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On Media and the Matter of Horror

In one of his most interesting chapters, “The Visions Before Us,” Dichter deals with the mass media. His company was given an assignment to find out why soap operas were so popular. The networks assumed that women who listened to these radio shows and watched the soaps on television were unusual and different from women who didn’t like this kind of programming. What his research found was that this assumption was wrong.

As he explains (1960:190):

What we did discover, however, was that the serials were not much different from fairy tales, or, for that matter, from Shakespearean dramas or modern stage shows. Almost all forms of communication represent interpretations of real life. They act as a lens through which the reader or listener can see life as it really is.

Literature and works in what we now would call mass-mediated culture, Dichter points out, widen the horizons of readers and viewers and take care of a psychological need people have to make sense of their lives. The mass media function, then, as a means of teaching people about life, of giving them lessons in everyday psychology. One problem is that the mass media “tend to perpetuate mental laziness, stereotyped reactions, and stock responses” (1960:195).

For example, people watch television programs because they satisfy various needs people have and if we want to people to watch “better” programs, we have to make sure these programs still satisfy these needs, but at a higher level. This leads to a fascinating analysis of horror films. He starts of his discussion as follows (1960:195, 196):

We conducted a study of horror shows and found the following: Horror films horrify and fascinate us because they show us forces out of control. What is horrifying is that the uncontrollable monster is, in many aspects, really ourselves. What is fascinating is that we would not really mind being a little bit out of control every once in a while, if only just to redress the balance. Central to all horror films today is the unmotivated lethal impulse of some kind of monster and the total inability of these monsters to control it, as well as the almost total inability of society to control the monsters.

He lists some of the classic horror films and suggests they all deal, ultimately, with power. I show these relationships in the following chart:

Frankenstein, the power of the creator

The Invisible Man, the power of omnipotence

King Kong, the power of brutishness

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the power of knowledge

Dracula, the power of resurrection

The reason society cannot control these creatures, he asserts, is that they are really reflections of society’s own guilt over such things as their responsibility for creating them and for not recognizing their essential humanity. There is an ambivalence found in these monsters—is the evil in the monster or in his creator?

There are, Dichter tells us, various gratifications audiences get in watching horror films or other horror texts found on television, in books, in video games, and so on (1960:197):

The film’s society is a victim of both the monster without and the monster within. So it is with the audience watching the film. In the form of the monster, they have the vicarious and powerful expression of their own grudges against the powers that be; in the form of the monster’s eventual punishment they have the vicarious and powerful expression of their own disapproval of their own impulses.

So horror films, and by extension all mediated texts, have a meaning that is available to those who know how to interpret them correctly. Media critics must recognize that people’s involvement with the media is connected to their participating, in a sense, in the creative process, which both gives them pleasure and helps them make sense of their lives and the world.

As Dichter puts it (1960:199):

Almost all media, therefore, on different taste and culture levels, are lessons in living, whether in dramatic form, in psychological textbooks, or through paintings or magazines. They represent attempts to cut through the confusing chaos of everyday life and get closer to the essence of living.

Dichter’s analysis of horror stories and other media provides a valuable methodological perspective for media critics and analysts. People crave the structuration and simplification that the media provide. These insights can also be used, he adds, by social scientists who wish to us the media to spread socially valuable messages. We are now using the media to try to convince children and adolescents to stop smoking or taking drugs. The power to persuade can, we see, have positive aspects.

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