Why Was The Horror Genre So Moralistic? – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Moralising in the horror genre

With Halloween drawing ever closer, I thought that I’d take a quick look at the horror genre again and how it has changed over time. I’ll also be talking about how moral rules are used to make horror fiction, comics, movies etc… both more and less frightening.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve become fascinated by old 1940s-50s American horror comics yet again after rediscovering this interesting archive site.

One ironic thing about this genre of comics is that, during the mid-1950s, they were pretty much banned (on both sides of the pond) because of fears that they would “corrupt the youth” or some similar nonsense. The monster-sized irony here is that they’re probably some of the most moralistic comics ever made.

These comics have a ridiculously strict moral code. Not only are literally all crimes always punished by death (or worse!), but even the slightest character flaw (eg: anger, greed, lust etc…) can quickly lead to horrific, and wildly disproportionate, consequences. In order to survive a 1950s American horror comic, you need to be a perfect paragon of virtue.

A similar trend can also be noticed in American slasher movies from the 1980s and 1990s too. Although I haven’t really seen that many of these films, it’s a well-known trope of the genre that the characters who survive these films usually tend to be the celibate, teetotal characters.

So, why did the horror genre used to include a lot of stern moralising?

The first reason probably has to do with it’s inspirations. Fear has been used by religions, politicians and other groups to get people to obey their rules for centuries. When these rules are sensible ones (eg: rules against murder, theft etc..) then this makes sense. But, often, the exact same scare tactics will be used for sillier or more illogical rules. Since these scare tactics were taken a lot more seriously in the old days, it’s likely that they had a strong influence on the horror genre.

The other reason is because one of the best ways to make people nervous is to set an unrealistically high moral standard and then to judge everyone against it. There probably isn’t a single person on the planet who hasn’t felt anger, jealousy, pleasure etc.. at some point in their lives. So, by telling stories about how these parts of human nature (which have all been experienced by your readers) lead to horrific consequences is a great way to frighten the audience.

Of course, these days, the horror genre is a lot less moralistic. There are a number of good practical reasons for this.

The most obvious dramatic reason is that too much morality makes horror stories, comics, movies etc… ridiculously predictable. After all, if a character doesn’t meet up to the moral standards established by the story, then the reader instantly knows that the character’s chances of survival are precisely zero. As such, too much moralising can remove all suspense and drama from a horror story.

The other reason is that perfect paragons of virtue aren’t usually very interesting or dramatic characters. Not only are paragons of virtue extremely predictable (if you know what rules they are following), but characters often tend to be at their most interesting when they display realistic character flaws. If the main characters are interesting and realistic people (as opposed to robotic paragons of virtue), then the audience is going to care more about what happens to them.

Plus, morality can be used in much more creative ways in modern horror stories, movies etc.. One way to do this is to make the story’s moral standards somewhat different to widely-accepted moral standards. A good example of this can be found in the “Final Destination” film series, where cheating or escaping death is framed as an immoral act that is always punished by unseen forces. By framing basic human instinct as immoral, these films are incredibly unsettling and unpredictable.

Sometimes, the disproportionate moral rules of old can be used as a source of horror in and of themselves. If a story’s moral rules are shown to be arbitrary and antiquated, then the fact that they can still affect characters in the modern day is certainly a disturbing one.

Likewise, a complete lack of moral rules can either be played for laughs, or used as an additional source of horror.

So, yes, morality is a surprisingly important part of the horror genre. It can be used in a variety of different ways to make a horror story, comic etc…more or less scary.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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