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Gore Galore: 'Shock' And The Birth Of Fright Films

In the early 1980s, in San Antonio, my brother used to watch a local horror television show every Friday at midnight. I was young, but occasionally I'd sneak out of bed and join him. (Sorry, Mom.) Even the show's introduction, complete with eerie music and the title written in blood-red letters, creeped me out: "Project Terror," the announcer would say ominously, "where the scientific and the terrifying emerge!"

In retrospect, the movies the show featured were more old and campy than scary, but they always gave me nightmares as a little boy. (I remember being particularly terrified by Them!, a 1954 film about, as I recall, comically large nuclear mutant ants.) Luckily, we hadn't yet discovered the more recent films, the ones that broadcast TV couldn't really show at the time — what author Jason Zinoman calls "the New Horror." He's referring to the fright films of the late 1960s and 1970s, when directors — bored with the kitsch of movies like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein — started to amp up the violence, gore and general scariness of the genre.

In Shock Value, Zinoman, a theater reporter for The New York Times, chronicles the birth of the New Horror, a movement ushered in by young filmmakers like Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper — directors who "pushed the monster movies of their childhood toward something that looked like high art." Zinoman tells the fascinating stories behind the dark, shocking films we now consider classics of the era, like Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and Halloween (1978).

These movies, he writes, were notable not just because they gleefully ignored longstanding cinematic taboos, but for what they said about society: "The central message ... is that there is no message. The world does not make sense. Evil exists, and there is nothing you can do about it."

Not only is Shock Value enormously well-researched — the book is based on the author's interviews with almost all of the movement's principals — it's also an unbelievable amount of fun. Zinoman writes with a strong narrative drive and a contagious charisma. He is clearly enjoying himself, but he has done his homework, and ends up with some remarkable stories: Did you know that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) exists only by the good graces of "a few underemployed small-town actors, the governor of Texas, and members of a major Mafia family in New York"?

You don't have to be a horror fan to love Shock Value, but you'll probably love it more if you relish the memory of being freaked out by the horror movies of your youth. There's a reason, Zinoman writes, that many of us associate horror movies with our childhoods — they remind us of the complex vulnerabilities of childhood and help us relive a "feeling of helplessness that is as attractive as it is upsetting." Horror movies, "while they will never be quite as scary as the first time you see them ... can still give you the shivers decades after they were made. They endure, like great art does."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.