How Real-Life Crimes Brought About the Dawn of ‘Daylight Horror’

Midsommar was not the first horror to utilise daylight (as many people have recently theorised), and quite a few directors had explored this stylistic choice before Ari Aster. It was the 1970s that saw a spike in this style’s popularity; some of the first horrors that come to mind when discussing daylight horror are The Wicker Man (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

What’s so interesting about daylight horror? Well anyone who knows even the slightest thing about horror can tell you that most of the scariest scenes in film history occur in the dark: Michael Myers creeping from the shadows, Freddy Krueger prancing down a dark street with murderous glee. The dark has an automatic psychological trigger for fear in us because of its potential to hide a vast unknown, so of course, horror uses this to its advantage and sets most of its scares at night. The introduction of daylight horror was an ambitious and peculiar direction for the genre as it subverts our internalised pre-notions for the safety of light and instead catches the audience off-guard.

Darkness can also promote unconscious fear by creating a claustrophobic feeling as it surrounds the character; light, however, can introduce an equally frightening state, that of isolation. The light can highlight a contrast between our small inconsequential characters and the vast, sprawling landscape they’re trapped within. The audience can now see and truly realise how helpless characters are in their environment. I believe that the adoption of daylight in horror is related to the surge in active serial killers during the 60s and 70s,which evoked a cultural feeling of helplessness.

Pop culture is a product of its time and can’t easily be isolated from its generational context. The 60s and 70s saw the conception of a new phenomenon that quickly grasped the attention of media and the public: serial murder. Though the 60s had been a decade of freedom, it’s lifestyle of roaming, hitch-hiking and wild festivals catalysed a slew of vicious attacks. The 70s existed under terrifying statistics like that of crime in the US being up 130% and murder up 62% (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Netflix, 2019). Murderers like the Manson Family, John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, the Hillside Strangler and Ted Bundy soon became household names and injected a dose of fear into society that it never recovered from. People no longer felt safe in their day-to-day lives – threats once perceived as hidden in the shadows had now escaped into broad daylight.

Subconsciously, the bubble of safety had popped. It’s an unwritten agreement we have that danger comes out in the dead of night – not lunchtime. Protagonists in horror films only had to survive the night and when they cross the sun-soaked finish-line, they were safe. During this era, however, danger did not keep to its allocated time-frame – children were snatched from playgrounds, and hitchhikers picked off the streets. Even just the idea that you were no longer safe in your familial neighbourhood was a frightening and jarring idea. Everyone could be in danger all the time and therefore film mirrored this constant paranoia on screen by having their characters too, realistically always in danger, no matter the light levels.

Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was directly inspired by real-life murderer, Ed Gein. Gein became infamous for his barbaric use of body parts – taken from both victims and graveyard raids – even using human skin to construct a lampshade. Although Gein was active in the late 50s, the increase of heinous crimes during the following decades were an unwelcome reminder of the type of horror that humans are capable of. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre dug into this horror and explored the fear of the other clashing with the familiar. Using a popular past-time for young adults – road trips – the film brought worlds together.

Chainsaw Massacre has the best and most unexpected bad guy introduction, where the audience (and characters) are caught completely off-guard by Leatherface’s sudden appearance. The setting of a large seemingly empty house would normally be cause for anxiety in horror, however because it was basked in daylight, the audience and characters were foolishly led to expect safety. The film mirrored the arrogance of people who, even when encroaching into new territories, thought they were as safe as they had always been before. They were in a new land, far from the sense of order they had travelled from and in this vast desert there was only chaos. Their environmental change can represent the shift society had taken from the civilised into a moral wasteland where terrifying crime could leap out even in presumed safe scenarios.

Another interpretation that could be argued is that this style was shining a light on how we, everyday people, are the true horrors. Instead of monsters under the bed, threat comes from people wearing flower crowns, skipping their way to murder. In The Hills Have Eyes, a traditional, red-blooded American family comes up against a “wild” family and yet, by the films conclusion, it’s our seemingly meek character, Doug, who viciously enacts revenge on the hill family, beating one to death. His true savagery is brought out from the dark depths of his psyche and laid bare for all to witness. The blinding desert light of this film only illuminates the monster this average person becomes.

This style of horror was also used to bring to light cultural fears that infected the conservative order of the past. Due to the Manson murders, cults and satanic rituals were on the mind of society in late 60s and 70s (Vox, 2016). The Wicker Man portrayed this fear of cults and combined it with the other popular societal anxiety of the time – hippies. For the conservative red-blooded American, hippies were a disease – a cult of drugs, sex, and ungodly deeds. Although the movement of hippies were bathed in positivity, there was a fear of something devious, something malevolent hidden under the surface. The Wicker Man illuminated this societal suspicion and demonstrated just what people feared – murderous cults shrouded in a robe of sunshine and flowers.

Culturally, the safe expectation of the familiar was being subverted. The rules no longer applied, and anyone could be at risk of being dragged from the blazing sunlight by a skin-masked butcher. The 1970’s was an eye-opening time for many and it was an era where you had to be on guard for danger day or night: whether at the beach, on a road-trip, or investigating the disappearance of a child on an isolated pagan island (well who hasn’t done that last one?). Horror simply illuminated cultural fears and used light to illustrate our now constant state of danger.


by Michaela Barton

Michaela is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow who watches far too much Netflix so might as well make a career out of it. Her one true love is procrastination but she’s also a fan of feminist and queer theory, ugly dad shirts, and abducting cats. You can find her on Twitter at @MichaelaBarton_

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