On Horror Movies
A DEFENSE OF THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD FILM GENRE
IN A 2016 STUDY FROM STATISTA...
Americans ranked horror as their least favorite of the five main theatrically released genres, behind comedy, action, drama, and science fiction. A closer look at the numbers is even more dire; less than half of all surveyed Americans report that they even like horror movies.
This is not particularly surprising. In a world that seems more and more anxious every day, the idea of purposely trying to scare yourself sounds crazy. But because of this, audiences are missing out on something that most film geeks already know:
Horror might secretly be the best movie genre.
In this essay, I'm going to present the case for the horror genre, and why you should be watching more of it. I'm not going to argue in favor of specific franchises or films; rather, I'm going to discuss the qualities of the genre as a whole, and why it's worth paying attention to something that most people dismiss as simply trash.
It's no coincidence that...
when Georges Méliès made his first movie in 1896, he then immediately made a horror movie. Méliès was the grandfather of motion pictures and a pioneer of filmmaking, responsible for many of the techniques modern filmmakers learn in their first year of film school. He was primarily interested in testing the boundaries of film and what could be accomplished with it; thus, it's no surprise his attention went to horror.
Horror as a genre has been around since the beginning of time; after all, homo sapiens owe a good chunk of our continued existence to horror. The ability to fear, and more appropriately know what to fear, protected early man from all sorts of dangerous elements. And it's those same fears that bring us to my first point...
I. Horror is a Community Event
Anyone who regularly sees movies in the theater will tell you there are two kinds of audiences: regular audiences, and horror audiences. Horror movies are fascinating in this regard, in that horror movies allow for more flexibility to the rigorous, unspoken social structure behind seeing a movie in the theater. In a regular movie, I have become conditioned to expect certain things. The most prevalent and obvious of this is that there's going to be silence in the theater. People won't talk, they won't make much noise, and they certainly won't whisper to each other or gasp. But horror movies are the polar opposite; anyone who has seen a horror movie on opening night with a packed audience can attest that horror movies are different. The audience is restless in an almost excited way, and there's a palpable sense of camaraderie. "We're all in this together," it seems to say. "We're going to get scared by the same stuff."
This modified social structure is an integral part of horror movie fandom, and something that most horror viewers will immediately recognize. After all, there are no conventions for action movies, or comedies, or dramas... but there are horror conventions. That's because horror fans are passionate about their movies. They share a type of survivors bond with one another; having witnessed enough accidents and horrible deaths and terrible misfortunes together, they have formed a collective unconscious bond that tends to manifest as unbridled enthusiasm. Two horror movie geeks talking excitedly about a horrible scene with a severed head in a refrigerator will sound... well, horrific to an outside listener. But what they're talking about isn't literally the severed head, no more than a sports fan will talk about the act of physically throwing or kicking a ball. Instead, they're talking about the broader experience, the fine details of their passion, and the way it makes them feel. Substitute two rival football teams for Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, and the conversations aren't entirely dissimilar.
Of course, horror is such a broad community event because...
II. Horror HAS A REMARKABLY LOW BARRIER TO ENTRY COMPARED TO OTHER GENRES
Part of what makes horror such a popular and effective genre is that the barrier to entry (i.e. the requirements to actually make a horror movie) are so low.
Think about your cell phone. If you're using a phone constructed in the last decade, there's a very good chance your cellular phone has a better camera and microphone than even some movie studios had in the 1960's. Because of this, you could take your phone out of your pocket this very instant and shoot a movie. But what kind of movie? You could film a drama, but that would require dialogue and acting. You could film a comedy, but somebody would have to write the jokes.
Or, you could make a horror movie.
Simply place your iPhone in front of a closed door down a dark hallway, and wait a minute or two in perfect silence. Intentionally or not, you're building tension in your shot simply by focusing on a single object. Now let's pretend that you hid yourself in the closet before you started filming, and after a moment or two you very, very slowly opened the door and allowed it to creak open...
You've made a horror movie and, dare I say it, an effective one at that. It's nothing original, of course, but you've created something that has a tangible effect on the viewer. And that was with absolutely no budget and equipment that you had sitting around the house.
One of the best things about horror is also one of the worst things about horror: the barrier of entry is so low that anybody can join in. Sometimes this means you get absolute garbage that's a waste of everybody's time. But sometimes you get something absolutely brilliant that nobody expected.
Although the name is somewhat of a punchline now, The Blair Witch Project is a perfect example of this. This movie came out of nowhere in 1999 off a $60k budget that eventually turned into a $248 million dollar success. This was a result of many factors at once, but one of the largest is the fact that the genre of the film, the horror genre, has always been very accepting of low budget or no budget filmmaking. A horror audience will consider seeing a movie with no budget, which means that more independent voices are able to make it into the film world. It also means that...
III. Horror MOVIES OFTEN DO MORE WITH LESS, LEADING TO MORE CREATIVE FILMMAKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING
As part of the low barrier of entry, horror tends to attract lots of independent productions on virtually non-existent budgets. For instance, let's compare two movies that both came out in 1968. Both movies are considered watershed moments for their genres. Both movies have been added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. One of those movies was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick's sprawling magnum opus filmed at a cost of $10.5 million dollars. The other is Night of the Living Dead, filmed for about $114,000.
Both movies are excellent displays of creativity. Both movies are engaging and thrilling and enjoyable, even decades later. But whereas Stanley Kubrick was unbound by budget, including famously writing checks out of his own pocket for film expenses that the producers wouldn't cover, George A. Romero was stuck with the budget he had. If Kubrick wanted to shoot inside a space ship, he constructed a space ship to his specifications. If Romero wanted to shoot inside a space ship... well, good luck, try making a horror movie instead.
I don't want to downplay or take away from the technical marvels and mastery of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mean, who can argue with the genius of Stanley Kubrick. But it's worth noting that horror in general is made on a smaller budget, and as such dictates a more clever and practical use of filmmaking than a mega blockbuster motion picture. It's undeniable that modern filmmaking gore effects, particularly in action and war films, owes a huge debt of thanks to special effects pioneered by horror master Tom Savini -- effects that were made on the tiniest budget possible as to get the most bang for their buck. Savini's practical effect at the beginning of Romero's Martin, in which the title character cuts a woman's wrist to drink the blood, was such a simple yet clever effect that variations of this same method are still being used by film students today.
In movies bigger is frequently better, but sometimes smaller and more intimate effects are more powerful than big budget ones. The act of working and creating under constrictions means that what gets made is often more interesting (or at least more soulful) than big budget releases. Another thing that makes horror movies somewhat more interesting than other genres is that...
IV. Horror MOVIES ARE WILLING TO EXPERIMENT AND TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Personally, one of the main reasons that I enjoy horror films is that they seem to be the last true bastion of new and novel ideas in filmmaking. Because productions are often cheaper than other movies, while being created by outside voices, horror movies tend to experiment and take risks that regular movies wouldn't dare attempt.
A broody film in which teenagers run away from an immortal monster that won't stop walking towards them? Turns out it's an exploration of sexuality in adolescents and the perpetual fear that adulthood and a person's sexual history could haunt you forever. It's also 2014's excellent It Follows, made on a relatively slim $2m budget. Would a major studio have chosen to make this movie under the studio system and see it become a box office hit? It's difficult to say, but it thrived in the horror genre.
Here are three premises from horror movies released in theaters over the last few years. For fun, give them a quick read and see if you can identify any of these movies:
- An adolescent Puritan girl on a 17th century farm must confront evil and the destruction of her family as the result of a witch hiding in the nearby forest
- A mother confronts the death of her husband through a fictional nightmarish storybook whose villain slowly begins to appear in the real world in an attempt to hurt her and her young son
- A young boy discovers that Santa Clause is not a kind, benevolent old man, but instead a feral monster that lives in a tomb on the side of a Finnish mountain and delights in eating children
What's remarkable about these three movies is that each one is a horror movie that is hiding a much deeper layer of commentary under the initial premise. The first movie, The VVitch, is a slow meditation on the way that men dominate women and the fear of female sexuality viewed through a supernatural lens. The second film, The Babadook, is an elaborate metaphor for mental illness and grief where the monster is defeated by simply acknowledging that it's OK things are bad and broken because you can move past it. The final film, Rare Exports, is a deconstruction of holiday and Christian mythology from the outside perspective of 'well, if you didn't know anything about Christmas, isn't the whole thing kind of weird'.
In a world of big budget blockbusters and paint by numbers scripts, horror movies have the leeway and audience to not only try to do something different, but to play with a healthy amount of subtext and commentary. As a genre that relies on established tropes and clichés, horror fans and creators have become so fluent in those same tropes that they've begun to deconstruct them through their own lenses and reformat them into something new and interesting. It's a level of risk and daring that other genres struggle to achieve, but the perfect storm of elements makes it happen all the time in horror. Remarkably, I watch a lot of horror movies, and I'm always impressed that filmmakers manage to find new ways to present, display, or recontextualize the films and ideas that have come before them. And that's due in part to...
V. Horror IS THE LAST GENRE ABLE TO AGGRESSIVELY CHALLENGE TABOOS IN MAINSTREAM FILMS
Ask a film fan to name five movies that have been extremely controversial, and you'll notice a weird trend: the majority of the movies named are horror movies. This isn't a coincidence. By virtue of allllll the items listed above, horror movies are in an unusual position: they have the ability to challenge cultural taboos and still be mainstream films. They've got an audience that is loyal to the genre. They have the ability to make a film on a low budget. And they have new, interested minds who are willing to take risks. This means producing movies with content that even the biggest studios would shy away from.
Frankly, it can be difficult to find a taboo or touchy societal subject that a horror movie hasn't touched. For instance, let's talk about violence against children. One of the biggest unwritten rules in filmmaking is that you don't depict literal visceral death against young children on film. But how do you discuss the idea of morality in children and whether or not the urge to be violent is an inherent tendency or an acquired one? Well, it might look something like the eerie and disturbing Spanish film Who Can Kill A Child?, a movie so prickly that it was difficult to find from it's release in 1976 all the way until a DVD release in 2007, some 31 years later.
Or how about one of the most infamous banned horror films of all time, Cannibal Holocaust, a film so inherently horrific that I actually haven't ever seen the uncensored version. This movie emerged as an exploitation movie right around the time exploitation movies were making plenty of money internationally, and makes an argument against filmmakers exploiting tribal native ways of life for financial gain. Some of the most controversial scenes in the movie depict the real on-screen deaths of two animals, shown being literally killed as part of the plot of the movie. The director has argued repeatedly that the animals were killed as part of a cooking tradition of the local people, and that it's no different from animals in slaughterhouses in America. What's the right answer? I have no idea, but I would struggle to imagine another film willing to make that argument.
One of my favorite movies of 2017, Raw, is an excellent modern example of this. The film uses one of the ultimate cultural taboos, the consumption of human flesh, as the springboard for investigating a range of issues: the existence of destiny, nature versus nurture, the relationships between women, adolescent sexuality, and a whole heaping helping of other subjects. Could a non-horror movie address these topics? Of course, but I suspect not as viscerally and powerfully as this one does.
I could go on, but I feel like these five points best summarize the argument of why horror is an underrated genre worthy of closer investigation.
When you're watching a horror movie, you're watching a film with a strong, loyal audience that is willing to take risks with what they'll view. You're seeing independent voices speaking to you in as raw a manner as you can get. You're seeing creativity and artistry resulting from an uncompromisingly tight budget. You're supporting weird, unusual, offbeat narratives that don't conform to societal obligations. And you're watching the cultural norms and taboos be broken by artists.
To me, horror movies are like pizza. Even really bad pizza is still good because, well, it's pizza. Horror movies are the same way. You can watch an objectively awful, boring drama film and walk away feeling like you didn't gain anything. But with a horror movie, you're at least getting a small strike against cultural norms. Or at the very least, an experience to share with fellow horror fans.
So give horror movies a second chance. Roll the dice. I'll be the first to tell you that when they're bad, they're bad. But when they're amazing... well, you'll struggle to have a better time in a theater.
If I've somehow convinced you to step outside your comfort zone and give horror a chance, here's a list of very modern horror films that might be worth starting with.
Mentioned in this essay:
- It Follows
- The VVitch
- The Babadook
- Rare Exports
Not mentioned but worth your time:
- Get Out
- Let Me In
- We Are What We Are
- Kill List
- I Saw The Devil
- What We Do In The Shadows
- You're Next
- The Invitation
- The Conjuring
- The Loved Ones
- The Guest
- Ouija: Origin of Evil