The horror films of the late '60s and '70s were virtual altars to the powers of Beelzebub (until Jaws swam in). Considering the politics of the day, we hungered for a big, evil target, the kind that caused Linda Blair's green vomit in The Exorcist. The unsettling nuances of Polanski's stellar Rosemary's Baby notwithstanding, there never was much subtlety to these films (Jerry Goldsmith's hysterically overwrought score for The Omen makes Carmina Burana sound genteel), but who wants subtlety when there's long-distance pea soup expectoration involved? These were simple terrors, with houses (The Amityville Horror, with James Brolin) and even automobiles (1977's The Car, with James Brolin -- nothing frightens this man, not even Barbra Streisand) getting into the demonic scene.
The horror genre has been in full swing for at least the past few years, yet it has been determinedly earthbound, with an excess of irony. Horrifying violence is now a staple of our media environment; it's practically a requirement on most of the drooling, syndicated infotainment shows like Hard Copy. What's so scary about the supernatural when any number of factual serial killer chronicles glut the paperback aisle at Safeway? Audiences -- especially teens, the main market -- have not been allowed the pleasures of escape without Hollywood winking at them, telling them that they're really above the idea of fear. The Blair Witch Project was ingeniously, teasingly frightening, but I have a feeling most teenagers are responding more to its "you-are-there" aesthetics than to its hinted terrors. Teenage victims in the Scream series and other slasher films roll their eyes at the thought of Lucifer; they're too busy avoiding the knives of their classmates (which provides its own social commentary in light of far too many recent events). Even the otherworldly terrors of The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes have more to do with personal redemption than they do with any spiritual tensions.
With the end of the century on its way, things may be looking up, or down, as it were. Our uncertain futures will probably inspire a craving for less ambiguous scares. The success of The Sixth Sense means that Hollywood will let us pretend again. Word has it that December brings us films featuring a devil-stalking Schwarzenegger and, um, Winona Ryder (I'll buy anything once). Personally, I think we'll all be more relaxed when we start focusing on something ridiculous like 666 rather than Y2K.