The 1960s was a new era for Hollywood, with the studio system broken and a catalogue of filmmakers breaking through with European inspired cinema. Along with industry changes, the America of the 60s had rising tensions overseas and at home in regards to the Cold War, Vietnam War, and Civil Rights Movement. These issues leaked into American cinema, specifically the horror genre.
While 1950s horror was ripe with alien invasions and radioactive monsters, the 1960s turned away from these narratives in favor of psychological thrillers. One of the most prominent filmmakers of the time was director Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his movies prior to the 60s were suspense films. However, his 1960 film Psycho ushered in one of the first slasher movies and marked the direction many scary movies would take in the following years.
Instead of featuring something supernatural or scientific, Psycho focused on a human killer who is mentally disturbed. This movie paved the way for more on screen violence in American cinema, something that would be evident in the 1970s. Along with graphic violence, the movie played up the horror of being watched.
Voyeurism was prominent during this time, as seen with the 1960 film Peeping Tom, which is about a man who films the deaths of the women he kills. This could be tied to the paranoia within America and specifically the film industry post-McCarthy Era, which had ended a few years prior to the release of these two movies.
There was also a fascination with exploiting the trauma of women, as seen in the two films mentioned above as well Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. In the case of Polanski, who is a convicted child rapist, and Hitchcock, who sexually harassed actress Tippi Hedren on set, this could be a reflection of the dark reality of Hollywood.
These more scandalous subjects could also be accredited to the fact that the Hays Code, which restricted depictions of queer and female sexuality, began to loosen up in the 60s. With a disregard for what was considered “morally acceptable,” more sexualized depictions of women made their way into mainstream films, specifically horror movies.
Rosemary’s Baby in particular has a woman lead the film, exploring issues about emotional abuse, rape, and pregnancy. While these subjects could not be explored in such depth years prior, the 1960s had filmmakers push for more controversial material, and these issues were being tackled in reality with the Second Wave of Feminism.
This film is also one of several horror movies that went back to using supernatural elements, something that had been pushed aside in favor of science-fiction in the 1950s. 1963’s The Haunting and 1961’s The Innocents are key examples of this, however, in the case of these films, the horror was not about the paranormal but about the mental decline of their characters.
These supernatural elements could also be used to distract from or code certain aspects of film that were targeted by the Hays Code. While the power of the code was dwindling in the 60s, it still had some standing, especially when it came to LGBTQ content. Years prior, coding monsters as queer allowed for minor LGBTQ inclussion, so horror was a genre perfect to subvert the code. However, demonizing queer people furthered harmful stereotypes.
While The Haunting is not about a lesbian monster, it is a film to feature a woman, Clair Bloom’s Theodora, who is interested in another woman. The movie had to be cautious because of censorship guidelines. However, supernatural horror’s history of including queer coded characters may be the reason why Theodora’s sexuality is able to be addressed in the film at all.
The 1960s were finding their own horror stories to tell with new fears percolating in society, but the tensions surrounding the Cold War were still present. While 60s horror films were not focusing on science-fiction, fear of invasion was prominent. This mixed with rising internal tensions about the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement led to a boom in films that focused on how people responded to “invasions.”
The best example of this is Night of the Living Dead. After the dead come back to life, a group of survivors must work together to get away from the impending threat, however, internal tensions lead to a divide amongst the group and in turn their deaths, commenting on the societal divide during the 60s.
What’s more revolutionary about the film is the fact the leading man is black and the movie subversiley addresses racial tensions in America. While making a film about race was not the original intent of director George Romero, the film has been interpreted as such since the lead, Duane Jones’ Ben, is trapped in a house with white people who consistently distrust and question him despite Ben saving them multiple times.
Since the movie did not intend to cast Ben as a black man, the character was written without any racial stereotypes, and when they cast Jones, he was not written to be more black, but instead he was written to be more intelligent. Furthermore, Jones had agency in terms of how his character was handled, especially when it came to scenes with Barbara and his death scene. As a result, the movie became a pinnacle in horror canon in regards to how the genre can addresses race.
Both the film industry and American society at large were changing during the 60s. With the residue of the McCarthy Era present and America divided over issues about gender, race and war, horror movies used the psychological and supernatural to address national anxieties. Where some films were a horrific glimpse into the dark truth about Hollywood, others catapulted conversations in ways that would impact future filmmaking.
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1960s horror films used the psychological and supernatural to comment on rising tensions in America about gender, sex, race and domestic issues.