America, 1960. A woman removes her bathrobe and steps into the shower. She gasps when the water touches her skin; then she smiles, relaxes. The door opens behind her and a figure slips into the room. We see no distinguishing features; all we know is that the figure moves silently, and is moving towards her.
It's over in a matter of seconds: the torn curtain, shrieking violins, a terrified scream. The audience sees a glinting knife and a stream of blood snaking elegantly down the drain. This iconic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho laid the groundwork for the "slasher" sub-genre of horror movie – a genre that displays some of our most popular and enduring symbols of fear. If we want to understand ourselves as a nation, there's no better place to start looking than here.
So what scares Americans? Or more broadly: what scares America itself, threatens the myths and ideals that govern its self-perception? The idea of individualism is key: we celebrate autonomy above all else. As a country, we've set up physical boundaries, property lines, and borders we use to justify incredible violence if crossed. So it's unsurprising that we're inclined to fear the outsider or the intruder.
Understood in these terms, the "slasher" is autonomy’s fiercest enemy. He doesn’t care about boundaries and he doesn’t fear punishment for violating them. He simply catches us at our most vulnerable, then kills us.
But his methods aren’t impersonal. He doesn’t set up a car bomb then watch from a distance as you turn the ignition. The "slasher" is more intimate: he wants to feel you die. Michael Myers in Halloween used a kitchen knife to kill. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface used a chainsaw.
The "slasher" scares us because he disdains our learned American ideals so blatantly. Autonomy is sacred, and he’s dedicated to ensuring its meaninglessness. For a nation so convinced of its own infallibility, this subversion of principles is both unthinkable and terrifying.
Yet a different picture forms when we look at other national cinemas. Japanese horror comes from a tradition of the supernatural, ghost stories, and "vengeful spirit" narratives. The specters in these films are usually victims of past wrongdoings – angry echoes of violent trauma. And, importantly, they strike their victims indiscriminately. Everyone is a potential target.
Film historians have linked these characteristics to the legacy of Hiroshima. Indeed, traces of the atom bomb can be found in Pulse, where massive numbers of people start disappearing into thin air, never to be seen again. The same theme can be seen in Ringu, where a random sequence of people die after receiving a deadly videocassette. The mass impersonality of death in these films is a grim reminder of the horrific day when the atom bomb exploded sixty years ago, and shows how firmly that tragedy is woven into Japan’s cultural fabric.
Horror films provide a valuable means toward understanding our cultural anxieties. But perhaps more importantly, they remind us that we cannot easily escape the legacies of our past, the price of our choices, or the costs of our ideals.