Horror films seem to reflect, in their plot, form, mise-en-scene, and other technical elements, the society in which they exist. The Cabinet of Doctor Calligari is an illustration of Weimar Germany, in an expressionistic sense, because the film is imbued with an air of strangeness, uncertainty, and imbalance. This is a parallel to German society in the 1920s, which has just lost WW1, and is entering into a period of harsh reparations, foreign control of German territory, and a fluctuating economy. There is very little known about the future of the German state, and people are suffering psychologically from the horrors of the Great War, leading to a country which was shrouded in danger and mental illness. Think of Cesar, the somnambulist, who had stark and pale makeup, gesticulated in large, unrealistic ways, and was barely human. He typifies the lack of clarity in the direction of the German state, not having clear gender, sexuality, or motivations; he is controlled by outside forces, and has no autonomy. The jagged sets and non-realistic colors, as well as the strange perspectives forced upon us by camera angles, all add to this general tone of uncertainty and “creepiness” which is so prevalent in German society.
Calligari then sets the precedent for horror films well into the future. To prove the argument that horror reflects societal values and emotions, we must analyze another period of filmmaking. Take the 1960s and 70s, where horror films are characterized by slasher flicks, extremely violent stabbing murders, and strange unknown terrors such as Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. What is the societal parallel? Well, the Vietnam war! It is a period where war was, for the first time, streamed at near-real time speeds to the West: to the home front. We were surrounded by actual violence, seeing the horrors of a war fought in the jungle, where chemical weapons were dropped on largely innocent civilians to tragic effect. No longer are horror films filled with a sense of unease. Instead they are replaced by openly violent scenes, with blood gushing (think Nightmare on Elm Street when Jonny Depp’s character is dragged into his bed), and unquestionable evil monsters who have no soul. One has to wonder about the parallel to the Viet Kong, another enemy largely unknown, with values so different to our own that we cannot emotionally connect in the least.
The horror genre consistently reflects the most terrible elements of our society, as Calligari illustrates. It’s almost like the Horror genre is attempting to deal with the elements of a culture which we otherwise wish to repress. We don’t want to remind ourselves, in a cognizant way, that Germany is on the brink of economic and social regression, nor that we are engaged in an ideological proxy war where war crimes of being committed. So horror films play an important role, it allows those terrible, unthinkable things to be dealt with in a fictional, often cathartic way. We can handle the uncertainty of Weimar Germany in a film about a somnambulist, and we can work through the horrors of the Vietnam War when we know every death is a matter of special effects.