Are Horror Films a Mirror Into America's Psyche?

If you are looking to measure the country's zeitgeist, look no further than the latest film to climb atop the box office charts -- which these days is almost inevitably a horror flick.

Over the weekend, "Silent Hill" debuted at No. 1, for instance, raking in more than $20 million.

The star of "Cabin Fever" was a horrific flesh-eating virus that consumed its young actors, one by one. "Wolf Creek" is about three hitchhiking 20-somethings slaughtered by a serial killer. Critic Roger Ebert asked, "There is a role for violence in film, but what the h-- is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?"

"Hostel" featured its characters being tortured in excruciating detail in a Slovakian hotel. Its marketing campaign included news that the film was so horrifying that some people passed out during a preview screening. It has raked in $48 million domestically so far, and was just released on DVD this week in an even more explicit, uncut version.

By far, the current reigning horror champion is the "Saw" series, which features a killer forcing his victims to gruesomely mutilate themselves and each other trapped in a profoundly violent world where distinctions are blurred between victim and perpetrator.

The original "Saw" with its gruesomely simple title was produced for a little more than $1 million. It grossed $18 million on its first weekend alone. The film is deeply disturbing yet the two "Saw" films released so far have now done more than $250 million in business worldwide.

"I think the kind of horror that gets put out there really reflects, you know, the environment we are living in right now, which is a pretty scary one, you know?" said James Wan, co-author, producer and director of the "Saw" series.

"You don't know quite what could happen to us every step of the way. And I think a horror film is a way of expressing that up there on the screen, and it [is] almost like a cathartic way of like venting one's fear, basically."

"Well, I think we're actually in a period that's cycling through the same area that the horror films of the '70s were in because both were made during great periods of culture clashes," said master of horror Wes Craven.

"You know -- in the '70s it was Vietnam and now we have, obviously what's going on in the Middle East. So the horror films tend to be very visceral and, oddly enough, the ones these days have a fair amount of torture in it, which is, obviously, right out of the news and it seems that both countries -- or both groups -- are doing it: the United States and its enemies."

Craven directed eight films before "Nightmare on Elm Street" in 1984. It was that film series, though, and its cartoonish frights that revitalized the teen-horror genre in the Reagan era. Craven did it again with the self-referential, dripping with blood, and ironic "Scream" series during the Clinton years.

"'Scream' was kind of a post-structuralist," Craven said. "People had seen so many horror films, and there was so many cliches in horror films, we had to just step back and say, 'OK, we know we're watching a horror film.'"

The key for success in the horror genre is constant reinvention that capitalizes on the mood of the culture, probably best realized in the late '60s and early '70s horror explosion featuring "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist," shot in the Georgetown section of Washington.

What those films captured was an era of violence, conspiracy and disillusionment in an America marred by Vietnam and Watergate.

Craven pointed to some of the more gruesome scenes in today's horror films as indicative of what the culture is thinking and seeing in the news.

"People are taken hostage. People are beheaded and then that beheading is put on the Internet," Craven said.

"Our own government has been caught torturing. It's holding citizens of other nations right now at Guantanamo without any charges being brought. So, there's a very deep sense that all the rules are being broken and we don't know what the rules are anymore. Now when that's the case, I think the horror films will reflect that. The horror films are basically nightmares of a society."

Is the horror film industry really that tapped into society's nightmares? The horror fans gathering in New York's East Village for the premiere of "Abominable" think so.

"It actually helped me deal with some of the aspects of 9/11 and the fact that I could compartmentalize some of the horror that was being reported," said horror film fan Holly Kim Wilson.

"In our society with all the trouble we're having with the war and everything, we need a place to escape and horror films have always been a good place to go you know, just for two hours and just get away from our troubles and go into other people's troubles," said another fan, Scott Damprot

"What you are seeing now is that B movies have become mainstream," said "Abominable" auteur Ryan Schifrin said. "So what used to be niche is now the norm. Horror used to be considered like one step above porn, and now what you find is that a lot of the films that are nominated for Academy Awards were funded by the profits of the horror movies that those same companies had made. It is like if you look at the bread and butter movies now, it is horror. It is the one thing you can count on to do really well."

The audience for horror films has expanded in recent years with the rise of PG-13 horror films, according to Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria magazine.

"A lot of the people going to those films have been young girls, 13-year-old teenage girls, 15-year-old teenage girls who were weaned on TV shows like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' and they kind of were empowered by these characters so they went to go see movies like 'The Grudge' and 'The Ring,' 'Ring 2' because they had young female characters," Timpone said.

"They weren't gory. They were intelligent, and they empowered them so they felt for the first time, young girls, felt comfortable going to horror films and they didn't have to be dragged kicking and screaming by their boyfriends like in the past."

The audience then expanded "almost overnight" for horror films, Timpone said.

"Now they're finding that 65 percent of the people at opening weekend for a horror film, especially a PG-13 horror films, are young girls, and 20 years ago you didn't have that," Timpone said. "Girls didn't like going to horror films. That was a boy thing."

"The film business here in [Los Angeles] is basically half made up of artists and half made up of accountants," said Leigh Whannel, co-author, producer and actor in "Saw."

"It is this weird meeting ground between art and commerce, so if something does well, then bang, they are on it. [In fake, mocking voice:] 'You know I love horror films. I always have, especially when that one was successful. That is when I started loving them.' We have been witness to that."

No horror filmmaker is naive enough to think Hollywood is enabling gore and backing these films to make a point about the zeitgeist. It's chiefly because lately the more red on the screen, the more green in the pockets of Hollywood.

"I've always had people say, 'How many buckets of blood? How many gallons of blood do you think are necessary to make a horror film?'" Craven said. "I could say, 'One drop.' It's not about the volume of blood. It's about the situation and the characters."

As for this weekend's big release of horror flick "Silent Hill," the ratings board slapped it with an R rating for "strong horror violence and gore, disturbing images, and some language."

Until America loses its appetite for terror and blood, you can expect even more murder, mayhem and "torture porn" coming to a theater near you.