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Genre case study - Horror

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:

1930s

Dracula movie poster

Dracula

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.

1960s

Psycho movie poster

Psycho

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)

1980s

Friday the 13th movie poster

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 movie poster

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.

1990s

Scream movie poster

Scream

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)

Resident Evil cover art

Resident Evil (game)

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 movie poster

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 movie poster

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)

2000s

The Grudge movie poster

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 cover art

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 movie poster

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 movie poster

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)

Housebound movie poster

Housebound

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

A stack of horror videos

Useful links

Glossary

Banned
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'.
Gratuitous
Over the top, extreme, unnecessary.
OFLC
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)