Grotesque attractions: Genre history, popular entertainment, and the origins of the horror film
In his seminal article “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde” (1986), Tom Gunning writes that the “relation between films and the emergence of the great amusement parks, such as Coney Island, at the turn of the century provides rich ground for rethinking the roots of early cinema.” While Gunning’s work situates early cinema in general within modern forms of mass popular entertainments, I carve out a slightly narrower path arguing that the long history of displaying cultural attractions that tap into the public’s desire for the odd, the curious, the “abnormal,” and the horrific—what I call grotesque attractions—at institutions such as carnivals, circus sideshows, and dime museums serves as a crucial influence on the formal and thematic conventions of the classic era horror film as well as their promotion, exhibition, and reception.
My project uses the concept of the grotesque as a framework for contextualizing the origins, conventions, and reception of the horror film genre as it develops during the silent and early sound periods in Hollywood and Europe. Throughout this dissertation the grotesque becomes a central characteristic which serves to both define the underlying themes and formal structures of the horror film as well as to connect the horror genre across various media (literature, theater, radio, film) and across institutions of modernity where grotesque objects, animals, and individuals were displayed under the blurred and intertwined banners of “science” and “entertainment.” Like these other grotesque forms, the horror film genre blurs a number of boundaries and categories that organize modern Western culture since the Enlightenment such as natural and supernatural, human and animal, normal and abnormal, science and entertainment, and fact and fiction. Horror films provide a safe haven for experiencing the grotesque and horrific, but at the same time playfully undermine that feeling of safety through publicity strategies and narrative structures that intensify our emotional affect and blur the boundaries between the fictional world and the space of the spectator. While the dominant models of classic Hollywood cinema claim self-effacement, invisibility, and even passivity as defining traits, considering the horror film as a form of grotesque attraction presents an alternative model: one of presentation, attraction, self-consciousness, and interactivity.
0900: Film studies