In his article, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” (1979), Robin Wood maintains that the monster, in this case Michael Meyers from Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), “becomes (in the tradition of all those beach-party monster movies of the late ‘50s to early ‘60s) simply the instrument of Puritan vengeance and repression rather than the embodiment of what Puritanism repressed” (26). The underlying point of Wood’s argument is that a movie like Halloween, compared to a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), lacks a sense of social and political activism, specifically the fight against patriarchal capitalism. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) and Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978), Halloween is a precursor of the reactionary wing of the horror genre, including Swamp Thing (Craven, 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982) and Creepshow (Romero, 1982). Horror in the 80s, Wood states, reinforces the dominant ideology, representing the monster as simply evil and unsympathetic, depicting Christianity as a positive presence, and confusing the repression of sexuality with sexuality itself.
Wood, in addition to Jonathan Rosenbaum in his 1979 review of Halloween, defines the relationship between the male killer and female victim as a morally prepared for and, by extension, unconsciously sanctioned act of murder reducible to sexual promiscuity and self-restraint. Halloween, Rosenbaum claims, belongs to a popular puritanical genre that “is generated by an audience waiting for a woman to be torn apart by a maniac … by identifying her with illicit sex.” Conversely, the final or only surviving girl in Halloween (Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis) is a virgin.
However, neither Wood nor Rosenbaum elaborate upon what the popular puritanical horror film is beyond the connection between gender and genre. What exactly is the difference between the monster as an instrument of Puritan vengeance and the embodiment of what Puritanism repressed? In my view, one of the dominant locations of the monster within a cultural geography of the American horror film, spanning from 1978 to 1982, is the now extinct teen-centered “fun in the sun” movie of the late 1950s and early 60s. Moreover, “the trite frivolity” of beach films, “which in the ‘60s became a conspicuous alternative to the relatively troubling delinquent dramas about the suburban youth population,” points to a colonial American intellectual history and the stereotypical image of Protestant Christianity during the eighteenth century (Shary 2, 84).
According to Thomas Doherty, the postwar American “teenage audience … expressed an unmistakable box office interest in the (real and imagined) explicitness beckoning from the screen. At the same time, however, there was a major reaction against these shocking new changes in … movies” (152). Between 1955 and 1966, the appeal of rock and roll (Rock Around the Clock, 1956), drag racing (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), and narcotics (The Cool and the Crazy, 1958) intersected with the moral, ethical and spiritual values embodied by clean teen idols Pat Boone (Bernardine, 1957; April Love, 1957), Debbie Reynolds (Tammy and the Bachelor, 1957), Sandra Dee (Gidget, 1959) and Sally Field (Gidget; ABC, 1965–1966).
Accordingly, a film like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Don Weis, 1966), which marks the end of American International Pictures’ (AIP) profitable beach movie cycle (1963–1965), relocates the teen-oriented party film to a haunted house without a beach in sight. Starring crime and horror film icons Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, like the atomic age beach party horror films The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964) and The Beach Girls and the Monster (John Hall, 1965), is driven by propriety and popular taste, or the conflicting “desire for teenage dollars and dread of teenage violence” (Doherty 64). That is, the cultural capital associated with adolescence factored heavily in the representation of youth onscreen, ranging from the postwar juvenile delinquency, horror, and clean teenpic cycles to the modern American horror film of the 1970s and 80s.
The ethical and spiritual values marketed in the slasher and beach-party monster movie are not limited to the second half of the twentieth century. On the contrary, the relation between a moral imaginary and holy terror reaches back to pre-Revolutionary America and the stereotypical image of the Puritan or Protestant temperament, tortured by “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (Mencken, 624). At a time when “theocrats, regicides, witch-burners, Indian killers, and bigoted heresy hunters” held sway, the beach-party monster movie is a bridge between New England Puritanism and the 1950s era anti-Communism crusade, frequently referred to as a “frenetic witch hunt atmosphere” evocative of the Salem witch trials in the late seventeenth century (Bremer, 1; Adams, 3).
Terrence Rafferty notes that American horror is partially derived from its Puritan origins, the black-clad preachers and hellfire and brimstone oratory, the omnipresent sense of evil, and fear of the unknown felt by a people trying to make their way and create a society in a wholly alien environment. Along the same lines, the Puritan American movie monster that Wood identifies in Halloween is consistent with the prose of Jonathan Edwards’ (1703–1758) “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), a classic of early American literature and the Puritan “jeremiad”:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times as abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful, venomous Serpent is in ours. … O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ’Tis a great furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder (634).
In his lecture, Rafferty claims that the reaction to Edwards’ sermon in 1741 was like the reaction to the first screening of The Exorcist (William Friedkin) in 1973 and that uneasy time at the end of the Nixon Administration. Hence, what Puritanism repressed is the same as what it manipulated in 1741 and 1978: a prevailing sense of anxiety and moral panic, in addition to the feelings of shock and disgust that are commonly associated with horror cinema. Rafferty argues that what is truly interesting about horror isn’t so much the nature of fear as the nature of belief—how it is we come to credit the existence of supernatural or immaterial forces that we wouldn’t in our routine, ordinary, reasoning lives be pursuaded to believe at all. The doomy atmosphere of Puritan New England created fertile ground for the kinds of belief that are the meat and potatoes of horror, for example the existence of the boogeyman in Halloween or the ersatz creature from the black lagoon in The Horror of Party Beach.
Adams, Gretchen A. The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008: PDF file.
Bremer, Francis J. Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. MOBI file.
Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. 1988. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002. Print.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God.” 1741. Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening. Ed. Philip F. Gura. New York: The Library of America, 2013: 625–641. Print.
Mencken, H.L. A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York: Knopf, 1949. PDF file.
Rafferty, Terence. “The Fear of God: Some Thoughts on American Horror.” Princeton University. 30 Nov. 2010. Lecture. Web. <http://bit.ly/1jJ4oOd>.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Halloween (1979 Review).” Take One, 11 Jan. 1979: n. pag. Web. 6 Sep. 2014. <http://bit.ly/1rOXjjs>.
Shary, Timothy. Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print.
Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Eds. Robin Wood and Richard Lippe. Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979: 7–28. PDF file.
Hans Staats is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cultural Analysis & Theory at Stony Brook University. The title of his dissertation is The Bad Seed: A Theoretical and Historical Analysis of Horror Cinema, Media, and Childhood, 1955–2013. His works have appeared in CineAction, Offscreen, the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Cinespect, and Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.