October 29, 2018

Locating horror: Stalking the freely mobile vs. torturing the imprisoned

To instill a sense of dread in the audience for horror fiction, the victims we're identifying with must experience futility in their attempts to avoid the villain. Once our fight-or-flight reflex kicks in after the villain's opening move, we must know that simply fleeing is not an option, leaving us only with the more terrifying decision to confront the force that is trying to do us in.

There are two fundamental ways in which the victims could develop the feeling of there being nowhere to hide from the villain: either they're trapped in a location with him, or they are free to roam from one location to another, but always being relentlessly stalked and pursued by him, so that he could strike at any time and place.

Different types of villain are best adapted to those two choices of setting. When the victims are free to move around various locations, they are like game animals that must be tracked by a hunter, and the villain is a hot-blooded type who is in his element being out and about, constantly on the move. When the victims are confined inside a single location, they are like trapped insects in a spider's web that can be played around with at the trapper's leisure, and the villain is more of a cold-blooded type who is a clinical control freak.

Still, that is not to say that the two types are equally frightening, only in their own distinct ways. It is more unsettling to be pursued like a game animal because there are no external constraints on our movement, eliminating one of our potential hopes -- maybe we'll just out-run it, or flee its domain, and be rid of it. As the victim tries out that option, and fails, we cannot hold out hope for anything other than confrontation, which we are hardly guaranteed to win.

If the victim is only trapped, we can never know for sure how well the "flight" option would work against the villain, if only they could break free from the constraints imposed by their location. Perhaps the villain isn't that powerful on his own -- maybe he has merely cheated and tipped the scales in his favor before the attacks even began. He's just shooting fish in a barrel. The victims, and the audience, do not fear the villain himself so much as the dungeon-like location that prevents them from simply fleeing, or from directly confronting a villain that may not be very dangerous in a mano-a-mano scenario.


This key distinction in location, and in the method the villain uses to attack his victims, helps to clarify types of horror fiction, such as the slasher movie. Early on, academics referred to this genre not as "slasher" but "stalker," which is more accurate. All sorts of villains may attack by slashing, even in serial fashion, but not necessarily by relentlessly tracking and pursuing their victims across a range of locations.

The heyday of the slasher movie was the first half of the 1980s, with Halloween from 1978 serving as a lone harbinger of a broad phenomenon soon to explode. Michael Myers, like the prototypical slasher, stalks his victims around multiple residences, inside and outside of the houses themselves, not to mention the local school, and other places around the neighborhood.

This rules out The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from being another early harbinger, since the villains abduct their victims and trap them inside a single isolated house that they themselves control, and their behavior is more like leisurely torture than determined hunting. They give off a playful sadism, because they know the victims cannot get away -- unlike the relatively more serious and determined persona of the slasher villain, who could very well lose track of his prey if he isn't focused on them.

That movie came out in 1974, too early to be seamlessly incorporated into a phenomenon that exploded during the first half of the '80s. Rather, its setting and villains place it more within the mainstream of other '70s horror films, where the single focal location is cursed, haunted, or controlled by psychos -- the dance academy of Suspiria, the suburban home of The Amityville Horror, the remote hideout of the rape gang in The Last House on the Left, the high school gym that Carrie seals off during her attack, and so on.

Likewise, Black Christmas is less a forerunner of the slasher / stalker genre, and more of a "haunted house" movie typical of the '70s, taking place entirely within a single sorority house, whose villain is more of a leisurely torturer than a focused hunter.

Finally, we can exclude 1960's Psycho from being an "early slasher" since the attacks take place entirely within the isolated Bates Motel, which is controlled by a torturer rather than a hunter.

Cycles in the stalker type

Other than the slasher phenomenon of the early '80s, when else have horror movies featured villains that stalked their victims, rather than a dangerous location? We're looking for trends or broad phenomena, not lone examples.

There was the slasher revival of the second half of the '90s -- Scream and Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, etc. This is the stand-out trend of its time. The Blair Witch Project also had a villain that stalked its targets across a variety of locations (around open wooded areas as well as inside houses).

During the first half of the 2010s, the dominant trend was the paranormal haunting -- Paranormal Activity (a forerunner from 2009, with the series continuing into the 2010s), Insidious, The Conjuring, and so on. In a unique spin on the haunted house formula, these three iconic movies emphasized that it was not the location itself that was dangerous. Rather, there was a demonic stalker that would follow the targets from one location to another once it had initially locked onto them, making flight a pointless option.

This fixes the basic weakness of the haunted house formula -- why don't they just fucking leave? "Because they've been trapped inside" reduces the action to the villain shooting fish in a barrel, and the tension reduces to the uncertainty over when -- not if -- the villain will kill off the next victim. And "they're too emotionally or financially invested in remaining in place" is unconvincing, when they're in imminent danger of brutal murder.

It Follows also featured a villain that relentlessly stalks its victims in serial fashion across a wide range of environments. The villains of Let Me In are hunters who track their prey all over the place. And in The Babadook, the demon that cannot be gotten rid of pursues its victim once they have read about it and become aware of its existence.

These periods of stalker villains -- the early '80s, late '90s, and early 2010s -- all lie within the manic phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle. When people feel excited and invincible, they don't resonate with horror victims who are trapped inside a single location and get picked off with no real way to challenge the villain. They also don't want to see a villain who is cold and leisurely -- he too must be on the move, making the plot more action-packed.

With their higher free-floating level of arousal, audiences during this phase are more inclined toward harnessing their manic energy toward a confrontation with the villain, rather than withdrawing from direct conflict due to concerns of over-stimulation.

Cycles in the torturer type

During the proceeding vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, after energy levels have peaked, they go into a refractory state where they want to avoid over-stimulation at all costs. In horror movies, this leads to agoraphobic characters who are not roaming all around while being stalked. Action taking place all over the place would be too much social stimulation for audiences in a refractory state, so the characters with whom the audiences are trying to empathize must be set in a single isolated location.

And because these audiences are in a vulnerable rather than invincible mood, the victims they're watching must also be more powerless than taking decisive action against the villain. Vulnerable people feel like they're being tortured by something with immensely greater powers, unlike the manic people who feel like they're only being outmatched in a contest against someone who they could conceivably defeat.

We've already covered this trend in movies of the '70s, the first half of which was a vulnerable phase, after the manic late '60s, and was more akin to torture porn than to the slasher genre.

After the manic early '80s, the trend of horror movies of the late '80s was no longer a stalking slasher but various evil forces confined to a single cursed location, such as Hellraiser, Pet Sematary, and House. There was also the evil toy trend, such as Dolls and Puppet Master, whose attackers haunt only one house, and behave more as sadistic torturers than hunters.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, from '87, is more of its own time than it is of the early '80s zeitgeist of the original, set entirely within a single mental asylum in which Freddy Krueger tortures the victims in highly elaborate ways, which pre-figures the elaborate traps of the Saw franchise during the next wave of torture porn.

The most prominent period of torture porn was the 2000s, kicking off in the first half's vulnerable phase with The Cell, Cabin Fever, House of 1000 Corpses, and Saw, as well as endless remakes of '70s torture porn like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When slasher movies were inevitably re-made, they were transformed into torture porn.

The early 2000s also saw a revival of atmospheric haunted house movies that were light on gore compared to torture porn, beginning with The Grudge.

One major exception was The Ring, whose villain relentlessly stalks its victims across multiple locations, not just within its own lair.

As the vulnerable phase has returned in the late 2010s, so too have the stalker-hunters been retired in favor of leisurely tormentors whose victims are confined within a single locked-down location.

The Saw franchise has been revived with Jigsaw, Don't Breathe is set in a home whose psycho owner operates a sex torture dungeon in the basement, Get Out also relies on a single household and its creepy domestic dungeon, Krampus features a demon that terrorizes the Christmas guests of a single family's home, The Belko Experiment is set in a sealed office building, the victims in The Witch are a single nuclear household tormented within their homestead, Hush is set entirely within one victim's home, the evil in Hereditary is localized within the protagonist's household, and although we never encounter an external villain in It Comes at Night, it is still set within one agoraphobic household being shared by two nuclear families, whose distrust tears them apart.

The Conjuring 2, unlike the original from the early 2010s, does not develop the theme of demons that can stalk their targets no matter where they move to. It's more of a standard haunted house movie, where they make no attempt to flee, and even worse, where they are not trapped in place by the evil force.

The major exception is A Quiet Place, where the victims are stalked by hunters across a variety of environments, and where the deaths are not elaborate gimmicks designed by a sadist as a leisure activity.

Cycles in the transitional stage

As the cycle shifts out of vulnerable and into the neutral baseline energy level of the warm-up phase, there's a mix of both types, with the torture type continuing on from the last phase, while a few experiment with the stalker type again, now that they are no longer avoiding stimulation at all costs.

The late '70s were mainly a continuation of the early '70s, as described earlier. But Halloween was a clear signal of a new stalker type of horror movie, and even Alien hinted at this. Although the movie is set within a single spaceship, the different areas look and feel so distinct that it feels more like a variety of locations. We would only feel like the spaceship were a single gestalt setting if the frame of reference were the rest of space, other planets, other ships, and so on. But it feels like a self-contained community with a diverse mix of discrete locations.

The early '90s mostly continued the trends of the late '80s. Demonic Toys joined the torture toys trend, and Bram Stoker's Dracula continued the haunted house trend set by Hellraiser and others. Gremlins 2 is also set entirely within a single haunted location, in which the villains deploy an array of specific attacks akin to the gimmicky traps of torture porn. The original movie from the manic phase had the villains terrorizing people all around the town, and with less specific and less elaborate attacks -- reflecting their greater sense of urgency, since they might lose track of their prey.

More naturalistic movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Misery still featured psychos who did all their torture within their home lair, even if they ventured out to lure in unsuspecting victims.

The two harbingers of the late '90s slasher revival were Candyman and Wes Craven's New Nightmare, both of which also set the template for drawing explicit comparisons between slasher movies and urban legends.

The late 2000s generally continued the torture porn trends of the early 2000s, whether sequels to Saw and Hostel, further re-makes of '70s torture porn, or new entries like The Human Centipede. (Cabin in the Woods was made in this period, although shelved for release until 2012.) Building on The Grudge, the atmospheric haunted house trend caught on with The Grudge 2, An American Haunting, The Haunting in Connecticut, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The Descent moved the cursed single location from a house to a cave into which the victims have fallen.

As mentioned earlier, Paranormal Activity was more of a harbinger of the early 2010s, since the threat was not from a house or other single location, but from a demon that had been following its victim for most of her life, across multiple changes of residence. This novel variation on the haunted house theme is not elaborated on much in this first barebones example, which would have to wait until Insidious, where the family does move out of the haunted house, and the demons follow their victims to their new home anyway.

In Paranormal Activity, the concept of stalker demons is only there to tell the audience why they're not taking the obvious decision to simply move out of a haunted house. The tone is naturalistic and documentarian, so they could not have the characters stupidly and suicidally staying in a haunted house. And since they're aiming to create a sense of fear in our everyday settings, the characters cannot be trapped in the house by a malevolent superior being -- they have to be going about their quotidian routine, able to leave if they felt like it.


  1. The heyday of the slasher movie was the first half of the 1980s, with Halloween from 1978 serving as a lone harbinger of a broad phenomenon soon to explode. Michael Myers, like the prototypical slasher, stalks his victims around multiple residences, inside and outside of the houses themselves, not to mention the local school, and other places around the neighborhood."

    And Halloween doesn't even let the villain die; neither the protagonist or the audience is allowed to experience the emotional climax of the death of the monster. This was "refined"/corrected in the early 80's by giving us increasingly elaborate death scenes for the villian, elongated so as to validate the audience's sense of stamina and power, which was considerable in the early 80's. This probably reached it's peak with Friday the 13th Part 4, with the final girl driving a machete into the head of Jason, who falls to his knees and then does a face plant. The handle hits the ground and the blade is forced through his entire head. Then Corey Feldman picks the blade up and starts ferociously striking the body (the producers initially thought that he was too small to convincingly do the scene, but his acting was good enough to sell it).

    Halloween 2 (1981) also does a correction by Micheal Meyers, at the end of the movie, getting shot in the eyes, and then desperately lunging at the two heroes, before Loomis turns on the gas, ignites it with a lighter, and both Meyers and Loomis are incinerated (with Meyers being set aflame and then shambling thru a corridor, only to fall onto his face, after which the camera lingers on the burning body).

  2. Compare two different performances at different points in the excitation cycle, one by Bryan Cox in the "Silence..." prequel Manhunter in 1986:


    And the other being Anthony Hopkins' performance in 1991:


    As some commenters have pointed out, Cox's performance is more realistic and "normal", compared to Hopkins' over-the-top creepiness and intensity. The asylums are designed differently, also - the 1986 version looks like a mall or art museum(as someone points out in the comments), whereas the 1991 version is an underground labyrinth.

    Is there something there? Are psychopaths made to be more monster-like/supernatural during one phase, whereas they are shown as more human(but still scary) during a different phase?

  3. I find it interesting that Freddy alone was the lone supernatural 80's slasher from the start, while Jason, Michael Myers, etc. were human. As time wore on, Jason and Michael adopted more mystical aspects, but it was Freddy who was the magic dude.

  4. @Curtis

    Is there something there? Are psychopaths made to be more monster-like/supernatural during one phase, whereas they are shown as more human(but still scary) during a different phase?

    I'd say it was just the fact that the "genius serial killer" motif wasn't as injected into our culture. Silence of the Lambs really did so. Nowadays you just assume the serial killer is some sort of super-IQ, so the elaborate procedures to keep them locked up make sense now.

  5. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a proto-slasher rather than the real thing, so you're right that it has that stuck in a house aspect. Much of that comes from the rest of the family (involved in the twist following the initial escape), but Leatherface himself does actually give chase with the titular chainsaw until his victim hitches a ride on a passing truck. Leatherface himself is a simple brute who doesn't really fit the cold-blooded torturer mode, but his family are willing to sit around cheering for their decrepit grandfather to feed on their victim's cut hand. Psycho is an even more distant proto-slasher, but Norman Bates isn't a cold-blooded torturer either. He just snaps and suddenly stabs people to death.

    Alien has often been described as a haunted house movie in space, where the characters are all stuck with it (and can't use especially dangerous weaponry, not that they'd necessarily have reason to carry it, or they'd damage their own ship). But importantly, it actually follows Ripley after her initial escape into a pod, only to be finally ejected out into space.

    The Witch does fit the template of characters stuck in a dangerous location, but it's slightly more complicated than being a haunted house. It's the woods that are haunted, and the problem with their house is that it's in those woods and outside of civilization. The first child disappears from in front of their house to said woods, but later on we see that attempts to hunt in the woods come to naught and Caleb is next to go precisely because he went off into the woods (he returns home, but he's basically done for). Merely running away from the house wouldn't help, only returning to civilization.

    Hellraiser is only a single-location story at the beginning, before Frank has reconstituted himself. But the Cenobites can potentially appear anywhere. Last House on the Left is the reverse, where the villains are on the run and can strike anywhere, but only settle down into one location when they (unknowingly) visit the worst possible location.

    Is the original Friday the 13th a single location torture story? In the beginning there are suggestions that Crystal Lake is cursed, and the villain has motivations tied to that one place. The bodies also seem posed after death in places seemingly intended to scare a survivor. The rainstorm and absence of vehicles act as impediments for the victims to flee. In "The Burning" their means of transportation on the river back to camp are taken away, and the climax ends at a sort of lair for the villain where he's captured & tied up someone.

    Another recent single-location movie with a cold & calculating villain: Green Room. It's arguably less of a horror film than its inspiration in Assault on Precinct 13 (where the gang members are so dehumanized & speechless they're almost like Romero's ghouls or Hitchcock's birds), but is sometimes considered to be one. One of my favorite of such films is Cube, from the 90s. There's really nothing in the film outside that single location (unless you count the very ending, where the audience can hardly see anything), and the whole story is about the group of people trying to escape. The opposing force is so inhuman it's not even alive, just an incomprehensible mechanical construction.

  6. Cube would have been an exception to the late '90s trend, if anyone had seen it. Everyone who saw it downloaded it from a filesharing site in the early 2000s. It didn't resonate with audiences of the slasher revival phase when it came out.

    By the same token, I don't remember downloading any of the slasher movies (original or revival) when I was in college during the early 2000s, or when I was just out of college during the late 2000s.

    I'm sure they were there -- Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. were too popular not to be there. But resonating with people of the early 2000s enough for them to be downloaded? I don't think so.

  7. I actually watched Cube because I noticed the VHS box art in a rental place and thought it looked different from others in the scifi section. I don't think I saw any commercials for it beforehand.

  8. "Is there something there? Are psychopaths made to be more monster-like/supernatural during one phase, whereas they are shown as more human(but still scary) during a different phase?"

    "I'd say it was just the fact that the "genius serial killer" motif wasn't as injected into our culture. Silence of the Lambs really did so. Nowadays you just assume the serial killer is some sort of super-IQ, so the elaborate procedures to keep them locked up make sense now."

    Manhunter was made in a vulnerable phase, so the characters are not very confident about a whole lot. And that includes the killer. People think that the
    stylized colors, and deliberate framing and editing, favored by Micheal Mann make the movie seem "loud", but the acting is actually quite understated.

    Silence of the Lambs was made in a warm-up period, when people are trying to unshackle themselves from the previous vulnerable period but can come off as trying too hard. So that's why Hopkins seems cartoonish, because the early 1990's were a VERY cartoonish period for pop culture and people's attitudes. It was the late 80's, just before the 90's, when people were more understated and sincere. Clarice and Jamie Gumb are themselves trying to break free, but they mostly don't go as far as Lector does. Lector became a dubious icon of the early 1990's aura of decadence; in manic phases (like the early 80's and late 90's) courageous power is respected, not villainy. In vulnerable phases, we go to great lengths to celebrate the victim and condemn the oppressor. Micheal Douglas in Falling Down (1993) is also a dubious anti-hero, as he comes off as a bully, a complainer, and a sore loser. But in the early 90's, that didn't disqualify you from audience sympathy. The popularity of anti-heroes in warm-up phases could be construed as an over-correction to the love the emo crybaby tendencies of vulnerable phases, when we are easily offended by brashness and glibness.

    A lot of dunderheaded "tough guy" music was made by Gen X-ers in the early 90's (like Pantera and gangster rap). Again, this reads as an over-correction to the clingy, sensitive vibe of the late 1980's. I remember how often the later 80's was lambasted as corny and effete in the earlier 90's. But as you got to the peak of the late 90's manic phase, which was around 1998, an 80's nostalgia boom started to happen, which then intensified in the early 2000's vulnerable phase. Warm-up periods are about rejecting most nostalgia and sentiment, unless it's drawn directly from another warm-up period (e.g., 1993's Dazed and confused was set in 1976).

  9. The longer a trend goes on, the more intense it becomes. The warmup/restless phase is actually a milder version of the manic period which follows it.

    That said, slasher villains becoming more monstrous and supernatural may just be the intensification of the crime rate/outgoingness in society. Rising crime produces more of an interest in the supernatural. It also makes moviemaking more powerful and emotional.

  10. "The popularity of anti-heroes in warm-up phases could be construed as an over-correction to the love the emo crybaby tendencies of vulnerable phases, when we are easily offended by brashness and glibness."

    That is a good point, but at the same time, that trend would have been even stronger in the manic phase in the late 90s. Furthermore, Lecter and the other psychopaths weren't anti-heros; audiences were scared of them, not rooting them on. Making the bad guys cool is more associated with a falling crime rate, when audiences become morally confused.

  11. "That is a good point, but at the same time, that trend would have been even stronger in the manic phase in the late 90s. Furthermore, Lecter and the other psychopaths weren't anti-heros; audiences were scared of them, not rooting them on. Making the bad guys cool is more associated with a falling crime rate, when audiences become morally confused.

    We have to make a distinction between overt support and fascination. The hoodlums and serial killers of early 90's pop culture tended to fall in one camp or the other. By contrast, the early-late 80's featured a growing level of marginalization of deviants, who were portrayed as despoilers of fun loving and agreeable normies. Indeed, a common trope in vulnerable phases is of normies teetering on psychological collapse after being accosted by a monster. Thus, the culture becomes credulous about the topic of PTSD, recovered memories, lingering trauma, and the like. In the manic phase, the good guys beat the bad guys with finality; in the vulnerable phase, the good guys may beat the bad guy at some point, but the stress of the experience lingers. As we get to a warm-up period, people start to eject moral clarity and PTSD kind of baggage with a "get over it" mentality, to the point that we start to lose focus on how terrible monsters can be. So that's why movies like Goodfellas (1990), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Tarantino's* most popular works (Reservoir dogs, Pulp fiction, True Romance etc.) from the earlier 90's, all feature charismatic and interesting villains. By contrast, in Manhunter (1986), Dollarhyde and Lector may be humanized via exploration of their personal lives and childhood, but the movie goes to great lengths to portray the victims as relative normies who don't deserve to be exploited by the psychopaths lurking about. That's why viewers end up feeling disgusted by the monsters, rather than sympathetic to them or fascinated by them. And of course, in decadent warm-up phases the "ordinary" characters are often portrayed as boring, at best, and obnoxious/perverted at worst (during the peak of early 90's decadence, which was 1992-1993, it became very difficult to find pop culture that made you feel morally and psychologically good).

    *Tarantino fell off the face of the Earth during the manic peak of the late 90's (1997-1998)

    Steve Sailer has talked about how unwholesome the pop culture icons of the later 70's were (David Bowie in his 70's phase, Mick Jagger, KISS, etc.). By contrast, he points to Micheal J Fox as being indicative of how agreeable the early-mid 80's were. And rockstars and rappers in the 80's started to warn people about drugs, about being too trusting, and so forth. Whereas in the late 70's and early 90's warm-up phases, mainstream celebrities start to act glib about drugs and risky behavior, to the point that songs and movies that dwell on the joyless use of drugs and shallow promiscuity become more popular (that being said, many normies were still resolutely against drugs in the early 90's, unlike the full mainstreaming of drugs that happened in the late 70's).

  12. To elaborate on villian psychology, look at the Torture Porn phenom of the later 2000's. The manic phase of the late 90's shows little to no interest in prolonged victim suffering (which is too much of a downer for the contemp. audience), nor does it try very hard to make the villain seem cool or misunderstood. Scream (1996) has villains who are clearly perverted, callous, and crazy, who serve as party poopers to the normie victims. As we get to Saw (mid-2004), things start to really shift, although it isn't until the sequels later in the decade that the captor "villains" began to become the focus of fascination and even sympathy, as the victims are chosen specifically because of their sins (note that this warm-up phase moralism is also seen in the original Halloween to some extent; also note that creator moralism that punishes the victims is not the wholesome moral clarity seen in manic and vulnerable phases, where the killer is the asshole and deviant one, not the victims).

    Hostel (2005), The Devil's Rejects (2005), and the late 2000's reboots of The Hills have Eyes (original, 1977), and the Last House on the Left (original, 1972, was not a mainstream movie upon release), all focus on unsympathetic victims and anti-hero/borderline anti-hero villains. By rubbing the audience's nose in protracted scenes of victim suffering, it's evident that the filmakers (and the cultural zeitgeist) are sending a message that pain is a part of life, there's bad shit out there whether you like it or not, and don't cry too much for sympathy or expect to have too much fun in life. In a manic phase, people are too agreeable to tolerate torture porn, while in vulnerable phases watching suffering victims hits us too hard.

    Relevant to the phase theory is that similar to how slasher films plummeted in popularity during the early 90's warm-up phase, so too did torture porn films swiftly fall from the zeitgeist during the early 2010's manic phase, what with even the Saw movies falling out of favor after the 2009, 2010, and 2017 entries made less money than the earlier installments. Since we are due for a warm-up phase starting around 2020, expect nostalgia for torture porn to be revived.

  13. Top Gun (1986) is hardly known for it's depth or nuance, and yet....It bears the marks of a popular late 80's movie. Early on, a pilot nick named Cougar cracks under the pressure of being stalked by a Russian fighter. He barely lands the plane, and later on he quits because he wants to be closer to his family (people are clingy in vulnerable phases). Maverick and Goose are depicted as best buds (bonding is most important in vulnerable phases), and eventually Goose dies tragically, which horrifies Maverick and haunts him. The need to have others for support, and the burden of psychological stress, is either mocked (in warm-up phases) or ignored altogether (in manic phases).


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