In an astute comment on my post on horror versus humor in McCain's "The One" ad, Jens Fiederer writes, "I don't think horror diminishes glamor, horror is a glamor of its own. Watch some vampire films if you doubt that. If this ad is supposed to evoke horror..., it works WITH the glamor to paint a glamorous arch-villain and encourage those convinced to choose sides."
Jens is absolutely right to that glamour and horror often go together. The original meaning of glamour was, after all, a literal magic spell cast to deceive the viewer into seeing things that weren't there. "When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour o’er the eyes of the spectator," explained a 1721 glossary of poetry. The word's definition has obviously evolved, but glamour is still an illusion.
He's right, too, to single out vampires as a glamorous archetype. While horror comes in different forms, some decidedly unglamorous (e.g., Alien, Saw), a lot of horror, including vampire tales, depends on glamour: What starts out as beautiful and alluring is revealed to be terrible and life-destroying--and by then it's too late. Witness not only the vampire but the femme fatale, especially in her 19th-century form. Glamour promises escape and transformation; horror replaces escape with entrapment.
The mystery that creates glamour can also stoke suspicion and inspire audiences to imagine hidden horrors. A face in shadows can be alluring or frightening, depending on expectations and mood (cue scary music). Poison, the traditional tool of the femme fatale, is a particularly horrifying weapon, silent and invisible until it kills. Conspiracy theories, which conceive of secret plots, play on the arch-villain glamour Jens observes. What mere mortals could conceive and coordinate such vast maneuverings?
The turn from glamour to horror runs through some of our most resonant and enduring myths, from the Fall to Frankenstein. We're culturally inculcated with the belief that behind glamour's illusion is not dull reality, with its mix of good and bad, but something terrible and threatening. Not surprisingly, then, the substitution of horror for glamour can be powerfully persuasive, particularly in areas where the general public lacks knowledge or direct experience.
To take a modern example, beginning at least as early as Silent Spring the environmental movement used horror to destroy the glamour that mid-century culture had attached to such products of modern science as pesticides, plastics, and, of course, atomic (a.k.a. nuclear) power. This tactic was effective because it tapped pre-existing fears, as you can see from the many monster movies of the period. After decades of glamorizing the natural as good and portraying the artificial as horrific and dangerous, it's not surprising to find that even the "miracle of modern medicine" has been replaced in many people's minds by fears of insidious poisons and hubristic scientists. So we find ourselves in the 21st century tracking measles outbreaks caused by the belief, impervious to evidence, that vaccines cause autism.
Just because horror may puncture some of glamour's illusions does not make horror realistic. As Jens notes, horror has a glamour of its own. It is far more exciting than realism and, by "encourag[ing] those convinced to choose sides," often heightens the audience's sense of importance, wisdom, and moral worth.