Henri Focillon’s schema for the life span of cultural forms suggests four successive states of development: “the experimental age, the classic age, the age of refinement, [and] the baroque age” (10). In discussing Genres, Thomas Schatz adopts this idea to explain the progression of forms like the musical and the Western. But his consideration of this model is limited to treating the four stages as closed phenomenon: what happens when a genre finishes this cycle? Does it remain in the baroque age for the remainder of its existence? In this essay I will affirm the merit of this model in relation to the horror genre, but also identify the inadequacy of considering the cycle in such a limited way. The model is in fact best utilised as a recurring template that is relevant not only to the overarching evolution of the genre, but also to its individual movements. Indeed, as will be shown, this model could be as relevant to cycles of four films, yet alone four decades.
Just as the silent era laid the foundations for narrative cinema, it too can be considered the experimental stage for many genres including horror. Horror in the 1920s found itself very much in the realm of the gothic. Films like Nachte des Grauens (Robinson, 1916), Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (Wiene, 1919) and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Murnau, 1922), all from Germany, established many of the shadowy and disturbingly macabre elements that Hollywood productions like London After Midnight (Browning, 1927) and The Bells (Young, 1924) capitalised on (Worland, 50). The first American horror star – ‘the man with a thousand faces’ – Lon Chaney, starred in dozens of films that experimented with now popular features of horror, such as the deformed central monster (Worland, 51). He played the legless Blizzard in The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, US, 1920); an ape-man in A Blind Bargain (Worsley, US, 1922); Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Worsley, US, 1923); the deranged Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (Julian, US, 1925); and an armless circus performer in The Unknown (Browning, US, 1927). The characteristics of these roles were forerunners to the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein, who were to dominate the classic period of the horror genre that followed.
The classic stage according to Schatz is “one of formal transparency” whereby “the narrative formula and the film medium work together to transmit and reinforce that genre’s social message” (38). It is appropriate then that the next phase of the genre is generally referred to as the ‘golden age’ or ‘classic’ period of horror. This period was significant for the influence of Universal Studios who produced some of the best known archetypal villains and monsters, including Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and the Mummy. These monsters would spawn countless sequels that would dominate the genre’s output towards the mid-century. Some of these sequels would prove to be more commercial and garner more critical acclaim that their respective originals, like Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935) (Ebert, 89). The ‘formal transparency’ of this cycle of films was a reflection of what Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed in 1933: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless unreasoning, unjustified terror.” In this statement contains what the classic horror film was responding to: an abstract fear that the horror genre could make tangible. The narrative formula, now developed, and the film medium, which continued to advance, acted uniformly in this period to directly articulate a clear ideology.
The period of refinement for the horror genre is an extended period that continued up until almost the turn of the century. After the classic age, where “the genre’s straightforward message has ‘saturated’ the audience” the refinement stage is one where the genre’s “transparency gradually gives way to opacity” (Schatz, 38). A turning point then for the genre is Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), which paved the way for just about every horror film that proceeded. It gives a taste of opacity that the genre was to explore in greater depth later in the slashers and psychological horrors of the 1970s and 1980s. Psycho’s progressive influence is largely to do with the character of Norman Bates – the ‘monster’ of the film. He offers a refinement on the horror monster by indicating the opaque direction that the genre is shifting towards with his normal exterior, but terrifying interior. As a signifier for the age of refinement, Psycho suggests the way in which horror of its time was attempting to find its place amongst a society dramatically changed after World War Two.
The next turning point, following the conditioning of formula in the 1980s, which produced genre classics like Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) and Nightmare of Elm Street (Craven, 1984), was Scream (Craven, 1996). This film registered the arrival of the baroque phase with its self-referential style and mannerist formulation. A key scene in the film has several characters watching Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) at a party. During which Randy, Scream’s ‘in-film’ film buff, outlines the rules of surviving a horror film – which includes not having sex. Crosscut with this scene is the heroine of the film with her boyfriend breaking that very rule. She survives the film, and performs the role of ‘final girl,’ despite losing her virginity (Clover, 82-87). While being self-aware, the film still managed to be conventional in the sense of scaring the audience, in the same way as a horror ordinarily would. Scream’s additional layer of complexity is due to the character’s awareness of horror conventions within a framework that is very self-consciously conventional. Scary Movie (Wayans, 2000) took the idea a step further: Scream underlined the conventions of the horror film; Scary Movie unashamedly parodied them.
The outline of how the horror genre may be seen to correspond to Focillon’s four categories is evident in the conventions of the genre as well as in tracing the overall progression of the films in a general fashion. In the discussion of Psycho it was noted how the characteristics of Norman Bates – as an interior monster – signified a shift in the way monsters were approached, and thus paved a way into the refinement phase. The approach to the notion of the horror monster is a way of reading each phase as unique to another. In the experimental phase, the monster was notable for his deformity, as reflected in the roles of Lon Chaney. In the classical phase, the monster was in his pure form: visually unique and often within an appropriately ghoulish setting. The refinement phase recorded the shift from an exterior monster to an interior monster – the monster could be hidden in the likes of Norman Bates (a normal exterior but a monstrous interior). And finally, in the baroque, the monster was not only internalised in normal looking people, but could also be found among us – the monster could even be the heroine’s boyfriend.
The tracing of the progression of the monster demonstrates how Focillon has accurately created a model that represents the development of an art form, but also how the horror genre, in the embodiment of the monster, reflects the fears of society. Horror films gave a tangibility to fear, and more importantly, depicted terror being overcome. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of fear in terms of “fear itself,” therefore it is logical that the horror genre initially located fear in the gothic – a mysterious, but removed place. Slowly the representation of the monster has development from being monstrous in appearance to seemingly not monstrous at all. Today the monster could be one of us. The sense of invasion this connotes is an extension of the fear of terrorism. Thus, the development I am speaking of is aligned with the fears of society. Focillon’s model is developing as we develop: “hold[ing], as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet, III.2.21-22).
It seems only reasonable therefore to consider how Focillon’s model works in a historic framework: in an incomplete timeframe. In other words, now that we are deep into the baroque phase: what direction does this model suggest subsequent films in the horror genre will point? Are we to be subject to the mannerist work of postmodern horror directors for the remainder of the genre’s existence? Or is there an amendment that can be made to this merited model that has a closer fit to what is really going on in horror? What I am now going to suggest is that Focillon’s model is, while still appropriate for an overarching consideration of film genre, it is even more appropriate when used in studies of more focused series of films.
Firstly, the historical approach to horror outlined above– while applicable – is flawed, as it gives preference to the ‘video-store-categorisation’ system, as oppose to the horror genre being a heterogeneous phenomenon. It is all very well to consider horror as one body of films, but closer analysis easily uncovers several strands of horror, each unique. There is a clear turning point in Psycho. Previously I suggested that Psycho was the turning point between the classical and the refinement phase. Be that as it may, films leading up to Psycho are more unique to films that followed than this distinction may suggest. In fact, the films that followed demonstrate how multiple strands operate within a wider genre. Considered as one entity separately, the body of horror films pre-Psycho and post-Psycho represent Focillon’s model in themselves.
Pre-Psycho horror shares the same experimental phase as was earlier outlined; however, it is the three subsequent phases that can be considered differently. For a start, the classic phase was concise and succinct. It lasted only two-three years beginning with Dracula (Browning, 1931), and Frankenstein (Whale, 1931), it also included archetypal films like Dr Jerkyll and Mr Hyde (Mamoulian, 1931) The Old Dark House (Whale, 1932), The Mummy (Freund, 1932) The Island of Lost Souls (Kenton, 1932). From this startling collection of classic films comes the immediate commencement of the refinement phase, embodied best by James Whale’s follow up to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It recreated the elements of Frankenstein to ensure it was successful, but also added a layer of intrigue with its sophisticated humour and complex subtext as it began to explore in surprising depth the way a monster can be made sympathetic to the audience. (For instance, to take a simple example, the monster saves a drowning girl – but the act of heroism is misinterpreted as an attack.) The baroque phase followed soon after in the form of parody with such films as Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (Lamont, 1951) and Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948). But also baroque in the mannerist sense, in films like The Lodger (Hitchcock, 1926), an early Hitchcock classic, and in the experimental and subtler style of producer Val Lewton whose film Cat People (Tourneur, 1942) was notably anachronistic for it never showed its monster.
The monster in this compressed cycle demonstrates again how Focillon’s model accurately represents this section of horror films. Again the early monster is notable for being deformed and notably inferior physically. The classic phase monster was still limited in his physicality, but often had a notable ability like Dracula’s morphing, the Invisible Man’s knack of disappearing and the monster’s strength from Frankenstein. The refinement period was more a transition toward the baroque phase where the monster’s of horror grew more complex. One way in which this was achieved was in Bride of Frankenstein where the monster learnt to communicate using language. Monsters of the baroque phase also capitalised on human paranoia, like in the endlessly suggestive camerawork of Cat People. The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945) is also notable for starring Boris Karloff in a post Frankenstein role as a sinister grave robbing cabman that exploited Karloff’s persona to characterise the monster (Worland, 74). The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943), House of Wax (De Toth, 1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956) all too have unique approaches to the horror monster, each with additional layers of complexity.
The post-Psycho direction of the horror film is less linear: while pre-Psycho has a clear progression, Psycho signposted the beginning of several strands, or subgenres of horror, including the psychological horror and the slasher. Both subgenres can be analysed from the perspective of Follicon’s model, but more interestingly, both subgenres appear to have – post baroque age – converged. The psychological horror and the slasher film have concluded their individual trajectories and amalgamated into a genre that uses elements of both, suggesting the cyclic nature of Follicon’s theory.
The Slasher cycle moved into the classic phase with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974), after films like The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) and It’s Alive (Cohen, 1974) experimented with new cinematic vocabulary that included ‘shower scenes’. Carol Clover in her essay ‘Her Body, Himself: Gender and the Slasher Film’ defines the classic period of the slasher between 1974 and 1986 (1986 being when the sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released) (75). However in light of Focillon’s model, it is more accurate to suggest that the classic period was only temporary and the rush of sequels that followed the success of Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) and Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) were – for the slasher film – a period of refinement. Sequels, by definition, are archetypically appropriate for Folcillon’s refinement period. They capitalise on the elements from the classic phase that achieved a positive audience response, and do something different to seem new and fresh. The baroque phase realigns with my initial model, with films like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Craven, 1994) and Scream both parodying now the well-known formula and conventions.
Similarly, with psychological horror, a representation of Follicon’s model can be found where the baroque phase leads to a convergence with the slasher. The psychological horror was an extension of the complex side of Psycho, which internalised a monster into a seemingly ordinary motel owner. The subgenre found horror in the ordinary, and turned that into the extraordinary. Both Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968) and The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) demonstrate this; the horror is internalised into everyday characters within unsuspecting environments. The serial killer subgenre was a further expression of these fears; it adopts the feel of the psychological horror as conventionally the emphasis is on the human psyche as the protagonist attempts to think like or think ahead of the killer. Today we can see the convergence of this genre with the slasher in a film like Saw (Wan, 2003). The main narrative drive of the film is from the killer’s placement of two men, each apparently unknown to the other, in an isolated room with their legs chained to opposite corners. They are told through a tape recording that only one is going to be allowed to go free: the one who kills the other before the clock strikes six. Within this narrative framework we are given flashbacks to the killer’s previous games. We see among other gruesome moments shotgun deaths, hand drill torture, a reverse bear trap threatening to destroy a woman’s head, and, furthermore, the event from which the film gains its title. The structural allows the emergence of both physiological horror and slasher conventions to transpire, in a film that is gruesome and chilling.
Historically speaking, the phase of horror in which are currently within may well be – in the eyes of Focillon’s model – similar to the phase that surrounded Psycho. Perhaps the baroque parodies of the 90s have run out and what we are left with now are experimental films for the next phase of horror. Hostel (Roth, 2005), Saw and its sequels, are all non-genre films with genre elements; they appear to be looking for conventions that are not crystallised like their predecessors. Given Focillon’s model, this uncertain, experimental, phase is likely to be followed by another classic period of distinctive horror. Focillon’s model is cyclic. Its phases demonstrate the rise and fall of a popular genre, which then adapts to the new audience and then repeats its model.
Further proof of the cyclic nature of the horror genre is within even smaller frameworks. I have shown how in breaking the horror genre in two, we find two different formulations of the experimental, classical, refinement and baroque framework. By going even further into series of films, we can also see the model operating in as smaller scheme of just a handful of films. Take the forever continuing A Nightmare of Elm Street series. The original film came along boasting a fresh approach to horror: its monster could enter his victims’ dreams and kill them there. This experimental idea was unique while still conforming to the conventions of 1980s slasher films. The sequel, therefore, locked in this experimental idea and moved the series forth into the classic phase by recycling the formula into something that was more comfortable for the audience. The refinement phase immediately followed. By the third film the series’ conventions were beginning to be skewed slightly to make the series seem fresh. The refinement period lasted two films until the campy A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989), which suggests the coming of the baroque phase with a self-consciousness that is both complex and borderline parody. The later films in the series seem to have attempted a return to the experimental. Freddy Vs Jason (Yu, 2003) and Freddy Vs Ghostbusters (Braxtam, 2004) are representative of this trend; it is baroque in the sense of its intertextual complexity, but experimental in the sense that it attempts to drawn a new framework within horror conventions.
Even within this small selection of films one can see the development of the monster, Freddy Krueger, adhering to Focillon’s model. In the beginning of the series, Krueger was a frightening menace; his image invoked fear. However in the first film, before his image is iconic enough to be deemed part of the classical phase, his body is experimental in form. He is kept in shadows (where later films have his figure more of a visual focus) and his body itself is somewhat unreal. Images like where he is on fire in the climax appear not quite human – bereft of the form he would later develop, and dominate with. Through the development of the series, the human appearance of Krueger developed further as he began to communicate more and have a more active physicality. The baroque Krueger is a villain who actively embraces his role as a monster. He becomes a parodic producer of the horror, which he accompanies with his increased banter.
In conclusion, Focillon’s model is largely a viable approach to the horror genre, and, by extension, film genre generally. However, Schatz’s approach to the four ages is limited and fails to enlighten the merit of Focillon’s consideration of form. The model’s natural adaptation to the horror genre in so many different time spans demonstrates both the value of his approach and the formulaic undertones of the genre – suggesting that this essay can only have touched on its complexities. The horror genre considered alongside Focillon appears to be like a painting by Monet. Considered from afar one can appreciate the brush strokes for the overall impression that they create. But only once the viewer gets closer, breaks down the painting, and considers every segment individually, can one truly admire the overall impression that each individual brush stroke has combined to stimulate.
Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”, in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. 72-99.
Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
Focillon, Henri. Life of Forms in Art. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1942.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. “First Inaugural Address.” Delivered March 4, 1933. Accessed 22 March, 2007. <http://www.bartelby.org/124/pres49.html>
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T. J. B. Spencer. London: Penguin, 1996.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.