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Emotion, Genre, and the Hollywood Paranoid Film

This piece was originally presented as a paper at the New Nightmares Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University in April 2008. I am currently working on an expanded version which will look more closely at anxiety in The X-Files, while also examining the role of anxiety in some other Hollywood genres.

The mental flow model of the viewer’s experience of the cinema proposed by Torben Grodal (1997, 1999, 2004) takes film genres to be forms constructed in order to evoke characteristic emotions that are intimately connected to generic themes and narrative structures. In this model, the horror film evokes the emotion ‘fear,’ producing autonomic responses of crying, shivering, and screaming in the viewer. Paranoia is frequently cited as a recurrent generic theme of the horror film (e.g., Orr 2000, Pratt 2001); and Kim Newman identifies a sub-genre of the ‘paranoid horror’ film in which ‘the Establishment is a monolithic, all-encompassing Evil’ (1988: 79). Grodal (1997: 172-173, 250-252) also links horror and paranoia. In this paper I argue that characteristic emotion of paranoia is not fear but anxiety, and films that evoke this emotional state in the viewer demonstrate numerous differences from the horror genre. These differences are evident in the type of emotional responses experienced by the viewer and the level of their intensity, as well as in the generic themes, and narrative structure of the paranoid film. The purpose of this paper is to distinguish paranoid films from the horror genre in Hollywood cinema, and I utilise the mental flow model in drawing this distinction. Consequently, this paper is at once an implementation of this model and a refinement of it.

The mental flow model of the film experience

Cognitive approaches to emotion in the cinema reject romantic and psychoanalytical theories of emotion as irrational negations of reality to assert that cognitions and emotions work together in allowing us to evaluate our environment and as a basis for adaptive behaviours. Emotions are action tendencies that require cognition to recognise the cause of emotions and to evaluate appropriate motor responses. Emotions are structured states that consist of physiological changes, feelings, and thinking; and have a particular object as their focus or target (Plantinga and Smith 1999).

For Grodal, the viewer’s experience of a film must be described as a temporal flow that proceeds from perception to (simulated) motor actions and is mediated by innate emotional functions and cognitive schemata. There are three modes of emotional functions: the telic mode consists of voluntary, goal-directed actions and thoughts; the paratelic mode consists of experiences, actions, and thoughts that take place without a specific goal; and the autonomic mode, which consists of non-voluntary emotional responses and is activated when the subject is unable to exert control over his or her situation. The activation of these modes is related to the forward flow of the narrative so that there is ‘a systemic relation between embodied mental processes and configurations activated in a given type of visual fiction and the emotional “tone” and “modal qualities” of the experienced affects, emotions, and feelings in the viewer’ (Grodal 1997: 3). The forward flow of narrative events in the diegetic world of a film guides the viewer through a sequence of emotional reactions, and is structured by canonical narratives that ‘consist of one or several central [characters], a series of emotion-evoking conditions, and a series of actions to alter conditions and to evoke preferred states’ (Grodal 1999: 137). In this model, the main film genres are based on innate features of mind and body, which presuppose specific mental mechanisms as their necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for their existence. Consequently, genres – as prototypical narratives – are constructed in such a way as to evoke a characteristic emotion (see Table 1).

Table 1 Some genres and their characteristic emotions (Grodal 2004)


An example of the cognitive approach to emotion and genre is the horror film, which may be described as a prototypical narrative in which a character (or characters) is confronted with a hypernatural antagonist producing autonomic responses that are transformed into telic emotional states that are the basis for (simulated) motor actions leading to the destruction of the antagonist. The viewer identifies with a character that is initially marked by an inability to act when confronted with a monstrous threat. This antagonist is hypernatural, deviating from norms of behaviour, the laws of physics, the known facts of history, and is usually supernatural or possesses seemingly superhuman qualities. Faced with such a threat, the character – and by identification, the viewer – experiences a state of paralysis, in which the inability to act triggers responses of shivering, trembling, crying, vaso-motor constrictions, breaking out in goose-pimples, and other autonomic responses (Grodal 1997: 172). This inability to act gives way to a telic mode of experience as the character overcomes the cognitive dissonances created by the antagonist to understand the nature of the threat encountered, devises a pan to eliminate that threat, and successfully executes it. The narrative structure of the horror film guides the viewer through a progression from autonomic to telic modes of experience, from the unwanted emotional state of fear to the preferred emotional state of safety. Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), for instance, is a prototypical horror narrative, in which the heroes are confronted with an immortal vampire capable of changing his physical form and therefore represents a hypernatural threat, and can only be destroyed once the lore of the vampire has been understood and a plan of action based on symbolic-ritual codes of behaviour is carried out.

Paranoia and anxiety

Anxiety as an emotional state can be distinguished from fear – though it is not always easy to do so (Edelmann 1995). Like fear, anxiety is a state characterised by ‘subjective, consciously perceived feelings of tension and apprehension, and heightened autonomic nervous system activity’ (Spielberger et al. 1970: 3); but where fear is a rational response to a specific and identifiable threat producing intense emergency reactions that recede with the removal of the threat, anxiety is ‘the tense anticipation of a threatening but vague event; a feeling of uneasy suspense … In its purest form anxiety is diffuse, objectless, unpleasant, and persistent. … Anxiety is a state of heightened vigilance rather than an emergency reaction’ (Rachman 1998: 2-3). The differences between fear and anxiety are summarised in Table 2.

Table 2 Characteristics of fear and anxiety (Rachman 1998)


Paranoia is ‘a mental disorder characterised by the presence of persistent non-bizarre delusions of persecutory, grandiose, or other self-referential content’ (Scheuer 2001: 1134). This content typically takes the form of a perceived ‘loss of autonomy, the conviction that someone’s actions are being controlled by someone else, or that one has been “constructed” by powerful, external agents’ (Melley 2000: vii), and reflects an uncertainty about the causes of individual action in the face of a persistent but vague threat to the self. Consequently, paranoia is characterised by an emotional state of anxiety.

The Hollywood paranoid film

The distinction between the emotional states of fear and anxiety makes it possible to nuance the mental flow model, and to make a distinction between the horror genre characterised by fear and the paranoid film characterised by anxiety. The differences between the Hollywood paranoid film and the horror genre are evident in the level of intensity of emotional responses experienced by the viewer, the generic themes of the paranoid film, and the structure of the narrative. In the paranoid film, the unwanted emotional state of anxiety is not dispelled, and, unlike the horror film, autonomic responses do not give way to telic modes of experience. These differences are summarised in Table 3. Examples of these differences can be identified in Enemy of the State (1998) and The X-Files (1998).

Table 3 The horror film and the paranoid film


Enemy of the State

In Enemy of the State, Robert Clayton Dean (played by Will Smith), a Washington, D.C., attorney finds himself in the midst of a frantic search for a recording of the assassination of a U.S. congressman (Jason Robbards) he is unaware he possesses. The film presents a vision of how anyone – accidently and innocently – can be become the victim of a conspiracy, and in doing so presents the viewer with a diegetic world in which seemingly everyday objects become sources of anxiety. Tracking and bugging devices are planted inside shoes, pagers, pens, etc. Telephones are tapped and private conversations recorded without the knowledge of the participants. The film has numerous action sequences, but derives its emotional impact from the suggestion that this could – indeed, very well might – happen to the viewer. The film is thus characterised by a pervasive sense of unease, producing apprehension, tension, and autonomic responses albeit without the emotional outbursts of crying, shivering, etc. The emotional response of the viewer is then similar to that experienced in watching a horror film, but has a lower level of intensity.

This lower level of intensity is, in part, generated by Dean’s lack of awareness of the dangerous circumstances in which he finds himself – repeatedly throughout the film he states that he does not know why he is being pursued. The viewer, however, is aware of the nature of the conspiracy, and tensely anticipates the dangers that will befall Dean. It is this tense anticipation that produces a state of anxiety, and is predicated on the viewer’s identification with Dean as the hero and this excess of narrative knowledge. The viewer is thus placed in a position of hypervigilance. This state of anxiety is not transformed into telic modes of action until the very end of the film, and then only in a limited fashion. With the assistance of an anonymous former conspirator, Brill (Gene Hackman), Dean is able to eliminate the immediate threat posed by his pursuers. However, the central issue of the film is not resolved. The threat of the unregulated and nightmarish applications of surveillance technologies and information gathering systems remains. The narrative thus remains unresolved, and the closing shots of the film echo the opening titles with shots of a satellite orbiting the earth, gathering information, and a montage of surveillance images. The threat posed by the conspirators is only temporary, and is only the visible threat – the unseen surveillance technologies (e.g., satellites, computer tracking systems, directional microphones, etc) remain invisible and remain a threat to society. The need for hypervigilance on the part of the viewer continues, but is rendered problematic by the failure of the film to provide a solution to the regulation of surveillance.

The X-files

In The X-files, FBI Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate the apparent cover-up of the existence of extra-terrestrial life on earth. The film presents an alternative history of the Earth in which aliens arrived on the planet millions of years ago, and which challenges the viewer’s knowledge of the history of civilisation. This questioning of accepted knowledge is a theme that is continued throughout the film, as the viewer is forced to reassess the significance of narrative events according to the interpretations put forward by various characters – the destruction of a federal office building, for example, is either an act of domestic terrorism or the cover up of bodies infected with an alien virus. This frustrates the forward flow of the narrative, blocking the narrative drive of the film. In contrast to Enemy of the State, where anxiety is the product of the viewer’s knowledge exceeding that of Dean, in The X-Files it is the product of cognitive dissonances that cannot be fitted into narrative schemata. As Mulder observes at the end of the film, ‘They’ll never believe you – not unless your story can be easily programmed, categorised, or easily referenced.’

The capacity for voluntary modes of behaviour is again transposed to the field of spectacular action – for example, the escape from the research laboratory or Mulder’s rescue of Scully from the alien ship – and not the resolution of the narrative. As in Enemy of the State, the nature of the conspiracy at the heart of the film remains elusive. It is difficult in this film to determine who or what the antagonist is. The aliens are never clearly presented on the screen, and we learn nothing of their nature or their goals – there is no ‘alien lore’ that can form the basis for the heroes’ destruction of the enemy. The conspirators lack personality, and are identified only by vague descriptions (e.g., the cigarette-smoking man, the well-manicured man, etc.), and the film provides only tantalising glimpses that the conspiracy even exists. The viewer is thus left in a state of confusion with their paranoid suspicions intact, but without the possibility of a resolution. Again, the ending to this film – a hearing to determine the reasons behind the destruction of the office building – mirrors an earlier scene, and explicity rejects the narrative of the Agent’s investigation in the absence of ‘hard evidence.’ The conclusion of the film sees Agents Mulder and Scully reassigned to the X-files in order to investigate inexplicable phenomena, and the reconstitution of the conspiracy at a new location, creating a looped and unending narrative structure that is common to paranoid thrillers (e.g., The Parallax View, 1974).


In the early-1970s, Tony Tanner wrote that ‘the possible nightmare of being controlled by unseen agencies and powers is never far away in contemporary American fiction’ (1971: 15, my emphasis). It is certainly the case that paranoia has been a constant element of American popular culture in the post-war era, but while the paranoid scenarios of Enemy of the State and The X-files might be described as nightmarish they should not be seen as a part of the horror genre. Applying the mental flow model to these films, it is possible to identify a genre of the paranoid film in which the characteristic emotion evoked is anxiety, and which shows marked differences from the horror film.


Enemy of the State (Touchstone Pictures\Jerry Bruckheimer Films\Scott Free, 1998) prod. Jerry Bruckheimer, dir. Tony Scott, wr. David Marconi, ph. Daniel Mindel, ed. Chris Lebenzon, m. Harry Gregson-Williams, Trevor Rabin. Cast: Will Smith (Robert Clayton Dean), Gene Hackman (Brill), John Voight (Reynolds), Lisa Bonet (Rachael Banks), Regina King (Carla Dean), Loren Dean (Hicks), Barry Pepper (Pratt), Ian Hart (Bingham), Stuart Wilson (Congressman Albert).

The X-Files (Twentieth Century-Fox, Ten Thirteen Productions, 1998) prod. Chris Carter, Daniel Sackheim, dir. Rob Bowman, wr. Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, ph. Ward Russell, ed. Stephen Mark, m. Mark Snow. Cast: David Duchovny (Special Agent Fox Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Special Agent Dana Scully), John Neville (Well-manicured Man), William B. Davis (Cigarette-smoking Man), Martin Landau (Alvin Kurtzweil, MD), Mitch Pileggi (Assistant Director Walter Skinner).


Edelmann, R.J. (1995) Anxiety: Theory, Research, and Intervention in Clinical and Health Psychology. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.

Grodal, T. (1997) Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feeling, and Cognition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Grodal, T. (1999) Emotions, cognition, and narrative patterns in film, in C. Plantinga and G.M. Smith (eds.) Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press: 127-145.

Grodal, T. (2004) Frozen flows in von Trier’s oeuvre, in T. Grodal, B. Larsen, and I.T. Laursen (eds.) Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press\University of Copenhagen: 129-167.

Melley, T. (2000) Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Post-war paranoia in Post-war America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Newman, K. (1988) Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Movies. New York: Harmony Books.

Orr, J. (2000) The Art and Politics of Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Plantinga, C. and Smith, G.M. (1999) Introduction, in C. Plantinga and G.M. Smith (eds.) Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1-17.

Pratt, R. (2001) Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas.

Rachman, S. (1998) Anxiety. Hove: Psychology Press.

Scheuer, A.D. (2001) Paranoia, in The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioural Science – Volume Three, third edition, edited by W.E. Craighead and C.B. Nemeroff. New York: John Wiley & Sons: 1133-1135.

Spielberger, C.D., Gorush, R.L., and Lushene, R.E. (1970) Manual for State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychology Press.

Tanner, T. (1971) City of Words. London: Jonathan Cape.