“Horror has become so pervasive that we don’t know even notice how thoroughly it has entered the public consciousness,” writes Jason Zinoman in Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. An account of the genre’s period of transition from the cheap seats to the art house, from the margins to the mainstream, the book sets out to find a place in the shabby history of cinema for seminal directors such as Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George Romero and Tobe Hooper. I spoke to Zinoman on the phone about the origins of the book, the connections between theater and horror, and the direction of the modern horror film.
Craig Hubert What were your earliest experiences with horror? Were you a fan from an early age, or is it something you came to appreciate later in life?
Jason Zinoman I’ve always been fascinated by horror ever since I was a little kid talking to my friends in third and fourth grade about the plots of Friday the 13th, which we hadn’t seen but we had heard about from the grapevine, usually somebody’s older brother, which was how you learned about horror films before the age of the Internet. I didn’t really get truly obsessed with horror film until I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which I saw with a couple of friends. It was one of these movies that was so incredibly disturbing and so unsettling that when it was over me and my friends sort of were silent and looked at each other awkwardly. It was the first movie I saw that wasn’t a fun scare. It was an intense scare, a scare that kind of stopped me. It stuck with me and made me wonder, “What was it about that movie that really—first, why was I so horrified; two, why did I kind of like it?” After that I started to search out more and more horror films and that’s when I started to stumble upon a lot of the movies I write about in the book. I’ve always been fascinated by horror, but I went in a different direction in my career; I covered theater on Broadway and Off-Broadway. Then I read Peter Biskind’s Easy Rider, Raging Bull and I thought, Well, if I could do something along these lines but about the horror scene, and try to figure out through reporting how these seminal movies from this golden age of horror were made, then I could both try to explain how these really fertile films, artistic films, were done but also try to figure out, I guess in a certain way, what it was that I was attracted to in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer way back.
CH The book is based on reporting, and you talk to a lot of filmmakers in the book. Was anybody hesitant to talk about that period of their careers? Did you run into any resistance?
JZ Surprisingly little resistance from most of the horror directors. I had trouble with a few people. Roman Polanski was the big one I never talked to. He was one of the first people I asked—I explained what the book was, a history of modern horror film—and his people wrote back and said, “Polanski is not a horror director.” That taught me something. In a way, that was a pretty useful lesson even though I was disappointed. It taught me something about the way artists who made horror films back in the ’60s and ’70s, they thought about horror very differently than people who make films today. They were a little bit embarrassed about being horror directors. That in itself says a lot, and once I understood that, it led to understanding that there were much more diverse influences on these movies than just other horror films, because they weren’t as horror-obsessed as these people today. There were a few people like William Friedkin, which it took a long time, many years, working on trying to get in touch with him. I eventually did talk to him in New York for a long interview. People like Wes Craven, Tobe Hopper, and Dan O’Bannon, who I talked to multiple times, were really accessible and open. The part of the book I’m most proud of is the reporting—that I did this amount of leg-work and tried to talk to as many people who knew these guys at the time. When I started the interviews I tried to know a lot already so I could try to get deeper into a few issues making the movies.
CH Dan O’Bannon and William Castle represent these poles in your book: old horror and the new horror. Can you talk a little about the difference about these two; their styles and the period of transition between them that your book charts?
JZ In ’68 is this turning point where Rosemary’s Baby, Targets, and Night of the Living Deadwere ushering in a new kind of horror film. In a lot of ways those movies created a kind of dialogue between new horror and old horror. So William Castle, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff—these were figures from a previous generation of horror. Which was wonderful, but much more rooted in horror as a fantasy genre; the supernatural helped define the genre to a large degree. A movie like Psycho was not considered a horror film by many people because it wasn’t supernatural, even though people think of it as the origin of the horror film. Also, the line between horror and comedy was a little blurrier. One of the great things about Vincent Price is that there’s a sense that he had an arched eyebrow about the genre, there was a sort of comic edge to some of his work that I think was very sly and satisfying. But the new kind of horror was much more single-minded in wanting to scare you and much more fiercely realistic. The horror was set in a milieu that was really familiar so the horror was about the prom queen, or being a babysitter, or going to the beach with your family. That was a really powerful strategy, and in a way it hit home a lot closer. There’s always this question: why do people like horror films? One of the popular answers is this catharsis theory: horror films give people a chance to deal with anxieties in a safe way; they go see this movie, they deal with these anxieties, the movie ends and they’re safe. I think a lot of these new horror films weren’t committed to this idea of a catharsis at the end. They had the sense that reality and fantasy were kind of blurred; and a sense of confusion and darkness about where the films leave you.
CH Right. I remember seeing Halloween when I was young and thinking the neighborhood in the film looked a lot like the neighborhood I was living in at the time, which freaked me out.
JZ And the incredible thing, of course, is that the movie is set in the Midwest but filmed right in Hollywood; there’s one shot where you can see a palm tree in the background. Despite that, Carpenter did a fantastic job of just making this seem like anywhere, USA, middle class, ordinary suburban life. Which was actually quite different than most horror setups; often there was like a bunch of city people going out to the country and something horrible happens.
CH Like Last House on the Left.
JZ Like Last House on the Left, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre; or, you know, they go to space, like in Alien. In Halloween, it’s the exact opposite. It sets you up for this very ordinary, mundane world, and then tosses in the middle of this world this incredibly experimental, bizarre figure. It isn’t really a ghost but isn’t really a real person, doesn’t seem to have any psychological motivation—sort of like an anti-character. The mystery of Michael Myers is the most terrifying thing about him.
CH One of the most interesting parts of your book is the connection you make between theater and horror. How do you see those connections, and do they still persist today?
JZ As a kid, my mom ran a theater in D.C. One of the first plays I remember really loving wasThe Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. It’s about a guy in a boarding house, and these two intruders come and terrorize him. It’s very oblique, and it’s hard to know what their motivation is—it’s horrifying. William Friedkin, when I interviewed him—he actually adapted that play for a movie, one of his first movies—said that the obliqueness of the terror, and the Pinter pause, and the sense of menace, was an acute influence on The Exorcist which was really eye-opening to me and also made a lot of sense. If you were looking in the ’50s and ’60s at what the scariest thing in the entertainment world was, Pinter and Beckett qualify. Also, if you were a young, artistically ambitious person back then, and you were into hip, experimental things, you knew about that stuff. John Carpenter called Dark Star “Waiting for Godot in space.” Pinter was a huge influence on Friedkin, and DePalma was very into ’60s avant-garde theater. A lot of the vocabulary that DePalma used to work on his theme of voyeurism came from watching these shows, and actually he made a documentary about this famous experimental show called Dionysius in ’69, in which he used for the first time a split screen. These guys liked horror films, to varying degrees, but they were also very into other genres, other art forms; to understand where these great horror films came from, you need to look there too. Playwrights today, young playwrights, they grew up with these movies and they were quite influenced by them. So people like Tracy Letts, who won a Tony and the Pulitzer, he loves The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And then there is a whole world of downtown theater that is very influenced by Lovecraft. People generally think theater and horror are totally different worlds but there’s more overlap than you think.
CH I wanted to ask you about your opinion of horror films today. How are they influenced by the directors you mention in your book, and do you think they can still terrify audiences in the same way?
JZ I think generally there are more good horror films made today but not as many great ones. To some degree, a lot of the most exciting films I’m seeing are low-budget or stuff on TV. I just saw a movie called I Can See You by a young filmmaker named Graham Reznick which is an incredibly surreal, stunningly shot movie that I think has a lot of these qualities that these movies from the Golden Age did, but he takes it in a David Lynch direction. The problem is because horror is everywhere, it’s a lot harder to come up with something new, and I think that what the studios are generally interested in, to a large degree, are remakes and derivative movies. I think the best mainstream horror films are not considered horror films.
CH Have you heard any response from the directors you interviewed in the book?
JZ I’ve heard a lot of response. I think I’ve been lucky; most of the response has been really good. But I think I’ve been particularly heartened by the response from the horror press. They’re the toughest critics.
Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror is available now from the Penguin Press.