The concept of horror spectatorship has long been a site of contention with stereotypes of deviance attached to it. This comes mainly from the pleasure viewers are assumed to (if not expected to) derive from what Isabelle Christina Pinedo describes as “the spectacle of the wet death”. However, such an argument ignores the potential for a horror film to create such fear and tension from mere atmosphere – from story, to cinematography, to music; all of these elements can work together to create wonderfully effective horrors, without the on-screen bloodshed. Here are 8 of the most powerful classic horror films, arranged chronologically, working mainly through the power of suggestion; so well, in fact, that often in our memories we see them as being far more gory than they really are.
When this 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel hit the big screens, it caused quite the uproar. Rumors that the film had viewers fainting from fear, catapulted it to success. Upon its second release in 1936, the film was censored by the new Production Code, developed in the early 1930s by the Catholic Church. The code was made up of strict guidelines in regards to the portrayals of violence and sexuality, as well as how to depict villains and villainous (or sinful) behavior. Hollywood films were scrutinized over by the Church and its code representative (William Hays), and if it did not meet their standards the film was given a C rating and was thus Condemned. It was not illegal to produce or show such films, but protests and outrages kept most of Hollywood in line. In Dracula’s second release, at least two scenes were cut and even Dracula’s off-screen moans of agony as he died were shortened. This just goes to show how powerful horror can be – even off-screen.
7. Strangers on a Train
This is a 1951 Hitchcock classic, and like all of his work, it is masterfully crafted to create a sense of dread in the viewer. Known as the Master of Suspense, not of gore, it is easy to understand why his work has been so well appreciated over the years. His ability to sneakily bring the danger so close that one can sense it suddenly everywhere, is embedded in his use of suburban settings and “everyday” men as killers. Although he has been criticized for his alleged misogyny and targeting of beautiful blondes, Strangers on a Train abandons this formula. This production is radically different, for it follows the dark story of Guy, as he slips into a mad obsession with a rising Tennis star, Bruce. While it is based on a novel that explicitly deals with Guy’s position as a gay man, in the film, Hitchcock’s approach was to think of Guy and Bruce as two sides of the same coin, the super ego and the id even. Guy’s determination to free Bruce of his cheating ex-wife acts as a mirror for Bruce’s deep seeded anger and resentment towards her. Stalked by Guy, Bruce helplessly watches his world and himself, unraveling right before his eyes.
6. The Tingler
By the time The Tingler was released in 1959, director William Castle was already well known as the Master of Gimmicks. Always looking for a new creative way to get the audience to scream, Castle had a well established bag of tricks already, but for this one, he pulled out the big guns. He created this film about fear itself, suggesting that the only way to avoid death by fear was to release the fear by way of the scream. The monster, fear, was named the Tingler for its centipede-like shape and how it would grip to your spine causing tingles, growing tighter and tighter. Naturally, the surest way to get the audience to react, he decided, was to make them believe in the Tingler. To do this, he designed Percepto – this would make certain chairs in the movie theater vibrate sporadically to re-create the sense of spine-tingling. Moreover, Castle designed the film to have an interruption in the middle to alert the audience of the unfortunate escape of the Tingler itself, and to remind them to scream for their lives, literally. Even today, the film is a fun watch with interesting (albeit crazy) theories about fear, and horror viewing.
5. Peeping Tom
This 1960 UK production was one of Michael Powell’s last. Often cited as his downfall, the film was a major change of pace for Powell who had already attained critical and commercial success as a writer and director. Peeping Tom was deemed offensive for its sexuality and violence, but in actuality, there is no nudity and no on-screen murders. The story follows a serial killer, Mark, who is obsessed with faces and the expression of fear in a woman’s eyes. In order to serve this overwhelming desire, he records women as he kills them. The murders are shown as killer point-of-view through the camera lens but when the woman recognizes her fate and screams, the scene will always cut – gore free. And yet, there is something morbidly eerie about seeing close-ups of the women scream, thus inciting the sense that the film is extremely graphic. Powell has himself said that the film is not a horror but is rather a movie about movies. Clearly, Mark’s obsession is meant to be a mirror for the concepts of spectatorship and movie fandom, but it is not without very uncomfortable subject matter, making it definitely qualify as horror.
This is another 1960 film, and perhaps Hitchcock’s most famous. Released almost simultaneously as Peeping Tom (which came first varies by city release date), Psycho gained much more critical success and has become known as the Grandfather of slasher cinema. Of course, it is not without its own criticisms for violence against women. Notable here though, is the pervasive sense of danger created by the setting and the surprising fact that only one person is murdered on-screen, Marion Crane. Although, the knife is never shown to penetrate her at any point. The film was produced in black and white, partly due to lack of funds but this helped get the film through the production code which would have taken issue with the amount of blood had it been in color. Instead, the darker hue of grey running with the water in the tub is seen as less horrifying – yet that scene remains recalled by many as one of the most gruesome murders in film history, if only for the shock it caused in 1960.
3. The Haunting
In this 1963 haunted house classic, the power of suggestion is so strong that the ghost does not even need to be seen; its presence is simply felt. When a woman suffering from anxiety agrees to participate in a study set up by a doctor at an old haunted house, she gets far more than she has bargained for. Seeking freedom and knowledge, Nell soon finds that her escape is more of a prison. Enticed by the people and fresh surroundings, she is disappointed to find that she is still plagued by her anxiety and worse, she seems to be imagining things, hallucinating even. The decision to force the viewer into Nell’s head means that in not seeing the ghost, we feel as crazy as Nell does. Perhaps there is no ghost, but there is certainly something to be afraid of. Hopefully, no one decided to pay you a visit while watching this alone at night.
2. Black Christmas
Bob Clark made major headway for the slasher genre with this one. Upon its 1974 release the film was given a lot of negative reviews, being described as “bloody” and unnecessarily violent. While the film does have some rather gruesome moments, overall there are very few on-screen murders, and even those that are shown avoid showing actual weapon penetration. The film has since gone on to become a cult classic, deemed innovative and trend-setting. Its use of killer point-of-view is perhaps its strongest claim to innovation, as well as the way it creates much of its creepy atmosphere. The film switches back and forth from regular cinematography, as the girls of the sorority house search for their missing sister, and POV shots, as the killer watches them from inside the house, planning his next attack. Aside from using less gore than it has been accused of, another major way this film masters the tool of perception is by not giving the viewer access to the killer’s identity. We never see him, but we know he is hiding somewhere in the house.
In 1978, Halloween forever changed the face of the slasher, making it known for its strikingly violent images and high body counts. From the blank white mask (originally a William Shatner), to his voicelessness, to his ability to apparently appear and disappear at will – or perhaps in your own mind, Michael Meyers is one of the scariest villains of all time. This is mostly because we don’t know his motives, nor his abilities which seem supernatural at times. What we do know is that John Carpenter can make a sunny day in Haddonfield look like the most dangerous place in the world. The chilling music doesn’t hurt his cause. When Michael escapes the institution for the criminally insane on Halloween and returns to the scene of his crimes, 3 teen girls become easy targets for his aggression. Surprisingly though, there are only four murders in the film and none are particularly gruesome, often visually obscured by various elements including tight restrictive framing. This film was probably the last of its kind since it incited a whole new level of crazy in the genre, inspiring Friday the 13th which prides itself only on how many deaths it can squeeze into the 90 minutes for each sequel. Halloween itself, went on to spawn many sequels, all of which are bloodier than the original, adding to its specious infamy as one of the goriest films of the time.