Raised in Fear: Horror Films as Schoolyard Lore

Raised in Fear: Horror Films as Schoolyard Lore


All I really need to know about fear I learned in elementary school. Before I ever saw a horror film, I had acquired an extensive knowledge of the genre’s main visual icons.  More vital than any knowledge instilled in our classroom was the information we exchanged at recess, or on the bus.  Besides highly confused descriptions of sexual reproduction, the bits of knowledge most eagerly exchanged were meticulously detailed descriptions of horror films.  These movies took on legendary status in inverse proportion to the number of kids who had actually seen them.  The kid whose irresponsible parents unwisely took him to see The Exorcist might have been psychologically scarred for life, but among third graders he could become, for a time, a kind of schoolyard prophet.  When strict parents intervened, someone’s older brother or sister would always be eager to terrify their younger siblings with lurid retellings of the most horrific moments from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or I Spit on Your Grave.  The bearers of this precious knowledge provided me with a rich vocabulary of terror that has stood me well over time.   

Horror is a genre founded on suspense, and much of this suspense begins outside the theater.  From the commercial end, film studios have created a virtual subgenre of promotional material—from salacious posters to sensationalistic radio and television spots to tautly edited trailers—that is often more satisfying than the films it promotes. Such promotional tools, as much as they might serve the interests of capitalism, are in fact the most recent manifestation of a far older cultural tradition. In earlier centuries, before a circus, freak show, or menagerie came to town, heralds carrying broadsides and placards describing or illustrating the chief attractions would march through town, building anticipation which then spread by word of mouth. More than any other genre, the horror film is the true heir of this carnivalesque tradition, since the sense of anticipation and suspense is so clearly part of horror’s narrative structure. The tension we feel as we wait for a protagonist to find out what’s behind the door is all the more intense when the waiting begins with a trailer or poster image. 

nullBy the time I actually came to see Jaws, I was well acquainted with all of the film’s main events, told with a series of images that rivaled the most lurid frames of a 1950s horror comic. “Oh, man, how about when the woman’s skinny dipping at night! She’s all naked, right, only you can’t really see much ’cause it’s so dark; but anyway, she’s swimming and she sticks one leg up in the air and then it sinks into the water. Then that music starts, you know, da-duh, da-duh, and they show what it looks like underwater and you’re looking up, you know like you’re the shark looking up at her swimming and then you can see a little bit more of her nakedness but then they show her face, and she, like, disappears for a second, like she’s pulled under. Then it happens again and she starts screamin’. Then, oh man, she starts jerkin’ around, this way and that way, and then she slides way over until she smacks into this buoy, and then you’re like, oh man she made it, but then, no, she gets pulled off again and dragged around and then she’s, like, totally dead.” To an eager audience of children, this is not a spoiler: it’s an appetizer.

When I finally got to see the film for myself, my enjoyment of these and other foretold moments was actually enhanced by the verbal previews. Although I was an avid and attentive viewer, I have to admit there were things I might have missed had I not been fully prepared to appreciate them. My classmates astutely noted, for instance, not just that the sailing coach’s leg sinks to the bottom, but that it is cut off just above the knee, that a cloud of blood seeps from the ragged flesh where it was cut off, and, most importantly, that “it still had its sneaker on, can you believe that?” Another classmate took time to notice that, shortly before the Kittner boy is devoured, accompanied by “a huge, like, air bubble of blood,” a boy throwing sticks into the water for his dog suddenly notices that the dog is missing. Once I became a supposedly more sophisticated filmgoer, I marveled at the virtuoso dolly zoom effect that accompanies Chief Brody’s horrified realization of the shark’s attack. But without the guidance of a perceptive schoolyard critic, I might have overlooked that poignant detail of a boy calling into the sea for his lost dog.

Over the years our visual vocabulary grew. Piece by piece, our anatomy lessons added “spinning heads,” “still-beating hearts,” “guts spilling out,” “guts being eaten,” “guts on the floor,” “guts hanging from a hook,” “green puke,” “face melting off,” “eyes popping out,” “drill going into his forehead,” “arms reaching out of the grave,” “head on a stick,” and the one that confused me as much as it horrified me, “masturbating with a crucifix.” Every slight variation on the general theme of dismemberment and penetration was told in meticulous detail. Linda Blair’s head didn’t just spin around in The Exorcist, it turned slowly to the right, like she was looking away from the priest, and then turned slowly around to the sound of bones cracking and then completed the turn and snapped into place. Her puke wasn’t just green, it was green like the color of Apple Jolly Ranchers. What is most remarkable about such descriptions is how little exaggeration was involved. Children are generally known as tellers of tall tales, but when recounting scenes from horror films, they were as anatomically precise as forensic pathologists, as closely attuned to performative nuances as anthropologists in the field, and as keenly attentive to subtle variations of color, light, and shadow as art collectors. 

Those who experienced such schoolyard exchanges know that there was nothing especially cruel or violent about them.  Scenes of graphic violence were recounted not with sadism but with a sense of wonder. By describing such images, we were bearing witness to how strange and awful the world could be: not awful in its contemporary sense, but in the more archaic sense of awe-inspiring.  By telling one another about these things, we strengthened our sense of community and kinship. Iona and Peter Opie have gathered an extensive record of what they call “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,” noting the infinitely rich continuities and variations between the kinds of songs, rhymes, chants, and stories children have told across generations.  From them we learn that, long before children were describing grotesque scenes from horror films, they were chanting lines like “Tell tale tit, / Your tongue shall be slit, / And all the dogs in the town / Shall have a little bit.” Invoking such violent imagery doesn’t beget violence: it’s when we lose the sense of community and camaraderie such imagery fosters that we become sad, angry, and, sadly, sometimes terribly violent. Behind most school shootings is a story of alienation and loneliness.

nullMy classmates weren’t simply discussing films when they described them at recess: they were engaging in a form of storytelling as old as oral culture itself. Like the folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm and others, these narratives were structured around horrifically vivid images.  Folklorists have recorded infinite cultural and ethnic variations on the meme we know as “Little Red Riding Hood,” but they all have one element in common: a catechism between a child and a disguised monster that progresses from innocent “big eyes” to suspiciously “big ears” to terribly “big teeth” that threaten to “eat you up.” The protagonist might be a little boy in one version, a girl in another; the victim might be eaten and then cut out of the wolf by a huntsman, or she might outwit the wolf and escape; the moral of the story might be that we shouldn’t stray from the path or talk to strangers, or there might not be any moral at all. Every element of the story can be changed but not the progression from eyes to ears to teeth that can eat you: these words distill what is perhaps the most fundamental experience of horror any of us ever have.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

AARON ARADILLAS: JAWS: the film and the director that changed everything

AARON ARADILLAS: JAWS: the film and the director that changed everything


[Editor's Note: It's Steven Spielberg weekend here at Press Play. We are publishing our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work. If you would like to watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here ]

It is often said that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, his excitingly directed adaptation of Peter Benchley’s disposable beach read about a summer community being terrorized by a great white shark, ushered in what we now know as the modern blockbuster. It, along with George Lucas’ Star Wars, brought about what we now accept as the Summer Movie Season. Up until Jaws, studios had considered the summer a vast wasteland where they could offload their grade-z programmers. Just like the town of Amity in the film (really Martha’s Vineyard), where a successful summer tourist season could carry the town through the rest of the year, Hollywood studios would forever rely on summer blockbusters to carry them throughout the rest of the year. This is all true, but Jaws is something else. Look closely and you’ll see it is actually the last old-fashioned adventure, a kind of farewell to a rickety yet sturdy style of Hollywood filmmaking – and values.

The first half of Jaws plays like one of those ‘50s monster movies where a town is under attack by a man-eating creature, but instead of it being mutated ants or Godzilla, it is a shark. The opening shark attack put the audience on notice that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill horror film. The shooting of the movie was plagued by a constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark. This setback forced Spielberg to be creative by creating suspense by withholding the sight of the shark. This also lined up beautifully with future audiences’ anticipation of the summer movie season. You didn’t know what was coming your way.

There are really only two points of view in the film; the shark’s or Spielberg’s, and at times they’re one and the same. The opening of the film is a P.O.V. shot of the shark in motion, but it could easily be Spielberg, the hot young director who had wowed TV audiences with the compact road thriller Duel and impressed critics with the mature romantic chase picture The Sugarland Express, looking to announce himself to the world. Not yet 30, Spielberg was a product of the first generation to grow up with television. He had an encyclopedic understanding of film and film history. He loved Hollywood spectacles like Around the World in 80 Days and B movies by William Whitney equally. He clearly respected the movies and stars that came before him, but he also knew things had to change. He wanted to tell stories faster and on the appropriate scale. He wanted to make a monster movie where you actually believed the characters were in danger.

Like Hitchcock and Welles, Spielberg refused to be restricted by the rules of realistic perspectives. For Spielberg, the camera could be where it was needed to be in order to tell the story. The only point of view that mattered was his; all others were secondary. You can see this in the sequence where Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is with his family on the beach, keeping watch on everyone to make sure they’re safe. He’s been told by the mayor to consider a shark attack an isolated incident. Brody isn’t comfortable with this. As he watches people swimming and playing, Spielberg uses a series of wipes to get our senses heightened to the possibility of another shark attack. Then, John Williams’ two-note score begins and we’re plunged into the water as the shark zeros in on the splashing legs of a boy. When the boy is attacked Spielberg cuts to Brody and uses the famous zoom in/pullback shot from Vertigo to make us aware of Brody’s worst fears coming true. The entire sequence isn’t shot to make us feel like one of the tourists on the beach. It is told from the perspective of a filmmaker wanting to play us like a piano. (That scene appears below.)

The second half of the film has Brody and college rich kid oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) accompanying veteran shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) as they set out to kill the shark. When their boat leaves the dock it’s as if the movie is leaving behind traditional filmmaking and entering uncharted territory. The camera is rarely, if ever, locked down. It bobs up and down, circles the characters, swoops around Quint’s leaky boat looking for the best angle. (One of my favorite unexplained shots is when Quint stands out on the ship’s pulpit, readying to shoot a barrel into the shark, and the camera moves up and down as he takes aim.) It is the second half of the film that we finally see the shark, but Spielberg purposely catches us off guard. It’s a throwaway gag designed to make you scream, then laugh. (Spielberg also cheats by not using the shark’s theme music to warn us it’s nearby.) Later, Spielberg displays a playful sense of motion as the men seem to be chasing the shark. Williams’ score along with the camera gliding alongside the boat and the sight of barrels moving in the water give us a real sense of momentum.

nullThe centerpiece of the movie is when the men sit around the table, drinking and talking. There’s an unspoken rivalry between the crusty old seaman Quint and the young smart-ass Hooper. They start to compare scars they’ve gotten while observing sharks. (Brody, a former big-city cop who has rarely fired his gun, has no scars.) Hooper is amused by Quint, humoring his macho posturings. Quint knows this. But Quint puts Hooper in his place when he begins to tell him how he survived the Indianapolis, the World War II vessel that delivered the Hiroshima bomb. The Indianapolis is most famous for being attacked and its crew being picked off by sharks. There are a couple of things going on in this sequence. Quint’s monologue stops the film cold and gives it a sense of drama that had been mostly absent up until that point. His story is real and is scarier than anything in the movie. That’s probably why some critics (particularly Pauline Kael) raised concerns about its inclusion in otherwise escapist entertainment. Some felt the movie was crossing a line by using a real-life tragedy in the service of an adventure story. It would seem to be exploiting the real pain of the families of those who perished or survived the Indianapolis. But for Spielberg and his contemporaries (Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma), nothing was off limits. Nothing was sacred if it made for a better story. Quint’s monologue transforms the movie from an old-fashioned monster movie into something haunting. It’s why the movie has endured all these years.

The sequence also represents the changing of the guard as an older generation relinquishes power to a younger, cockier one; it’s the passing of Hollywood’s old guard to a generation of new filmmakers itching to make their mark. Shaw’s Quint stands in for a generation of men of few words who rarely allowed themselves to show their emotions, men full of stories – and to a certain degree, full of shit. Quint’s tale of survival trumps anything that Hooper will ever experience. Hooper knows this. Earlier, he had mocked Quint’s crumbling of a beer can by crumbling his Styrofoam cup. Now he has a newfound respect for him and quietly accepts his wisdom. But Hooper is also clearly Spielberg’s stand-in, a smart-ass who employs the latest in technology to do his job. Brody’s our stand-in as he takes in all he can from the old and the new in an attempt to keep up with what is going on around him. And when the shark finally leaps onto the boat (and at the audience) and bites down on poor Quint, we are seeing the devouring of an outdated Hollywood value system. The shark is the unknown variable that continues to surprise audiences. From the shark in Jaws to the Millennium Falcon going into hyperspace to Superman taking flight to the runaway boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to seeing the Batmobile to the T-1000 to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to the long shadow of the flying saucers in Independence Day to Jar Jar Binks to the birth of Darth Vader, we’ve been conditioned to expect the unexpected during the summer. Jaws was the first movie roller coaster. At the time, who would’ve predicted that we wouldn’t want the ride to end?

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.