Horror cinema: an experience through the senses

Written by: Alice Locatelli

When the movie Freaks! by Tod Browning was released in 1932, the public found the images of the movie too crude and disgusting, leading MGM to delete several scenes due to the “horrified response to the preview screening” (Stafford, 2017). The movie was a flop at that time, and only in the last few decades it has been rediscovered: today it is considered a cult movie and the masterpiece of the American director.


During the history of cinema there were many similar cases: some people felt sick and fainted during the screenings of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973); in 2004, a woman died by heart attack during a screening of The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson (CNN, 2004).

When we watch a movie, we are affected by images at an unconscious level, and with some kind of movies our whole body can perceive what is happening on the screen. According to Elsaesser and Hagener, three genres in particular generate uncontrolled reactions: melodrama, horror, and pornography. Horror, in particular, is interesting because of the strong sensations that it transmits to the audience. As stated by the two theorists:

“The horror film is important here for three reasons: first, because it displays images of the abject […]. Second, [it] combines the monstrous with the abject. And third […] horror film connects the abject with the maternal.”

Today, compared with the 1932 audience of Freaks!, we are more used to horror images. However, there are still cases in which we cannot control our reactions. During the screening of Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016, the story of a young vegan girl that find herself to be a cannibal during college) at the last year Tiff, many people left the cinema horrified by the images, and in Los Angeles, a cinema decided to include a “barf bag” with the ticket of the movie (Foxnews, 2017). When we watch this kind of films, we become extremely aware of our body, and we experience some kind of feelings and reactions that we rarely experience in the real world, in particular in the case of horror movies.


CNN.com (2004). Report: Woman dies watchin “Passion”. Online resource, available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2004/US/Central/02/26/passion.death.reut/

Elsaesser, Thomas; Hagener, Malte (2010). Film Theory. An Introduction Through the Senses. New York: Routledge.

Foxnews.com (2017). “Raw” movie ticket includes barf bag. Online resource, available at: http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2017/03/22/theater-hands-out-barf-bags-during-showings-raw.html

Stafford, Jeff (2017). Freaks. Turner classic movies. Online resource, available at: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/460%7C0/Freaks.html


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s