John Belton’s chapter in American Cinema/American Culture, titled “Horror and Science Fiction” provides readers with a great overview of the two genres. For my own purposes, I am going to focus on Belton’s reading of American horror cinema.

According to Belton, horror and scifi cinema often overlap, however, they can be separated by their distinctive tone and mode of address. For horror, which is a modal genre meant to inspire horror, fear, and/or dread in its audience, the tone is “suspenseful, shocking, irrational, and horrific” (271), while its  mode of address is “oh no!” (as opposed to scifi’s “What if?”). Both genres have the same chief concern: what does it mean to be human? Humans and their values are threatened by the monster, which attacks normality and societal values. The monster stands for society’s repressed (i.e.: the human id, irrationality, minority genders, sexuality, race, and/or class). To be human is to be rational, but sometimes knowledge is dangerous. Other times, filmic heroes must experiment to rationally defeat the monster (i.e.: You’re NextA Nightmare on Elm Street, IT, Friday the 13th, etc.). Contemporary horror films trace their lineage to 19th century novels. Both genres respond to Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution anxieties. There are two US horror film time periods:

Classic (1930-60) Modern (1960-Now)
  • Inspired heavily by gothic literature and expressionism
  • Val Lewton’s more anonymous monsters focus on psychological rather than physical threats
  • Most films were set in Europe and in the past
  • Situates horror in the USA.
  • Period begins with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)
  • Monster is the product of the modern American family and/or society. These are domestic and contemporary horrors.
  • Culture of consumption: we will eventually consume each other!
  • MANY subgenres, including, but not limited to: slashers, splatter, demon child (sometimes big budget, more often high-brow), the living dead/zombie, body horror, etc.

Women and monsters are equally managed within horror cinema via fetishization (the over investment in parts of body to make up for lack in other places). It’s hard to see humanity in today’s violent and posthuman world, so horror can be a comforting and affirming genre.

Connections to other texts on my lists: He directly cites Robin Wood and performs a close-reading of Carrie. He also mentions the novels Dracula and Frankenstein and their relationship to class.

Although he doesn’t mention Barbara Creed and Carol Clover, he could easily be connected!

I like… viewing horror as a “modal genre” concerned primarily with the production of feeling; the major roles of irrationality, experimentation and dangerous knowledge in horror cinema; the American family/society as producers of monsters; his “culture of consumption” connection to modern horror.


  1. Belton claims that horror doesn’t look to the future (but science fiction does), it only looks to the past. What about The Purge series, most zombie movies, etc?
  2.  American Psycho seems to work against Belton’s ‘regular’ horror form of humanity moving to solve the problem of the monster. Instead, the monster is trying to explain himself (but not really caring about it).

American Cinema / American Culture: “Horror and Science Fiction” (1994) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.