In the October issue David Goldman examined the rise of the horror film , noting “The horror-film genre is multiplying like one of its own monsters, showing six-fold growth over the past decade—turning what used to be a Hollywood curiosity into a mainstream product.” The rise of the horror film is indeed detrimental not only because, as David argues, it leads to the “growing morbidity of America’s imagination,” but also because it detracts from the horror genre itself.

With few exceptions, the horror genre is most effective in forms that require brevity. Sustaining the emotions of fear, dread, or dismay is often difficult and uncomfortable; the quicker the audience can move through the cycle of tension-release-catharsis, the more visceral the impact and powerful the effect of the story. This is why the master’s of horror literature (e.g., Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson) almost always used the form of the short story.

That all changed, though, in the 1970s. The publication of Stephen King’s novel, Carrie (1974), and the release of William Friedkin’s Academy Award nominated film, The Exorcist (1973), helped push horror into the mainstream of culture. Though the genre had always found a place within novels and film, the economic success of these projects ensured that the genre would be pushed toward these longer formats. This lead to a severing of the genre from its natural forms. Nowadays even fans of horror novels and horror movies are unlikely to come in contact with the short horror stories or short horror films.

Fortunately, some of the most effective work is being produced in a most unlikely format: Public Service Announcements.

A typical PSA is intended to modify public attitudes by raising awareness about specific issues. Because most of the ads have less than a minute to get their message across, a common shortcut is to invoke the type of fear and dread found in the horror genre. Ironically, this forced constriction on the format leads to some of the most powerful work within the genre.

As the Horror Writers Association explains, horror “can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.” Many PSAs explore the mundane and normal fears of modern life—abuse, death, disease, unexpected tragedy—by including elements that border on the fantastic or supernatural while remaining firmly in real life.

To my knowledge, no one has produced a study of the horror PSA. Yet this insightful analysis by Annie Bourgois is even more applicable to the horror PSA than to the horror film:

The history of the horror genre is essentially a history of anxiety in the 20th century. In the ways that fairy tales, folktales, gothic romances articulated the fears of the old world, likewise horror films (HF) have defined and illustrated the phobias of a new world characterized by a rationale of industrial, technological and economical determinism. Arguably, it has interrogated the deep-seated effects of change and responded to the newly determined grand narratives of social, scientific and philosophical thought. We could argue that HF appropriate the fears of an age and the anxieties of the species, exploit them, dramatize them, and by exhibiting them they may exorcise them when they do not simply comfort them . . . . A major theme of the Horror genre is therefore the expression of the ways in which individuals try to maintain control of their lives in the face of profound disruptions which only comments on the frailties and brutalities of the status quo and its habitual norms. Fundamentally, then, horror films engage with the collapse of social/socialized formations.

It is this “expression of the ways in which individuals try to maintain control of their lives in the face of profound disruptions” that makes the following PSAs particularly poignant, relevant, and cathartic. Each of the following were produced in 2008 or 2009. (Note: Some of the these ads include scenes of violence—all of them are, in some way, disturbing.)

Always There

Poison

Struggle

Burden

Park

Beating

Some Things Can’t Be Reversed

Trapped

Dan’s Pancreatic Cancer

Polar Bears

Articles by Joe Carter

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