Still from The Lady Vanishes (1938). Image Source: Making Nice in the Midwest.
This blog often comments on how popular culture reflects the changing times. In the mid-20th century, a genre connected to horror, the mystery thriller, similarly revealed cultural shifts at that time. Several of Alfred Hitchcock's films belonged to this genre, and he crucially adapted the genre's transition into modern horror by adding noir, crime, gore and ghost story elements. His films, Jamaica Inn (1939; see it here), Rebecca (1940; see it here), and The Birds (1963; see it here) are all adapted from stories by British writer, Daphne du Maurier. Du Maurier's novels are an eerie combination of mystery, suspense, ghost story, and thriller.
Unlike pure horror stories, du Maurier's mystery thrillers play on the imagination. They leave the reader with a deep sense of creepy uneasiness, a feeling that things have gone very, very wrong in ways that cannot be remedied. When they were published, du Maurier's novels were called mystery romances, but they involved elements of the paranormal not normally associated with romance. Du Maurier rarely explained much of what was going wrong in her stories: the characters were left, along with her readers, to wonder at the meaning of her intricate catastrophes. In a way, these mysteries symbolically parallelled the history of the 20th century, with its brutal changes, social destruction, bloodbaths and genocides, which were overtly explained but to this day have not been deeply understood.
Mystery thrillers were especially popular from the 1930s to the 1980s. They involved new circumstances adversely affecting established families, their wealth and their old houses. Another common symbol in these dramas was the train, the driving mechanical force of a departing era. The train became emblematic of a self-enclosed mystery, hurtling through the darkness, on which any of the 20th century's social and economic tensions could resolve themselves in murder. Good cinematic examples which used the train symbol included The Lady Vanishes (1938; director: Alfred Hitchcock; see it here) and Night Train to Munich, a British film which as early as 1940 actually depicted a mock set of a German concentration camp (1940; director: Carol Reed; see it here; thanks to -C.).
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
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