Horror is a genre that has been chilling audiences to the bone since the dawning of time itself. Sadly, in more recent years, it appears as though the most sinister aspect of macabre movies is the garish vocabulary they splutter. Horror seems to have lost some of its respectability over time; the Oscars have hardly poked the genre with a stick since the likes of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Could this neglect be a result of the increasing use of curses and profanities in modern horror?
There are some movie-goers who see the English Language as a beautiful gothic mansion that is crumbling in the claws of modern lingo. They’d see it like trading in a luxury visit to Dracula’s castle for a sleazy stop-off at Bates Motel. Surely though, this must imply that there was once a peak of perfection in the history of the language, yet there is no record of this ever happening. Let’s be honest, Dracula’s castle isn’t exactly Buckingham Palace anyway. But still, the slang-busters among us insist on preserving this ‘perfection’.
If this is the case, then maybe the ‘deteriorating’ language is taking modern horror down with it. But who is to blame?
Some are quick to place the blame on our cousins across the pond. Even Prince Charles complained that Americans ‘make words that shouldn’t be’ that are ‘very corrupting’. America has been leaving her mark on the English language ever since that day in 1776 and with modern technologies such as television, the internet and (of course) cinema, the transferral of American-English into British-English has never been easier.
To be fair, it can’t be ignored that a lot of modern American horrors do spew out a lot of aggressive vocabulary that has managed to infiltrate our own way of speaking. Scream 4 (2011), for example, incorporated eleven vulgarities in the opening sequence alone (yes, I counted), as well as words and phrases such as ‘gross’ and ‘that sucks’ which could have easily been replaced with a much more respectable ‘that’s rather disgusting’.
But let’s be real. Two real-life teenage girls, as seen in the scene, are unlikely to sit and converse in the Queen’s English over crumpets and a cuppa. We all subconsciously change the way we speak depending on who we are around and the writers clearly used expletives in order to reflect a genuine situation. Also, but using such vocabulary, the likes of the legendary director Wes Craven are able to appeal to an audience much younger than themselves. It is highly unlikely that they purposely attacked the English Language in order to savagely degrade horror in the process.
Besides, hardly any common swear words actually originate from the States. It may surprise some that the ‘F’ bomb is actually of Germanic origin. Also, Britain started cataloguing vulgarities in the 1700s, with works such as Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (published in 1785), so it’s hardly fair to place the blame on a country that had barely established its own identity by that point. This therefore provides evidence that vulgarities have always existed and have been constantly changing over time just as any other aspect of language. According to Grose, an alternative way of ‘vomiting’ was ‘shitting’ through the teeth’.
Referring back to the Scream scene maybe it’s wrong to assume that all teenagers speak in such horrific fashion. Some could argue that maybe it isn’t teen-talk that influences horror scripts, but horror scripts that influence teen-talk. Some of the most famous horror movie quotes contain derogatory language, from ‘get away from her, you bitch’ (Aliens 1986) to ‘I recommend you shut the fuck up’ (Jennifer’s Body 2009). The gap between the quotes alone proves that cussing isn’t a new feature of horror. Though I would say it’s worth noting that ‘bitch’ could be considered a lot less garish than ‘fuck’, as it is traditionally used when referring to a female dog (obviously). Because of this, the stricter viewers who argue this case can suggest that the vocabulary used in horror movies is continuously decaying due to the sheer laziness of modern horror script writers.
Slang and expletives are treated as some kind of infectious disease, plaguing the language and bringing horror’s rep down with it. It has been said that terrible language is produced by carelessness, like when you use a damp spoon the sugar causing an unpleasant mixture of coffee coated mush. The question we are faced with is: is it modern horror that is wielding the spoon?
Challenging these ideas, I would argue that horror hasn’t become lazier, but more socially aware. In everyday situations people tend to consciously avoid using certain words for fear of seeming insensitive or unpleasant. For example, you would never catch anyone uttering the dreaded ‘N’ word… unless you’re watching a horror movie such as Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever. Most would regard such a word as ugly or socially unacceptable. My argument is that horror is a genre that forces its audience to see the ugly side of society, so it only makes sense for it to incorporate the ugly side of the English Language into its scripts. The clue is in the name; horror is supposed to horrify its audience, not just through visuals but through language too.
To put it bluntly, if you’re deeply offended by the language used in horror movies, then maybe you shouldn’t stray too far away from the Disney Channel. As for the language storm troopers who think that horror is ruining the English Language, to quote the lovely ladies of Scream 4: Shut the fuck up and watch the movie.
Written for my media piece at English Language A-Level. The theories covered include Jean Aitchison’s ‘damp spoon’ syndrome, ‘crumbling castle’ view and ‘infectious disease’ assumption.