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Media & Pop Culture Professor Steve Vrooman Discusses Our Fascination With Terror

October 25, 2018

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It’s almost Halloween and many people often celebrate the spooky season by binge-watching scary movies. From classics like "The Shining" to more recent films like "Insidious," audiences continue to put themselves through the anticipation and fear that comes along with it. Why do some people enjoy these movies so much and why do we like being scared?

Communication Studies Department Chair (and self-described horror nerd) Dr. Steve Vrooman says that many fans of the genre tend to be very territorial with their monsters.

“Some fans really identify with horror films and monsters because they themselves may be on the fringes of society,” Vrooman said. “Maybe they feel as though people don’t understand them or that they don’t fit in. Horror tests our connection to stories and we want that connection. In some ways, it’s real. There are also involuntary, biological responses when watching horror films. You jump or scream. It’s like a roller coaster and it’s exciting and scary all at once.”

Something else Vrooman says we’re seeing is the rise of mainstream horror and gore, along with a wave of new fans who are just now dabbling in the genre. AMC’s smash hit “The Walking Dead” (TWD) is no doubt the catalyst for this. Every week, families gather around to watch a group of seemingly everyday people lie, cheat, steal, and kill during the zombie apocalypse. It’s a soap opera with monsters.

While zombies are certainly not a new idea, what they represent or symbolize has changed since we first saw them.

“The first zombie movies, even before George Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead,’ were about a fear of the unknown and religion,” Vrooman said. “Romero’s zombies started as commentary about social issues and then with ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ we see them as representations of American consumerism in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s. They are zombies literally walking around a huge shopping mall. Now, they represent biomedical fears, diseases, terrorism, and rage.”

Although the genre has adapted new metaphors, one thing that has remained constant is the idea that zombies typically represent us.

“They’re more like an incoherent mirror,” Vrooman said. “Maybe zombies are just a reflection of us. Shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ are making us ask big questions about ourselves. Not every zombie is about disease or consumerism. How do we know we’re not the zombies? We don’t know the answer to that anymore.”

While Vrooman does think that TWD has become a bit of a boring, rebuild civilization story, he does credit the show for also making gore mainstream.

“When I first watched the movie ‘Dead Alive’ and saw guts hit the floor I was like wow because I’d never seen that before. Now everyone is watching shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ and it feels normal and interesting. It reminds me of how a fad or sub-culture gets taken over by everyone.”

So, what’s next for the genre and how do we keep our appetites for zombies, vampires, and demons satiated?

“The way you scare a real horror fan is to tell us a story we’ve never heard before,” he said. “Some people get to the point where gore doesn’t bother them at all anymore and then ghosts or spirits and murder don’t. But if that doesn’t scare you, then what? We continue to want films that break rules and push things to the edge. Each generation needs and wants to watch something that breaks the rules and seems to surpass audiences of the past. When we see something that we’ve never encountered before, that’s what really scares us.”

Dr. Steve Vrooman’s Top 5 (recent) Horror Films

5. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (Netflix)

4. XX

3. Train to Bussan

2. Hereditary

1. It Follows

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