Parasitical Horror: Where do we go in post-Roe America?

There’s something inside you that you didn’t want there. It might kill you. You know you can’t live with the fall out of it, and the very existence of it inside you is traumatizing.

You’re watching Alien, of course. Or The Thing. Or Slither, or The Bay, or Viral, or Malignant, or–

….where does parasitical horror stand now, really in a post-Roe America? Because while of course, a human fetus isn’t a parasite in the scientific or traditional sense, it’s still an intrusion into the body that not everyone wants there or is happy about, let alone safe with.

My state has now banned abortion even in the cases of situations such as ectopic or molar pregnancy. For anyone unfamiliar with these terms: a molar pregnancy is when the fetus becomes a tumor. Not a potential child, to be entirely and crystalline clear: a tumor. And an ectopic pregnancy is in which the fetus develops outside the womb. Neither are viable. Both will kill the pregnant parent. 

When Roe was overturned, I flashed back to the scene in Prometheus where Noomi Rapace’s character had to have the alien parasite removed. She sat in the medical machine, demanding an abortion for the inhuman creature which had taken residence in her uterus.

But just like the system which she found herself in, our system was also not designed for women and others with uteruses. It took reifying the situation to one a cis man might face for her to receive treatment. It’s not the most delicate metaphor in Prometheus, nor the most impactful at the time, but…now in the shadow of the SCOTUS decision and various trigger laws going into effect throughout the states? It’s horrifyingly real, in ways we thought were behind us.

Allow me to get a bit personal.

I grew up a fan of horror. I always get looks outside the South or even in the South by the younger crowd when I tell them the first movie I remember wanting to watch over and over with childish glee wasn’t a Disney film, but was Ernest Scared Stupid. And as I grew up and consumed more horror media, I noticed it, like all media, reflected a lot of what society had to say about itself. It’s very telling really.

Alien. The Fly. The Exorcist. Rosemary’s Baby.

There’s something inside you that you didn’t (necessarily) want there. It might kill you. You know you can’t live with the fall out of it, and the very existence of it inside you is traumatizing.

Even in horror, the scariest thing we can all imagine, even cis men, is the loss of autonomy of our own bodies.

This isn’t to discount the countless valid stories of parents of wanted pregnancies, who lose what would have become a beloved child to tragedy beyond their circumstances–who are then victimized more by a system that holds no grounds for nuance. I cannot imagine the pain, the suffering that causes, the sheer mental fortitude and bravery required to go on. I remember the far off pained look and the quiet embarrassment of my mother telling me about her miscarriages quietly during my adolescence, as if speaking of them as more than a whisper would be enough to invite more shame. 

But that isn’t my story and I feel it might ring hollow or disingenuous, even though I want to stand and scream for them as well.

So here’s my story:

I was born in the late 80s in Nashville to a biological mother who already had teenage children, and a biological father who already had a different wife and possibly children of their own. From what little I know, they knew each other from work. He had a position of power over her, which he abused. We won’t go into more detail–no more is known by me, and no more is needed. My biological mother made the choice, or was perhaps cajoled, I truly do not know, into giving me up for adoption through a Christian adoption agency.

I was adopted by a couple in rural TN, who–for all our fussing and fighting at times–do love me very much. I can’t fault them there. And due to this I grew up, like one might imagine, thinking the only choice–adoption–was as clear and easy as day.

And then I started getting sick. As I got older I got sicker. Needed surgery in my late teens to fix problems usually relegated to 50+ year old alcoholics even though I never drank more than a glass of white wine my whole life up till that point. Took till my twenties to figure out I had a genetic disorder that affects every system of my body–reproductive included.

I’d wanted to be a parent, up to that point, even though pregnancy sounded kinda scary. I’d realized by that age that not evrything was black and white, and I was nominally pro-choice, but still somehow in my mind, I guess I thought abortions were for other people. And I’d done everything “right”–never acted on being bi, and never questioned why the label “girl or woman” had chafed my whole life.

But then the doctor was saying words like “rupture” and “hemorrhage.” “Growth restriction” and “collapse.”

“Fifty percent chance of heritability.”

I remembered dislocated ribs on the playground. Fainting just standing up after a long lecture because my veins are too fragile to regulate blood pressure some days. Throwing up pure stomach acid before tests, not because of anxiety, but because my esophagus won’t function properly on the bad days.

There’s something inside you that isn’t you. You didn’t invite it in. It might kill you.

And I knew that even despite what I’d thought I wanted most of my life, I couldn’t let it kill anyone else either. I knew in that moment, if birth control failed, I’d get an abortion without hesitating. And in that moment, I knew whatever little judgment I may have held onto for others didn’t have a leg to stand on.

No one’s judgment really does.

Because they know it’s a horrifying situation to be in. Frankly I’m tired of pretending they don’t. Art reflects life, and since the dawn of the genre of horror, its many male authors have known the same thing:

The horror isn’t the whispers in the woods at night. Not always.

Much much more often, it’s the loss of autonomy. The loss of feeling full personhood. The gaslighting by society telling you you’re crazy for not being happy about it. The complete and total lack of help by anyone around you capable of giving any significant aid.

It’s interesting to think of where horror might go from this point in regards to parasitical elements. Even prior to the overturn of Roe, directors of such films did seem to have an inkling of what such horror reflected in our culture and how it might be received differently by roughly half the populace. With the advent of a new more socially aware generation of horror directors and films thereof, it seems impossible to avoid as a subject going forward.

There’s something inside you that you didn’t want there. It might kill you. You know you can’t live with the fall out of it, and the very existence of it inside you is traumatizing.

Don’t let them make excuses. Don’t believe the lies. They’ve told us this whole time they know.

We don’t have to make them know.

We have to make them afraid too, somehow.

Afraid to be voted out, afraid to be the bad guys of history, afraid to lose every ounce of the credibility that they’ve tried to make for themselves.

They are the monsters of these stories. It’s time we fight back. 

There’s something outside you that isn’t you. You didn’t invite it in, but it’s trying to take your choices. 

Don’t you dare let it.

Halloween (2018) and Generational Trauma

DISCLAIMER: This article also appeared on my now long dead WordPress blog. All of the writing, sans quotes, is original to me.

Trauma is a universal language. Like written and oral language, it is often passed down generation to generation. We all hear the stories, though we may not understand them. However, there is not–I would argue–any greater intergenerational trauma than the pain placed upon a person by an abuser or an attacker. Whether we are discussing institutionally crafted traumas such as genocide or slavery, more intimate yet pervasive issues such as long-term domestic abuse, or even single instance traumas which last a lifetime, the damage brought on by such pain is incredibly long lasting and indelible upon the psyche of a family or a people.

On May 23, 2016, John Carpenter announced to the world that he would be returning to the Halloween franchise as executive producer for a new foray into a reimagined nightmare. With the new film ignoring all of the previous Halloween canon save for the first installment, fans were excited but skeptical as to how Carpenter would pull off a Michael Myers story with both Michael and his protagonist counterpart Laurie being in their sixties. What fans wanted was a fantastic sequel to a beloved horror franchise; Carpenter certainly delivered on that. He also delivered something unexpected: a bold look into how trauma affects not just survivors, but their families as well. I would hope, by writing this, to not only justify the actions of Laurie Strode as a logical conclusion of severe trauma, but examine how that trauma passed itself down to both her daughter Karen and granddaughter Allyson within the confines of the Halloween (2018) universe. 

While further study is warranted, initial findings point to the heritability of trauma, particularly with regards as to how it affects the nurture bond between parent and child (Kaitz, et. al., 2009). Horror as a genre is not unfamiliar with depictions of intergenerational trauma, either. As Lowenstein (2005) questions: where would horror be without reliance upon reactionary terrors to historical and contemporary traumas? 

The historical trauma that the original Halloween movie franchise builds upon is women’s intergenerational trauma with regards to the male monster figure (Connelly, 2007). Michael Myers, or The Shape, is the prototypical figure of male violence within the slasher genre. Proceeded only by famous non-franchise slashers such as Psycho (1960), Black Christmas (1974) and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), Michael Myers became – mostly by default – the first and most defining figure for the slasher subgenre. With few exceptions, many slasher killers would begin to follow the model set by Michael: a mask, a slow looming walk, and a seeming immortality. Beyond even these characteristics, the genre also became defined by its victims–or rather its survivors. As the slasher movie shifts from the view of the hunter to the view of the hunted, it also shifts from the perspective of male to female.

Carol Clover (1993) originated the term Final Girl for this trope; the Final Girl survives the killer and is the last one left to tell the story. The Final Girl does this by setting herself apart from the average horror movie girl; not only is the Final Girl generally perceived as virginal, she is often perceived as tomboyish, though not tomboyish enough to be a credible threat to actual male power (Clover, 1996). While Clover derides Laurie in the original film somewhat as a more passive Final Girl who ultimately needs rescuing by the male Dr. Loomis, she does not deny that Laurie meets the model of the Final Girl for the time period. Laurie fights back against Michael, wounding him and confusing him at various points in the chase. It is only Michael’s functional immortality that keeps him alive past the climax of the movie. When Dr. Loomis arrives seemingly miraculously and manages to put a stop to Michael by somehow firing seven shots from a revolver, Laurie is saved and the movie seems to be over. Of course, a startling reveal of the empty ground where Michael should lie subverts this idea and makes room for multiple sequels. 

Of course, the sequels all became moot with the announcement of the new 2018 film. Denying such key original plot points as Michael being Laurie’s older brother, the film instead focuses on Laurie’s lasting reaction to trauma. Laurie, in her adulthood, became a recluse. Her marriage failed as she reacted to trauma by becoming a survivalist, a lifestyle she then attempts to force on her daughter until Karen is removed from her custody at age twelve. Her house is isolated; her backyard is a gun range. Laurie’s kitchen even has a secret secured entrance down to a hidden cellar, which becomes of great plot importance at the climax of the film.

In interviews prior to the 2018 film’s release, Jamie Lee Curtis spoke a great deal of Laurie’s initial denial of trauma, her feelings of freakishness, and her survivor’s guilt. Curtis went on to defend Laurie’s behavior as a reaction to untreated trauma. While she never justifies the trauma Laurie put her daughter Karen (and Karen’s daughter Allyson) in by proxy, the effect of untreated trauma in Laurie is not difficult to see manifested in her daily life. 

Like many people who suffer from an untreated trauma, Laurie ends up unintentionally passing down said trauma through the women in her family. This is most readily apparent in Karen, whose unhappy marriage and blasé denial of potential danger bely a past overshadowed by a survivalist education and emotional trauma. While Allyson is more distant from the trauma, it is obvious that Laurie’s pain impacts her a great deal.

This form of intergenerational trauma is one of the first of its kind within the horror genre. While movies like Hereditary certainly explore intergenerational trauma within a family (and Hereditary is likely my favorite film of all time), the way Halloween does so while brilliantly giving homage to its source material is unsurpassed in my opinion. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed things so far. Thank you for your patience while I got this out of my system.

Top 13 Giallo Films

Startling sapphire blues, sickly citrine yellows, and raging ruby reds define the gemtone soaked world of the Italian giallo horror film. Add in a mix of Italian classical music blended with high strung electronic music and screeching sound effects and you have a recipe for giallo–the razorwire tense balance of horror and crime thriller that defined the genre.

The name comes from the cheap horror thriller novels at the time, often known for their bright yellow covers (with giallo translating to yellow in Italian). While not all of the giallo films on this list fit squarely into horror in the traditional sense, all of them have a deep sensibility of the genre, particularly with the other the top camp quality of the acting and design. There’s an air of the erotic ever-present to giallo film, even moreso in some ways than the American sexploitation film movement that made movies such as Deep Throat enter the cultural lexicon.

The movies below are all giallo films that define the genre to me personally. As with all of my list articles, I do not rank hierarchically, I only discuss things I have seen, and I fully admit that all of my choices are subjective matters of opinion.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the text is copied from a prior list of the same theme that I wrote for a different blog years ago. All text is original to me, but may have appeared on the web prior under a different pseudonym.

Tenebrae / Unsane (1982)

Tenebrae is a far more subdued film than some of the more action or bloodsoaked examples of the giallo genre, more murder mystery than supernatural romp. The plot sounds almost like a Stephen King novel, and it plays out not dissimilarly to what one would expect from thriller authors like Patricia Cornwell.

An author goes on a book tour of Rome, promoting his latest mystery novel, when a series of murders begins. Clearly inspired by the author’s books, he and two detectives must get to the bottom of the film’s main mystery before another life is lost.

Tenebrae, 1982

Tenebrae is one of Argento’s more complex works, dealing with unique themes not deeply explored but definitely present in other aspects of his ouevre: deviancy, sexual repression, voyeurism, and deep-seated trauma. The film is Argento’s critical self-examination after accusations of misogyny after the film Suspira (1977). The film’s major theme of guilt transference–the author blaming himself for being the killer’s inspiration–is perhaps the clearest reflection of this. I would say that despite the murder of women, Tenebrae also has feminist themes, with the killer’s hatred of liberated women being framed as not only evil, but also a symptom of a sick society, not only inhibited but outright diseased by what we now call toxic masculinity. It dares the viewers not to become the voyeur of these murders, but to rather be disgusted as they should, while still tempting the viewer into aligning with the perverted, patriarchal views of both society and the killer.

Tenebrae is a beautiful, psychological horror film that any fan of the genre should see at least once.

Torso (1973)

Torso has a strange dynamic with American horror in that it both borrows from and lends to one of our horror culture’s most long-standing film traditions: God’s prettiest little idiots making the worst possible choices. Though the first half meanders with much of its violence veering well into outright, unsubtle misogyny, the twist ending pays off in a fairly satisfying way that many giallo mysteries don’t conclude with when attempting a twist.

Torso, 1973

Its visuals and writing are unique enough to the sensibilities of director Sergio Martino that the film has significant artistic value, and its influence on the genre of giallo for films that followed cannot be underestimated. Being able to get past the first half is an achievement, but one that’s worth attempting for fans of the genre.

Black Sunday (1960)

My personal favorite of Mario Bava’s films, Black Sunday is also one of his first. Opening on a brilliant shot and imaginative execution scene during the witch hunts of the 1600s, the majority of the film takes place in a small Moldavian province in the 1800s. When the executed witch is accidentally woken from her slumber by a pair of clumsy traveling doctors, she begins a rampage of revenge that should culminate in her finally regaining her body in the form of her great-great-grandniece. Can the handsome young doctor save his newly beloved in time or will she be permanently erased in favor of the evil witch?

Black Sunday, 1960

Both young maiden and old witch are played brilliantly by the preeminent scream queen Barbara Steele. With her unique beauty, she captures the viewer as both characters and all of the men surrounding her become secondary. The only film on this list filmed in black and white, Steele’s dramatic looks are enough color to capture audiences in a way that many of the colorful giallo beauty queens cannot. For any fans of classic horror, Black Sunday is required viewing.

Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975)

After a psychic giving a lecture has a strange vision relating to an unidentifiable member of her audience, she becomes the first seen victim of the film’s demented serial killer. When musician Marcus discovers her body, he becomes embroiled with the police in the investigation of the strange, black-gloved figure. As the brilliant but deranged killer begins leaving horrific clues for the police and Marcus, they begin closing in on a suspect. But do they have the right man? Or is the real killer more clever than they know?

Deep Red, 1975

In this film, Argento crafted several unique murders, designed to relate to real-life painful experiences that would be familiar to the audience. “Not everyone knows how it feels to be shot, but everyone knows the feeling of striking oneself into furniture” (Argento, paraphrased). Seen more as a cult classic than a critical success, Argento’s attempts at relatability nonetheless entertain an invested audience, and it’s worth a watch to see one of Argento’s early, transitional films.

Opera (1987)

When the ill-tempered diva playing Lady Macbeth in a daring new production of Macbeth is mysteriously injured outside of the theater, her role goes to her ingenue understudy. Following the tradition of the original Phantom, she is viewed opening night by a strange, looming figure in one of the closed theater boxes. Soon after, the ingenue’s boyfriend is gruesomely murdered. This is an Argento film after all; bright red blood is not only de jour, but necessary. As the body count in the theater rises, the Phantom comes closer to catching his prize. Can ingenue Betty and her manly costar Marco stop the Phantom and escape in time?

Opera, 1987

By far Argento’s most commercially successful film, Opera is a sharp, gory take on a legitimately, psychosexually-obsessed Phantom. It follows the formula of the core story in many important ways, but diverges beautifully in its horror. Whether you’re a fan of the Phantom, or just a fan of giallo, Opera is a fun, nasty little viewing that you should treat yourself to.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

One of Italy’s most popular exports is its fashion, and in Blood and Black Lace, Bava brilliantly combines fashion with fear. When various fashion models working for the same fashion house begin being hunted and killed, it’s up to the police to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

Blood and Black Lace, 1964

The strength of this film is truly in its beautiful costumes and set pieces. Everything about this film is utterly lavish, and seeing it be destroyed in the name of creating this film is horrific enough on its own. One scene involving a pale, dark-haired model in a blood red coat being stalked, is the film’s most iconic moment; it truly brings home the exact feeling the entire movie is trying to create. The film also truly incorporates the mystery and crime-thriller aspects of giallo, letting the audience know exactly how much of a founding father of the genre Bava was.

Suspiria (1977)

Probably one of the most famous giallo films, and certainly the most famous of Argento’s works, Suspiria is one of the most brilliantly made films of all time, let alone this list. The story follows an ingenue arriving at a strange ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. She begins to see strange things on the grounds and in her windows. Soon other girls begin going missing. It’s up to her to get down to the bottom of this supernatural mystery.

Suspiria, 1977

The first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” witchcraft trilogy, Suspiria is a cult classic and a highly influential gem of the horror genre. Its vibrant colors and creative filming techniques give the film a highly unique look that many have imitated, but few successfully. It is bolstered a good deal by its incredible, almost all female cast. Rotten Tomatoes ranks it number 41 on their top 100 list of greatest horror movies of all time, and my only disagreement is that I would put it higher. While the reimagining is also fantastic, it’s a stark departure from the source material, making the original very much worth seeing and letting it stand–or en pointe–on its own.

In The Folds Of The Flesh (1970)

Y’all this movie is wild, I ain’t even gonna try to play with y’all about that. The name alone makes it sound like softcore at minimum and given the inherent eroticism of the genre of giallo, that’s not….entirely inaccurate. Directed by Sergio Bergonzelli, the film flips the usual giallo script by the mystery being the identity of the victim as opposed to the killer. The visuals are colorful and contain many nods to pop art sensibilities, the strength and singularity of In The Folds Of The Flesh is it’s storytelling framing itself in a way apart from other giallo of the time.

In the Folds of the Flesh, 1970

It also wastes no time bogging itself in too much exposition; you absolutely spend every second on a frenetic ride through the plot, which makes the gruesome murder feel urgent as it should–a rarity in a genre that sometimes meanders in odd places. It certainly doesn’t shy away either from showing plenty of naked flesh either, making sure to emphasize the eroticism of its name while never demurring from more gruesome elements either.

Inferno (1980)

The unofficial sequel to Suspiria, Inferno is the second entry in the Three Mothers trilogy. It follows the tale of a woman living in a New York City high rise apartment, who discovers the book “The Three Mothers” in the basement. In the book, she discovers the tale of the three Mothers of Sorrow, and their temples. She begins to suspect that the apartment building she lives in may be the home of one of these Mothers. Begging her brother Marc to come home from Rome, she is overwhelmed by horrible visions of the dark Mother haunting her. As strange deaths begin occurring within the building, it becomes a race against time to stop the Mother before it’s too late.

Inferno, 1980

While not as constantly visually stunning as Suspiria, Inferno has a subtlety to it that I greatly enjoy. Its visually stunning scenes are brilliantly arresting against the stark grayness of the dark apartment high rise. It’s a truly worthy successor to the masterpiece of Suspiria, one that I enjoy greatly. While the third entry into the series, Mother of Tears, isn’t a very good finisher to the brilliant series, it’s definitely important to not forget Inferno after watching it’s more famous sister film.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Directed by Lucio Fulci this is a film that is a bit more challenging than the others in the victimology of the killer. A child killer is on the loose in a small Italian town, and as the case baffles investigators, suspicions and tensions rise, causing the villagers to begin to turn on each other. This darkness is symbolized through a heavy departure from the defining visuals of other giallo films, Fulci’s included; it eschews vibrant colors and slick visuals in favor of more naturalistic color palettes and grittier set pieces.

Don’t Torture a Ducking, 1972

While the killer is fairly obvious upon reveal, Fulci expertly weaves so many convincing red herrings into the story that it’s never overly predictable or stale. One of the perspective characters is truly vile, adding to the unease of the tension crafted by the film. While the finale is…a bit of a misstep that veers into the comedic, it doesn’t entirely ruin what the film built prior.

Demons (1985)

Directed by Lamberto Bava and produced by Dario Argento, Demons is a wickedly fun horror film to watch with a large group of friends. If you’re lucky like me and happen to have a vintage theater near you (in my case, one that specializes in vintage horror films), it’s definitely worth springing for tickets if you happen to see this come up on the marquee.

Demons, 1985

Demons is an 80s, technicolor nightmare. After a large and varied group of people are offered free tickets to a film screening, they crowd the mysterious theater, only to soon discover the horror within. The theater hides a dark secret and the movie-goers soon begin becoming possessed by demons! It becomes a fight against the hoard as one young couple begins battling their way out of the theater by any means necessary.

Girl, what you doing?!

The set design, costuming, and hair of this movie are hilarious. Intentionally so to a degree. The film is so raucously stuck in the 80s that it’s like watching a wonderful time capsule of blood and guts. The film lays it on thick with both the gore and the over-the-top acting. It’s incredibly fun, and it should definitely be watched with company to fully enjoy how amazing it is.

Zombi 2 (1979)

Okay so teeeechnically not a giallo film, but hear me out.

Often referred to as Italy’s unofficial (or rather unlicensed) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 tells the story of a Caribbean island haunted by voodoo-powered zombies. After her missing father’s boat turns up in New York Harbor with nothing but a zombie aboard, a horrified Anna becomes determined to find out what happened to her father. Journeying to the Caribbean with a cadre of companions, she discovers a doctor researching voodoo rituals and zombies in a hospital overrun with strangely ill patients. Once the zombies corner them all in the hospital, it becomes a fight for their lives.

Zombi 2, 1979

Known primarily for its infamous “shark fighting a zombie” scene, Zombi 2 is a fun, campy take on the Dawn of the Dead universe. While not filled with the biting social commentary of the original Romero films, Fulci’s take on the universe is energetic and nasty. Originally censored in several countries, it’s recently gained somewhat of a cult following for its non-stop action horror scenes and the brilliant makeup design of the zombies.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

After the tragic death of their young daughter to an accidental drowning at their English countryside estate, a couple move to Venice for the husband’s work to try to distance themselves from the site of the tragedy. As the wife and the women she meets sense doom on the horizon, the husband and other men of the film try to rationalize away such feminine superstitions, only to be proven drastically wrong by the film’s gruesome and outright strange conclusion.

Don’t Look Now, 1973

One of the most cinematically striking films on this list, Don’t Look Now soaks the viewer more in water imagery than saturated colors; however, the use of water as imagery muttered with bright pops of color (particularly red) serve to make this film all the more stunning. Though it occasionally gets reduced to remembrance for the odd twist ending and the possibly real scene of sexual intimacy between the married-off-screen husband and wife costars, the film has an oddly feminist message regarding believing women, even though the framing is odd to say the least. It’s an amazing film which stands apart from many others of the giallo style, and I highly recommend it to even those who do not typically enjoy the genre.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966)
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Black Sabbath (1963)
Phenomena (1985)
Lisa and the Devil (1973)
The Beyond (1981)

A History of the Grand Guignol

Credit to Samuel Thomas.

“It’s been reported that once inside the theater, a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings-on on the screen. Others fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me…” Judy Klemesrud, “They Wait Hours to Be Shocked”, NYT, Jan. 27, 1974

We’ve always been unduly fascinated with horror so visceral that it invokes a physical response. Fainting, swooning, vomiting, and other semi-apocryphal tales dot the historical landscape of certain horror giants. The above quote regarding a particular viewing of The Exorcist embodies this phenomenon, if not defines it in the mind of fans when we discuss such instinctual physical reactions to horror media. 

Despite The Exorcist being the quintessential icon of this trope in modern days though, it was hardly its progenitor. No, that honor goes to a strange little theater in the Pigalle district of Paris, France at the turn of the century in 1897.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (The Theater of the Great Puppet)–no one contemporary to the founding of the smallest theatrical venue in Paris could have possibly guessed the lasting impact of the place upon its opening. The tiniest theater in the disreputable stage district would eventually become so associated with horror, particularly the splatterpunk genre, that it would become a generic term for all bloodsoaked visual performance art. What initially was viewed as an obstacle–the architecture of the chapel which the building housed prior–only became a boon, with the theatergoers getting a sacreligious kick out of the confessional booths becoming viewing boxes for the irreverent plays. To top off the aesthetic, the theater was named for Guignol, a puppet character made famous in the region of Lyon for combining slapstick comedy with incisive political commentary.

The theater boxes, credit to Getty Images.

Founder Oscar Méténier founded the theater with the intent to focus on plays about characters eschewed by polite society: criminals, sex workers, beggers, and others of the oppressed class. He had, for a time, followed his father’s footsteps in policing, but had a deep desire to devote himself to the arts. He viewed the Grand Guignol as a place where naturalistic performance could be encouraged (as opposed to the romanticism popular at the time). Méténier wrote and directed dozens of plays himself, with his most famous being La Puissance des Ténèbres–a translated modification of Leo Tolstory’s five-act play, The Power of Darkness. However, this adaptation was never performed at the Grand Guignol (from what I could find), despite the main characters being criminals or unfortunate people, fitting the theme of many other Guignol plays.

Méténier used his time as a police officer to inspire many of the brutal crime-fueled plays. Patrons of the Grand Guignol could expect to see five to six short plays for the evening, often horror plays alternated with bawdy comedies (a practice called “hot and cold showers”). The horror plays were bloody affairs, usually relying on natural explanations for the horror–crime, insanity, or panic–rather than the supernatural or paranormal often seen in the more romantic gothic plays elsewhere.

The main mastermind behind the plays was librarian, novelist, and playwright André de Latour, comte de Lorde. His fascination for the study of horror was infamous, with his friends dubbing him Prince de la Terreur (prince of terror) in the 1920s. He collaborated often with the famed psychologist Alfred Binet, co-creator of the IQ testing process, particularly on plays or other works which involved themes of criminal insanity and panic disorders. 

Even the famed author Gaston Leroux, who penned Phantom of the Opera, wrote plays for the theater. Perhaps, his concept for the opera ghost haunting the dark patron boxes came from the architecture of the Grand Guignol? 

While Méténier billed his plays as naturalistic, this label would seem odd to us today looking at the heightened melodramatics of the plays. As such, the term guignol as a disambiguation would come to be associated with films and plays which embodied the spirit of camp (i.e. deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior or style). The term Grande Dame Guignol in particular became a byword for horror productions who made use of the skills of aging actresses who might otherwise be overlooked by major productions–an excellent example of this would be the psychological drama What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aging sister actresses. 

One Grand Guignol grand dame who embodied this more than any other was Paula Maxa, one of the Grand Guignol’s best-known performers overall.  Known as “the most assassinated woman in the world”, Maxa played the victim frequently in the literal sense. Her characters were murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and suffered sexual assault at least 3,000 times. She would have a few more empowered roles as she grew older, but her legacy as a doomed progenitor of the scream queen was sealed with such a resume. 

Beyond that, the Grand Guignol gave rise to the popular image of the mad scientist. Despite André de Lorde having decent working relationships with some doctors, it was clear he had some of the same contemporary suspicions as others of medical institutions and many who worked within them. Many of his plays categorized medical researchers as mad men, held only in esteem due to the social contract and the hope that their deranged research might bring some useful fruit. It never did. The plays of de Lorde influenced the trope so heavily in popular culture that it can likely be pointed to as the reason Victor Frankenstein changed so drastically from the novel in other portrayals on stage and in film–which in turn influenced the trope from there on.

An example of a mad scientist play, credit Getty Images.

Of course, the Grand Guignol influenced horror as an entire genre as well. Until that point, horror was viewed as solely escapism: stories of fantasy with ghosts, witches, and fictional creatures which were (usually) defeated by the end of the tale. In contrast, the stories of de Lorde and his cohorts frightened audiences with tales that were exaggerated, yes, but still within the realm of possibility. While the psychological did often devolve to mindless violence in the theater, it still frightened audiences with the reality of possibility. The Grand Guignol audience became known to be as rowdy as the goings on on-stage, with guests fainting, heaving, or screaming and fleeing from their seats. 

To quote Jason Colavito in his text Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre: “Horror became a vehicle for ideas and philosophy where deep insights gave way to spectacle, and spectacle to violence and gore, until in the end little was left but the gore.”

An English version of the Grand Guignol opened in London in 1908 and again in the 1920s, under the direction of Jose Levy. It featured stellar talents on stage, including performances by Sybil Thorndike and Noël Coward. Several of these plays were filmed and still exist at the BFI National Archive. The Grand Guignol has had massive influences on British horror, particularly as the play morphed into the film as production studios such as Hammer Films opened their doors.

There was also the technical engineering aspect of the theater which made it so unique. Actor and effects artist Paul Ratineau pioneered countless illusions still built off of in horror productions: fake blood that congealed under stage light, realistic false eyeballs, and makeup which melted like an acid burn. Why, the man even invented a method of artificially flaying another actor alive live on stage! It’s no wonder that it’s difficult to believe all of the tales of faintings are apocryphal–after all, the sound of artificial skin ripping and tearing as it was shredded from the body surely elicited an audience reaction. 

This, combined with the gimmick of advertising an on-site doctor to help those of weak constitution who passed out at the sight of such violence, sold countless tickets to the box office.

Credit to Getty Images.

Until it didn’t.

Despite its resonant influence on culture, the horrors of the Grand Guignol would soon pale. The site that was once as popular a destination for tourists to the City of Lights as the Eiffel Tower would have a dramatic fall off of patronage. It was not due to lack of creativity on behalf of the directors, though, nor could it wholly be blamed on the rise of films alone. Rather it was the horrifying creativity of real world forces, as World War I ripped across Europe, bringing with it untold horrors that had never been witnessed or imagined before. It only struggled more after World War II; no one could laugh at horror after the revelations of what happened at the German labor camps.

As recorded by Time Magazine in 1962:  “We could never equal Buchenwald,” said [the theater’s] final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and [so much] worse, are possible in reality.”

The Grand Guignol shuttered its doors that year. 

Still from the film Tokyo Grand Guignol, 2015

Its legacy lives on in countless ways, inspiring horror movies from the birth of film all the way until horror movies in 2022. Without the Grand Guignol, there were be no Herschel Gordon Lewis inventing the splatter film, no Dario Argento and other craftsmen of giallo, no New French Extremist horror movement, no modern genre of “horror torture porn” (though some would argue that might be for the better).

Beyond all that, anytime a film advertises with the lurid promise that someone, somewhere passed out or vomited while viewing, therein lies the spirit of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol: the blood, the insanity, the gore, the gimmick, and the legacy.

13 Most Aesthetically Pleasing Horror Films

Horror is a genre often associated with the disgusting and vile, as opposed to anything approaching the aesthetics of beauty. In fact, one could argue that many films of the genre focus on the destruction of the concept: a once beautiful house falls into decay and becomes haunted, a gorgeous young woman is disfigured or destroyed by the forces of darkness, even institutions such as marriage (which should be positive) are oft corrupted by evil and betrayal. In short, anything seen as aesthetically valuable and pleasing in mainstream thought is annihilated.

There’s something to be said about horror as iconoclasm, especially in the context of the ongoing “culture wars.” From the “video nasties era” and “Satanic Panic” to today’s weird repeat cultural obsession with Satanic conspiracy in all aspects of culture that they conveniently disagree with, horror has responded in a reactionary way. Whether it goes far enough even is debatable, but that’s not the focus of the article today.

Today, we’re looking at those films which buck the norm and have a sublime sense of beauty about them or at least a unique and pleasing aesthetic vibe that contrasts greatly with the horror of the story and the aesthetics of the genre as a whole.

DISCLAIMER: As with all lists going forward, all of my choices are subjective and personal to my own experience! It’s possible that if you think a film should be here, that it would fit, but I just haven’t seen it or didn’t enjoy it personally. Art is a personal thing, and my dislike of something isn’t a condemnation of anyone else’s like or love of something.

Also these aren’t in hierarchical order, I just kinda threw em all on there. They all fit the prompt!

Love Witch (2016)

The Love Witch (2016, dir. Anna Biller) has a richly vintage aesthetic that does a wonderful job of throwing the viewer out of time and having any sense of surety or balance on when the film is actually taking place. Set in modern-day southern California, the film follows a recently widowed young witch on her increasingly unhinged journey of using spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her.

The Love Witch, 2016, Elaine absolutely serving.

One of the last movies to be filmed on 35mm Technicolor to invoke the most iconic horror films of the 60s and 70s, The Love Witch also leans into the vintage aesthetic through costuming, set design, and makeup. The vibe is so immaculately convincing that the inclusion of modern elements such as forensic DNA analysis throws the viewer off via a sense of anachronism–despite the film fully taking place in the 2010s!

In addition to that, the film is steeped in feminist analysis with Biller confirming that The Love Witch uses camp as a genre staple to examine the inherent narcissism of the femme fatale trope. The witch Elaine is the dissection of Biller’s deep dive into women’s self-help books wherein she noticed a common theme of advice: never love a man more than he loves you. Biller examines the logical if over-the-top conclusion of obsessive love at the consequence of loss of self, and does so in such a beautiful way that it’s almost easy to overlook some of the more viscerally disgusting elements of the film, particularly the murders.

Suspiria (1977), (2018)

Look, I know that the two Suspirias have such vast aesthetic disparities that it’s almost a cop out to judge them on one bullet point. But….both pretty. That’s it. That’s the entire argument, and no I will not be taking counterarguments at this time. Both the original Dario Argento film and the “reimagined” update directed by equally Italian director Luca Guadagnino have entirely different aesthetic sensibilities while both injecting a sense of otherworldly beauty into the world of witches, occult, and dance as artform.

Suspiria, 1977

The original film was shot using anamorphic lenses to emphasize the set pieces. The color theory of the 1977 version is the truly iconic element of it though, which the use of imbibition Technicolor prints only enriched. It was one of the final feature films to be processed in Technicolor, using one of the last machines available in Italy. In addition, the set pieces themselves contribute to the film’s aesthetics in a massive way; dripping with colors like everything else, every room of the Tanz Dance Akademie has a sinister vibe to it, even if it is only the setting for “safe scenes.”

Suspiria, 2018

In contrast, the 2018 version of Suspiria uses color sparsely and with deliberate intention, particularly the rich red that Argento used as a primary thematic color in the original film. By taking the film and placing it in more modern times, without it being contemporary, Guadagnino uses the gloomy brutalism and stark utilitarian designs of Soviet occupied East Berlin to make the pops of color…well, pop! The updated film is also more brutal, but still sticks to this aesthetic choice of rationing red; one of the most upsetting moments of violence in the film contains no blood (or so little that my brain didn’t register it upon viewing).

Despite seeming to be aesthetic opposites, the two versions of Suspiria are actually two partners in an odd waltz of visuals, and I couldn’t discredit either in favor of the other.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

The fashion industry is cutthroat, a well-known fact if the two fashion based horror films on this list are anything to go by. The OG fashion house horror though, is Blood and Black Lace directed by Mario Bava, another master of the giallo horror film. One could describe the film as a mass market crime thriller novel cover come to life, with a pulp sensibility grounding the film amongst the otherwise glamorous world of haute couture.

Blood and Black Lace, 1964

Whereas Suspiria (1977) created a genre-defying style for a giallo horror, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace worked more as genre-defining. Even Martin Scorcese would credit the crime noir horror as being foundational for his future directional and aesthetic choices.

Helter Skelter (2012)

Based on the manga of the same name by Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter follows the story of Ririko, a supermodel who has undergone head to toe plastic surgery to stay on the cutting edge of her modeling career. However, her body soon begins to break down, causing Ririko’s mental state to do the same. As police close in on a potential medical trafficking ring behind the dangerous and deadly plastic surgeon’s office, an unhinged Ririko begins lashing out at other women who present themselves as rivals.

Helter Skelter, 2012, Ririko living the dream of a tub where you don’t gotta pull up your knees.

The film is saturated in bright colors and rich with symbolism surrounding beauty as industry. Without the same preachiness found in lesser horror films, Helter Skelter asks its audience to consider: how complicit are we as consumers in the gradual destruction of the influencers we’ve commodified?

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Fairytale reimaginings have a large following, particularly fans of dark reimaginings. Company of Wolves is a 1984 British gothic fantasy horror film, directed by Neil Jordan, which was adapted from the fairytale reimaginings of British literary icon Angela Carter. The story tells Red Riding Hood with more sympathy for the wolves, reminding the human viewers that we are not above monstrosity ourselves through a series of acted out parables.

The Company of Wolves, 1984

The set and costume design beautifully mix the delicacy and femininity associated with fairytales while still incorporating the darkness and harshness of the gothic and beastial, sometimes in very creative ways. The wedding reception with the wolves is one of the most iconic images from the film and beautifully summarizes its overarching aesthetic.

Midsommar (2019)

While I tend to roll my eyes at anyone who says Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film Midsommar was so unique because of its use of broad daylight horror (Texas Chainsaw Massacre anyone?), that isn’t to sell its aesthetic beauty short. Aster has a way of setting a scene that makes it very clear why he’s one of the most watched and applauded new directors in the genre.

Midsommar, 2019

Going well beyond just the choice to film in daylight, Aster chooses to take the bright and happy aesthetics of the Scandinavian countryside, mix them with bright colors and lurid floral pieces, and still give us one of the most intense and visceral works of the last several decades. The way the film shifts from dull and dire at the beginning to almost neon brightness by the finale camouflaging the sinister ending with the scent of smoke and flower petals.

The Cell (2000)

What can I say about director Tarsem Singh that hasn’t already been said or wouldn’t devolve into a Mean Girls-inspired Regina George praise segment for the director?? He has some of the most iconic looks of film based on storyboards alone, with a visual sensibility that rivals (if not surpasses in some ways) that of Alejandro Jorodowsky.

The Cell, 2000

While this film is often overlooked due to the presence of Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn in the starring roles, it is still powerfully a Singh film, utilizing the film’s narrative to create extraordinary visuals for the dreamscape Lopez’s psychiatrist enters to psychoanalyze Vince Vaughn’s killer character.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992)

I couldn’t overlook this film: between the well planned storyboarding and direction of Francis Ford Coppola, the iconic costume design of Eiko Ishioka, and the amazing team behind the set production and photography, it’s no wonder that the film is looked to as the second most iconic Dracula film, behind on the 1931 adaptation which introduced the world to stage actor Bela Lugosi.

Dracula, 1992

The film defined an aesthetic for any gothic horror film to follow, as well as many other films both as homage and parody. Without it, we wouldn’t have a ton of media or at least not the same way we ended up getting it. For that alone, this film’s aesthetic is iconic!

Mandy (2018)

What can I say about Mandy besides “psychedelics sure are a thing”? Not that director Panos Cosmatos was on them during filming or during any part of the process, just that the entire two hour run time of the film feels like everything those old anti-drug PSAs warned me about. The vivid colors of the film swirl chaotically around staging and set design that feels straight out of surrealist art pieces. Is the movie any of the things critics claim regarding interpretation? Maybe? I’ve seen it three times, and I sure don’t know!

Mandy, 2018

But it’s so pretty and chaotic and almost dadaist in the level of nonsensical yet compelling visuals, that one almost doesn’t care what else can get out of it. Beyond that: what each viewer gets out of it will be different but due to the anarchy of it all. The only agreed upon premise? A mad drug lord brutally kills Nic Cage’s character’s wife, who then embarks on an apocalyptic, blood-soaked journey of revenge.

The Color Out of Space (2019)

I’d ask what it is about Nic Cage that lends himself to such unhinged films, but I have long ago decided that Nic Cage just does what he wants and I respect him for that artistically even if some of his decisions in and out of film are questionable. However, I have to say his decision to work with infamously deranged auteur filmmaker Richard Stanley on his return to the director’s chair? Inspired. Especially considering how utterly perfect the ensuing adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s standalone horror novella The Color Out of Space actually ended up being.

The Color Out of Space, 2019

The special effects and the aesthetics are pure Lovecraft, adapting the insanity of the indescribable perfected by that weird ole racist Rhode Islander who took his phobias and prejudices and somehow still defined a genre. What was previously thought to be unfilmable came to vivid life on screen in a cosmically terrifying and beautiful way, and it needs more recognition than it currently has.

Vampyr (1932)

One could argue that there are other more visually stunning or unique German horror films, both of this era and afterwards. However, there’s something almost ethereal about the filmmaking aesthetic of Vampyr, the whole film feeling like a dreamscape punctuated by moments of nightmare.

Vampyr, 1932

It defined the aesthetics of horror for decades afterward even into the modern day with the camera tricks it utilized. Film in general, really, was changed with the unique for the time ways that actors were framed by principle photography and lens tricks.

The Village (2004)

Okay so, hear me out. Hear me out. Is the movie actually that good? Not really. The twist isn’t terrible, but so much of the movie relies on lazy writing and outright ableism (a terrible trope that permeates so many of Shyamalan’s films) that I can’t actually praise it overall as I have the others. But visually? It’s a gorgeous movie, and probably the most visually interesting of any of M. Night’s films.

The Village, 2004

With the rich color symbolism, unique costuming, and interesting framing (which admittedly falters in the ending), it’s probably the most “film” instead of “movie” of the director’s oeuvre, which is why the disappointing twist ending and the ableist tropes that continued to plague his works are so disappointing.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

Ana Lily Amirpour directed this modern Iranian feminist take on the vampire legend with such a unique vision that many who view it can recognize some of the specific shots without any other context. The girl in hijab riding a skateboard under stark streetlights, the antagonist guy driving a car with his cat just hanging out in the backseat, focus on putting everyone’s eyes in the most sharp focus possible–even the cityscape of the fictional Bad Town is full of character.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014

Despite being in black and white, the film oozes a vitality normally only associated with use of vivid colors, and it’s to the point I truly believe that color would have made the film overwhelming because of how powerfully framed Amirpour’s shots and vision are. That she throws in many cultural touchstones such as music posters, record sleeves, and recognizable-yet-not cosmetics add to the uncanny valley vibes of the real-world adjacent Bad Town.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Darling (2015)
The Neon Demon (2016)
Kwaidan (1964)
The Shining (1980)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What do you all think? Do you agree with these choices? Disagree? Have additions that I may not have thought of? If you would like to discuss it, leave a comment! I’d love to hear from y’all!