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Case Study 3 The Horror Genre Of Films

What does 'horror' mean?

The word 'horror' can be defined as "intense fear, shock, or disgust". When people think of horror in a film or game they might think of blood, gore and violence. Horror can also be used to describe a film or game containing supernatural themes, or frightening or disturbing content. A wide range of films and games might have some horrific content in them, but the horror genre focuses on horrific content in a sustained way:

Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience's primal fears. Inspired by literature from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, horror films have for more than a century featured scenes that startle the viewer. The macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes. Thus they may overlap with the fantasy, supernatural, and thriller genres.

From the 'Horror film' page on Wikipedia

The use of 'horror' on a descriptive note refers to content which is designed to be scary, shocking or disturbing, including supernatural or gratuitous bloody violence - for example, films such as Shaun of the Dead (R13) which features zombies who "have blank milky eyes, vacant facial expressions and stilted co-ordination and are often in a state of decomposition with blood, wounds and viscera over their bodies", and Jennifer's Body (R16) in which:

...her victims' gory injuries are depicted. They are seen lying with their abdomens ripped open, and there is the suggestion of entrails and blood. At one point a deer is seen licking at a bloody corpse, and in another gory scene Jennifer eats the contents of a victim's abdomen with her hands.

Office of Film and Literature Classification Decision for Jennifer's Body (2009)

The note is generally used on films and games in the horror genre (though not all films or games in the horror genre will have the note).

'Horror' is part of our core criteria

Horror is part of the core criteria outlined in the Classification Act which are called the 'subject matter gateway'.

For a film to be classified as Objectionable (banned) by the Classification Office, it must in some way deal with one of the following five subjects, known collectively as 'the subject matter gateway': sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence. Something containing 'gateway' criteria can also be age-restricted, along with things like offensive language or dangerous imitable conduct. By being specifically included in the criteria, this means that potentially disturbing psychological or supernatural horror content can be restricted even if there is no sex or violence (for example) in the film.

Remember that horror doesn't only refer to something in the horror genre. For example a graphic war movie might include horrific injuries.

Extent, Degree and Manner

If there are elements of horror in a film or game, we must consider the way the horror is depicted in terms of extent, degree, and manner.

Extent refers to length or running time - how much horror is there in the film or game? Does it dominate the entire running length or play time, or only make up a small part of it? Are there extended scenes designed to instil fear, shock or disgust?

Degree refers to intensity - how strong is the horror? Is it more implied or is it graphic?

Manner refers to the way the horror is presented - is it funny? Is it frightening and gory? Is it realistic, or over the top and gratuitous?

History of horror

The types of content being presented in films and games has changed significantly over time as a result of advances in technology and changes in society. Here are some examples of horror films and games that have been classified in New Zealand over the years:



Classified by: the Chief Censor of Films (CCF).
Legislation:1916 Cinematograph-film Censorship Act.

The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula, after hypnotizing a British soldier, Renfield, into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina, the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing is enlisted to put a stop to the count's never-ending bloodlust.

Dracula (1931) was classified 'A', which translates to PG under today's legislation.



Classified by: the Chief Censor of Films (CCF).
Legislation:1957 Film Censorship Regulation; 1961 Cinematograph Films Act; 1976 Cinematograph Films Act; Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

Marion Crane stops for the night at the ramshackle Bates Motel and meets the polite but highly strung proprietor Norman Bates, a young man with an interest in taxidermy and a difficult relationship with his mother.

Psycho (1960) was originally classified R18 with cuts required. The classification was amended in 1977 to be R16 with cuts required. Then in 1992 the cuts were waived, meaning that the classification of the uncut (full) version of the film was R16. In 2016 the film was submitted to the Classification Office and classified unrestricted M 'violence and content that may disturb'.

Find out what the Chief Censor of Films cut out of Psycho (PDF, 63KB)


Friday the 13th

Classified by: the Chief Censor of Films (for film) and Video Recordings Authority (for video).
Legislation:1976 Cinematograph Films Act.

The film follows a group of teenagers who have come to Crystal Lake in an attempt to reopen an abandoned campground which closed years before after a child drowned in the lake. A mysterious killer begins stalking and killing them one by one.

Friday the 13th (1980) was classified R16 with cuts required.

Find out what the Chief Censor of Films cut out of Friday the 13th (PDF, 29KB)

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Classified by: the Chief Censor of Films (for film) and Video Recordings Authority (for video).
Legislation:1983 Films Act.

In Wes Craven's classic slasher film, several Midwestern teenagers fall prey to Freddy Krueger, the vengeful ghost of a serial killer who preys on the teenagers in their dreams - which, in turn, kills them in reality.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was classified as 'RP16: contains violence'. This film spawned seven sequels, making it one of the most well known horror film franchises.



Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

This film introduced a more 'post-modern' approach to horror which was reproduced in other films following its release. In these types of films, characters are aware of the typical things that happen in horror films - in some cases this knowledge helps them to save themselves, sometimes it doesn't.

Scream (1996) was classified 'R16: contains violence and offensive language'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R16 classification of Scream (PDF, 109KB)

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

The original 'survival horror' game is famous for drawing on horror film tropes, such as its spooky mansion setting, use of skewed camera angles, jump-scares, zombies and monsters - together with its B-movie plot. It was one of the first games to be classified by the Classification Office due to the horrific and disturbing nature of some of its content.

Resident Evil (1996) was classified 'R16: contains horror scenes and violence'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R16 classification of Resident Evil (PDF, 182KB)

I Know What You Did Last Summer

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

The late 1990's saw the release of a number of horror films aimed at the teenage market. These films featured popular and well-known young actors, and weren't as violent or gory as films from earlier decades.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) was classified as 'R16: contains violence'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R16 classification of I Know What You Did Last Summer (PDF, 85KB)

The Blair Witch Project

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

This film has been described as a 'landmark' in film-making, with its subtle marketing campaign and hand-held point of view camera style leading many viewers to believe that they were watching actual footage of a doomed expedition by some young film students. A number of 'found footage' films were inspired by The Blair Witch Project.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) was classified 'R13: contains realistic horror and offensive language'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R13 classification of The Blair Witch Project (PDF, 38KB)


The Grudge

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

This film was one of many American productions based on Japanese films.

The Grudge (2004) was classified as 'R16: contains horror scenes'. This film was originally cross-rated from the Australian rating of M. As a result of complaints from members of the public the film was examined by the OFLC and the classification changed to R16.

Case study on the classification of The Grudge

Alan Wake (game)

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

Alan Wake (2010) is a survival horror game for Xbox 360. It's plot and episodic structure (with periodic cutscenes) is reminiscent of a TV mystery thriller series, and there are numerous references to TV shows and films such as Stanley Kubrick's famous horror film The Shining.

Alan Wake (2010) was classified 'R16: violence and horror'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R16 classification of Alan Wake (PDF, 98KB)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) is a fantasy-horror action film about the secret life of American president, Abraham Lincoln. It combines large-scale set battles and elaborate fight scenes with more traditional horror elements. We used this film for Censor for a Day in 2012.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was classified 'R16: violence and horror'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R16 classification of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (PDF, 104KB)

The Cabin in the Woods

Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a comedy-horror film designed as a twist on traditional slasher or monster movies in which scientists are manipulating the horrific events experienced by some holidaying college students.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) was classified 'R16: violence, horror, drug use and offensive language'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R16 classification of The Cabin in the Woods (PDF, 108KB)


Classified by: Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Legislation:Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

Housebound (2014) is a New Zealand comedy-horror film about a young woman sentenced to house arrest in her family home, which she begins to think might be haunted. We used Housebound for Censor for a Day in 2014.

Housebound (2014) was classified 'R13: violence, horror scenes and offensive language'.

OFLC's summary of reasons for the R13 classification of Housebound (PDF, 128KB)

Case studies - books, music and other stuff

50 Cent - The Massacre

R16: contains violence, sexual references and offensive language.
The Special Edition CD/DVD set of rapper 50 Cent's album The Massacre was submitted for classification to the Office of Film and Literature Classification by the Department of Internal Affairs on behalf of a member of the public. Find out more about 50 Cent - The Massacre

Genre case study: Animation

Animated films and DVDs submitted to the Classification Office are generally aimed at an adult audience and often contain strong violence, offensive language or sexual content. While the Classification Office doesn't classify television broadcasts, it does classify DVD box sets of television shows such as South Park and Family GuyFind out more about Genre case study: Animation

Into the River

This controversial book was initially rated M, but changed to R14 by the Board of Review on appeal. The Classification Office changed it to Unrestricted after reconsideration. Following a second appeal, the Board of Review also classified it as Unrestricted after temporarily placing it under an Interim Restriction Order. Find out more about Into the River

Useful links


For a publication to be banned it must in some way deal with one or more of sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence. These things can also lead to a publication being age-restricted.
Classification Officer
Official title for a censor. Classification officer's examine publications when they are submitted for classification.
Descriptive note
The extra wording on a classification label which warns people of content in the film e.g. 'M: contains sexual references and offensive language'.
Over the top, extreme, unnecessary.
Office of Film and Literature Classification. Since 1993 the OFLC has been responsible for classifying all publications, including films, videos, books and video games. Banned films are classified as 'Objectionable'.
Subject matter gateway
In 2000, a Court of Appeal decision about a publication first coined the phrase 'subject matter gateway'. The Court said:

[28] The words used in s3 [of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act] limit the qualifying publications to those that can fairly be described as dealing with matters of the kinds listed. In that regard, too, the collocation of words "sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence", as the matters dealt with, tends to point to activity rather than to the expression of opinion or attitude.

[29] That, in our view, is the scope of the subject matter gateway.

Court of Appeal decision 6 HRNZ 28 (2000)

Spoilers ahead for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

“The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.” That scripting advice from one screenwriter to another (both played by Nicolas Cage in 2002’s Adaptation), could practically be a diss aimed directly at Split. The latest effort from suspense maestro M. Night Shyamalan casts James McAvoy as mentally ill serial killer Kevin, and more specifically, as Jade, Hedwig, Patricia, Barry, and upward of a dozen more personalities splintering from Kevin’s unstable psyche. The personae wrestle for control of a single body as they carry out the dark work of kidnapping and preparing three teenage girls for sacrifice to something inhuman. This makes for one doozy of a trailer, but in mining terror from dissociative identity disorder (DID), Shyamalan travels one of horror cinema’s most well-trod paths, and faceplants into the same pitfalls that have tarnished scary movies for decades.

In short, we need to talk about Kevin. Or rather, Shyamalan does. The character’s original identity briefly surfaces late in the film, but most of the run time goes to the array of caricatures cooped up in the dysfunctional boarding house of his brain. The original personality is mostly an afterthought, a brief interlude in a hammy performance from McAvoy, clearly having the time of his life. The end of the film makes Kevin out to be a literal supervillain and dubs him “the Horde” — an appropriate fate, considering how intent Shyamalan seems on divorcing the character from the vulnerability that makes him compelling. He loses sight of Kevin’s fundamental humanity, and in doing so, misunderstands what can really make mental illness a terrifying ordeal. Loads of horror flicks have used mental abnormalities to create fearsome antagonists, but the best of them relate how these conditions also torment the afflicted, who can be as frightened by their own nagging thoughts as the audience is.

Where else could the phenomenon begin but with Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rosetta Stone for translating a huge chunk of modern horror cinema? The mind’s capabilities to misfire have frightened the public imagination since Jack the Ripper’s sociopathy cleared the streets of Whitechapel after dark, but Hitchcock was the first to put it into pop-psych layman’s terms. He vilified the brain itself, and its ability to turn on its owner and whisper troubling orders into the subconscious. Norman Bates’ mommy complex is torn straight from Freud 101, but Hitchcock lent the character more nuance than the analyst’s profile in the concluding scene suggests. Norman is the truest casualty of his tyrannical mother, and Hitchcock has a clear compassion for the character’s tragic dimension. Sympathizing with him and making him human makes him a richer character overall, and lends the murder scenes a stronger emotional and psychological undercurrent. Viewers are torn, sympathizing both with Norman’s victims and with Norman himself, and that ambiguity is what sticks long after the credits roll.

The ideal horror film makes its audience care about a mentally ill character, not just acknowledge their sickness and move right along. Sympathy doesn’t just make for more finely shaded characters — it combats the toxic real-world stigma that’s come from reprehensible depictions of mental illness. Plenty of works of fiction have used disorders to make their rogues’ gallery more distinctive and striking. But obscuring the underlying personhood of mentally struggling characters reinforces the harmful notion that people with mental disorders are somehow beyond human.

The Friday the 13th franchise began with another psychological case study, as grieving mother Pamela Voorhees descended into post-traumatic madness and took revenge on the camp counselors her fractured mind believed were responsible for the death of her son, Jason. The original film extended a minimum of sympathy to her, and offered the audience a disturbing look at how mental stressors can distort a mother’s love for her son into homicidal urges. The films that followed sacrificed whatever slight nuance they had by shifting the focus to Jason, an indestructible killing machine whose famed hockey mask deliberately rendered him a blank slate. It’s a lucrative but wrongheaded approach — a lack of basic relatability makes Jason larger (and more fearsome) than life, but it also rapidly reduced him to a caricature.

Split tops the Friday the 13th franchise in a walk, however. To its credit, Shyamalan’s script uses the more up-to-date term of dissociative identity disorder rather than “multiple-personality” to refer to Kevin’s condition. Not to its credit is the rest of the film, which repeatedly fixates on the brain’s potential to psychosomatically change a body’s physiology. Kevin’s analyst, Dr. Karen Fletcher, repeatedly spells out her controversial theory that DID grants sufferers extraordinary control of their bodies, citing such examples as a blind woman with a personality capable of vision, or a strongman personality spontaneously developing extraordinary strength. Shyamalan extends the concept to a cartoonish extreme when he introduces Kevin’s personality “the Beast,” which has superhuman abilities and a monstrous appearance. By the end of the film, Kevin is exhibiting abilities that amount to superpowers, somehow derived from what professional consensus indicates is his brain’s extreme coping mechanism to a fleetingly shown childhood of abuse. (Medical orthodoxy favors the notion that personalities fracture as an attempt to quarantine and compartmentalize harmful mental stressors.) The act of other-ing Kevin as a patient of DID isn’t even incidental; it’s the whole point. It’s hard to imagine a more squarely on-the-nose example of demonizing mental illness than portraying a mentally ill man as a literal demon.

Even when not deliberately toxic, many on-screen depictions of mental illness have been factually and flatly wrong. Plenty of myths have already been debunked; cases of alternate personalities turning violent are incredibly scarce, and cases of archly evil behavior are nonexistent. Sybil, starring Sally Field, is widely considered the definitive portrait of a dissociating psyche, but it’s a work of pure fiction. Shirley Mason, the real-life model for the theatrically disturbed character, has confessed that she was faking, and did not actually house multiple identities. The act of “flipping” from one mind to another has more dramatic heft than the reality of the situation, where patients slip between mental spaces.

Maybe a demand for baseline factual accuracy seems like nitpicking when it comes to scary movies. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the lone service of a horror picture is to scare the bejesus out of its audience. That’s fine — the problem isn’t just that Shyamalan’s approach compounds public distrust for the mentally unwell, it’s the way it ignores the rich potential for more complex storytelling and raw, visceral frights. Split works in quick jabs of terror, spooking the trembling teen captives with the occasional burst of violence or terror. Films that provide a window into an unwell mentality, however,cancolor every scene with free-floating fear. Black Swan had the good sense to take its visual and stylistic cues from the mental interior of Natalie Portman’s paranoid ballerina as she cracks under the pressure of the gig of a lifetime. Likewise, for Tim Robbins’ PTSD-stricken veteran in Jacob’s Ladder, chilling hallucinations can pop out of anywhere, keeping the viewer permanently on guard.

Mental illness does have its place in the horror genre, and it is scary. The feeling that your brain no longer follows the commands you give it, that your senses can’t be trusted, that you’re at the mercy of internal forces you can’t comprehend or control — it can be a nightmare sprung to life. It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to keep it all in perspective, and extend a grain of sympathy to affected characters, even as they slide further into their delusion. The world remembers Hannibal Lecter and his refinement coexisting with savagery, not Buffalo Bill, whose body dysmorphia transforms him into a snarling, feral animal. One is a character, the other’s a ghoul.

It’s possible that Shyamalan realizes this, too. When Kevin briefly appears, he’s a friendly figure, compared to his alternate personalities. But Shyamalan’s creaky dialogue and McAvoy’s detached stoicism in the moment make that moment ring false, more lip service than a character beat. The real Kevin seems to be a relatively normal guy, only faintly affected by his own psychosis. In that moment, all the tension and internal conflict evaporates, and any connection the audience may have had with him is instantly severed. That moment encapsulates the trouble with Split, and with the countless films that have made the same error: before we can feel her pain, we’ve got to feel his.