Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

In 1968, George Romero’s seminal horror movie, The Night of the Living Dead, was released. It was a line of demarcation. Old Horror came before and New Horror came after. Shock Value takes a look at the fertile ground from 1968 through the early 80s, that saw a new wave of horror filmmakers and their highly influential films and ideas. Filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dan O’Bannon, and Tobe Hooper. Films like Halloween, The Last House on the Left, Alien, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In well documented chapters you get to learn more about these filmmakers, their thoughts and philosophies, and some of their theories about horror and making films. 

The book also has a couple of almost standalone chapters that are must reads for any horror fan: The Monster Problem and The Fear Sickness

“The toughest challenge of every monster movie is making the appearance of the creature live up to expectations. It’s what everyone is waiting for. If you do not show the fifty-foot woman or the blob or the human fly, the audience will be disappointed. Then again, the giant man-eating rat under the bed will always be scarier than the one in front of your face. This is simply how the mind works. No matter how monstrous the giant rat appears, it is never as big or as vile as the rat you dreamed up inside your brain. This is the reason that most horror movies fall apart soon after the monster appears. O’Bannon and Carpenter agreed that the scariest parts of their favorite horror films were in the waiting. But the audience would also feel cheated if they never saw the monster. That presented the critical challenge of the horror movie. Call it “The Monster Problem.”

In The Monster Problem, the New Horror filmmakers grappled with The Monster Problem in  different ways. Their different approaches were in constant dialog with one another culminating in the first film to fully solve The Monster Problem, the iconic chest bursting scene in Alien.

Critic Pauline Kael used the term “fear sickness” as a throwaway line in, oddly enough, The Long Goodbye:

“I think it’s more likely that in the current craze for horror films like “Night of the Living Dead” and “Sisters” the audience wants an intensive dose of the fear sickness–not to confront fear and have it conquered but to feel that crazy, inexplicable delight that children get out of terrifying stories that give them bad dreams.”

In The Fear Sickness chapter Zinoman takes an extended look at what it is about the horror genre that is so appealing to its fans.

Shock Value is a must read for fans of the horror genre. Viewers will go back to those classic films with fresh eyes and new perspectives. The book also has broader appeal to those interested in filmmaking and fans of 70s cinema.

Highly recommended

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