No one walked away from the gang rape of The Last House on The Left without a deep scar, knowing full well, “I can’t un-see this.” It was disturbing, and it was all too real. Real, this key word is where the horror films of the 1970’s stood out against everything else in the horror genre. Horror has always had a fantastical element, but the heavy hitters of the 1970’s reacted against this and scared us through regular, relatable people experiencing very realistic danger. In the back of every horror fan’s mind in a 1970’s theatre was the expression, “that could be me!”
This era featured characters that viewing audiences could easily find themselves in and derived its horror from everyday situations. In past decades, the fantastical was scary, in the 1970’s, everyday life was absolutely terrifying.
Going through the list of the major horror films of the 1970’s, one finds this relatability is a key feature throughout all of them. In Halloween Laurie Strode is an average teenager, who finds mass murder while partaking in what a majority of teenage girls did, babysitting. The victims of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were a group of young people out for a country drive to revel in nostalgia at the old family home. In The Exorcist, Regan is possessed because she simply played with a common a board game, the Ouija Board.
The girls in The Last House on the Left did what most people did before a concert, stopped to buy pot. The prevailing message throughout the horror films of the 1970’s was the horror was derived from your life and the victim was you. It is this ability to relate itself to everyday people, and make them fear everyday situations that makes the terror of a 1970’s horror film stay with the viewer long after they leave the theatre and truly makes the horror films of the 1970’s the most memorable in the genre’s history.
To put this in perspective, compare the relatability of the characters in the 1970’s horror wave to that of the 1930’s golden age. Dracula is about wealthy aristocrats and doctors, who own a sprawling property in London. Frankenstein focuses on the work of a doctor, and the protagonists of The Mummy are archaeologists. These characters are out of touch with the general population viewing this films.
Contrast this with Bob Carter of The Hills Have Eyes, a father and police officer on a drive with his family who’s car crashes on the side of the road; a very real life and relatable occurrence. The viewer can easily find themselves within the blue collar character and relate to the very common inciting incident that acts as the launching point for the ensuing horror. It made the implication that unspeakable horror awaits the most average viewer in the most average, everyday situations. Let’s face it, a person leaving a 1930’s movie theatre has no worry of Frankenstein’s monster chasing them through the streets. But a 1970’s film fan can easily be worried about being murdered after their losing control of their car on a desolate road, while on vacation. By relating to the viewer, the horror films of the 1970’s had the ability to scare you long after you left the theatre.
But relatabilty was used in the 1970’s to go beyond frightening the viewer to making a comment about society. George Romero used this feature in Dawn of the Dead to make a comment about the consumerism rampant in the society of the time. When Stephen says, “it’s ours, we took it,” and fires at the invading bikers, he causes his untimely death at their hands.
What is key to the scene is that the audience never questions the actions of Stephen and the film’s other main characters. The characters put themselves in great danger and lose one of their own in securing the mall. Due to this factor, defending their consumer goods seems justified to the viewer. If the viewer had a mall full of creature comforts they would do exactly what the characters from Dawn of the Dead did, and use them to create a more comfortable life. It is through this relatability that the viewer sees themselves in Stephen and can easily conclude they would have done the same thing. When Stephen, and ultimately the viewer, fires at the bikers, they are not just defending their “stuff”, they are defending their way of life. It is at this point, through the fact that the viewer would have done the same thing, the film’s ultimate comment strikes you, “your possessions own you.”
The very great ease with which one could place themselves within the films, and the subsequent terror, is what makes the 1970’s horror wave the most effective in history in regards to horror’s greatest purpose, to scare you. But what of the decade’s lasting legacy? Horror has returned to an element of the fantastical, but the influence of the 1970’s wave can still be felt.
Horror is still very much focused on real life characters. Sinister and the Insidious series derive their horror from ghost folklore but are still focused on average families, much like The Exorcist. Wolf Creek derives inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by focusing on a group of travelers. The trademark slasher genre is still carried on through masterpieces like High Tension.
The legacy of the 1970’s horror wave continues to live on in modern horror by providing us with highly relatable and average characters, scaring the viewer by making it very easy to say, “that could be me.”