aalborg: Aalborg
Universitetsforlag, 2012. Print.
Muir, John Kenneth. The Cinema of John Carpenter. Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2004. Print
Blaustein, Julian (Producer), & Wise, Robert (Director), 18 September 1951. The Day the Earth
Stood Still. USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Cohen, Stuart, Foster, David, Franco, Larry, Stark, Wilbur & Turman Lawrence (Producers), &
Carpenter, John (Director), 25 June 1982. The Thing. USA: Universal Pictures.
Matessino, Michael (Producer & Director), 1998. The Thing: Terror Takes Shape. USA: Universal
Studios Home Video.
Beyda, Katherine, Cowan, Rob, DeRosa-Grund, Tony, Hamada, Walter, Neustadter, Dave & Safran,
Peter (Producers) & Wan, James (Director), 19 July 2013. The Conjuring. USA: New Line Cinema.
“Letter to President Dwight Eisenhower from Joe McCarthy” United States Senate: Committee on
government operations. N.d. Web. 24 August 2011. <
2006-2012, No date. McCarthyism and the Movies. Retrieved 6/1/2014, from
2008, December 5. The Day the Earth Stood Still Remake You Never Saw. Io9.com. Retrieved
6/1/2014 from http://io9.com/5102587/the-day-the-earth-stood-still-remake-you-never-saw
2004, May. Farewell to the Master. Thenostalgialeague.com. Retrieved 6/1/2014 from
A look at horror films in the 20th century
No date. The day the Earth Stood Still script. imsdb.com. Retrieved 6/1/2014 from
No date. The Day the Earth Stood Still A Christian Allegory? Retrieved 6/1/2014 from
Etherden, Matthew. (October 2005). "The Day the Earth Stood Still”: 1950's Sci-Fi, Religion and
the Alien Messiah. The Journal of Religion and Film, volume 9. Retrieved from
Kozlovic, Anton Karl. (October 2001). From Holy Aliens to Cyborg Saviours:
Biblical Subtexts in Four Science Fiction Films. The Journal of Religion and Film, volume 5.
Retrieved from http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/cyborg.htm
Lancaster, Bill. (March 4 1981). The Thing screenplay. Retrieved from
2013, February 19. Could this be the official ending to John Carpenter's The Thing? Io9.com.
Retrieved 6/1/2014 from http://io9.com/5985319/could-this-be-the-official-ending-to-johncarpenters-the-thing
Campbell, John. “Who goes there?” no date. <
http://www.goldenageofscifi.info/pdf/Who_Goes_There.pdf >
No date, 2003-2013. The Warrens. Thedemonologist.net. Retrieved 6/1/2014 from
1997, July. Hunting the Ghost Hunters. Theness.com. Retrieved 6/1/2014 from
2012, October 31. 'Why won't you die?!' The art of the jump scare. Theverge.com. Retrieved
6/1/2014 from http://www.theverge.com/2012/10/31/3574592/art-of-the-jump-scare-horror-movies