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Paul Wells, The Horror Genre from Beelzebub to Blair Witch, (London: Wallflower, 2000). x + 130pp. Pbk. ISBN: 1-903364-000, US $16.95

Reviewed by Mark Jancovich

In Wells’ study of the horror film, he argues that the history of this film genre ‘is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century’. In other words, he relates the genre to the history of modernity. However, rather than simply present a general epochal analysis, he also pays close attention to specific periods, movements, and subgenres.

In the process, Wells provides a clear, readable introduction to the genre and one that will be useful to those new to writing on the genre. Even those who are familiar with the existing scholarship should find things that are fresh and interesting here. Indeed, at only 130 pages, it is a quick and easy read - and I mean that as a compliment!

However, although it may be justifiable in an introduction, there is a slightly frustrating lack of position here. Wells seems to elide conflicts and contradictions within the existing scholarship without arguing forcefully for a synthesis of them. This is, of course, a matter of personal taste but a stronger sense of engagement with existing work would have helped establish and clarify Wells’ own contribution.

There are also, in the process, moments when Wells is too quick and willing to take on a specific idea. This becomes clear in his adoption of Ritzer’s ‘McDonaldisation’ thesis to explain the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series. The trouble here is that, while it looks neat, it forgets that the horror film has been the stuff of sequels and series at least since the Universal films of the 1930s. Indeed, Robert Englund (who played Freddie Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series) even alludes to this in a quote that Wells himself uses. As Englund claims, he did not wish to do a Freddie versus Jason because: ‘I just thought it had too much of a sense of those old Abbott and Costello meets the Wolfman kind of movies’.

Furthermore, like most introductions to the horror genre, this is a narrative history of key developments in the history of films, and it is the films that remain firmly at the centre of its presumptions about what the horror genre is. Of course, I am as guilty of this as anyone, but I am increasingly unsatisfied by such an account and wonder what a history of the horror genre would look like if we started from a history of production, mediation or consumption. In other words, why is it that we always assume that these concerns are either merely contextual information for an understanding of the films, or subsidiary issues that can only be addressed once readers have already been introduced to the history of the films?

This may seem like a perverse point, and it is not really a criticism of Wells any more than anyone else, but it does question our assumed priorities and values. Indeed, the fact that it is so difficult to imagine what an alternative type of introduction would look like might itself require us to examine why such an alternative should seem both so alien to us. As horror films so often remind us, monsters are often able to threaten us precisely because we do not believe in them: we are unable to think beyond our existing terms of reference and imagine the possibility that the world could be different.

Mark Jancovich is Professor of Film Studies at Nottingham University. His publications include: Horror (Batsford, 1992); Approaches to Popular Film (co-edited with Joanne Hollows, MUP, 1995); Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s (MUP, 1996); and The Film Studies Reader (co-edited with Joanne Hollows and Peter Hutchings, Arnold/OUP, 2000). He is a founder member of Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies; and series editor (with Eric Schaefer) of the MUP book series, Inside Popular Film.

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