Horror Films: Current Research on Audience Preferences and Reactions

By James B. Weaver III; Ron Tamborini | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
Evolution of the Horror Genre

Dolf Zillmann Rhonda Gibson University of Alabama

The telling of horrifying tales is as old as the human capacity to tell tales. The modern horror film is merely the latest form of such story telling.

On this premise, we attempt to trace the evolution of the horror film from its roots in ancient, preliterate societies. Our venture leads us to stories told by hunters, reports from those who survived warfare, fairy tales, rites of passage, blood sports, horrifying staged happenings, and lastly, films from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A new model of the social uses of horror and of the enjoyment of horrifying tales emerges at the end of our journey. This model is based on gender socialization differences that reach back to the division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies, a division that prescribed agonistic roles for men and nurturant ones for women. Although the utility of such gender roles has been severely compromised by societal changes, these roles seem to persist in modification and rudimentary manifestations. For better or worse, critical aspects of the ancient gender-specific socialization have survived and turn out to play a significant part in the enjoyment of horror films, their social uses, and in contemporary gender socialization itself.


Those ancient ancestors of ours who confronted ferocious animals on their hunt and who survived the ordeal to tell their story were probably the first to relate horrifying happenings. As they relived their anxieties and their actions, they must have succumbed to what we now talk about as impression or image management ( Cialdini, 1985; Schlenker, 1980; Snyder, 1981). In the eyes of their peers, these hunters could only benefit from exaggerating the dangers they had faced. Who would admit to having been chased by a wild boar, when the


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Horror Films: Current Research on Audience Preferences and Reactions


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