The Importance Of The Horror Genre And Why We Love It

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There is a lot of talk about horror movies in the non-horror-movie-watching community. Many of its films are simply kept at a respectful distance, non-horror fans politely avoiding them on the basis that they just do not see the attraction in voluntarily frightening the life out of oneself. But over the last ten years or so, certain types of film have gained a different sort of notoriety among non-horror audiences. These are, of course, those films whose content is noticeably extreme; films such as The Hills Have Eyes, Saw, Hostel and various remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are among the most obvious titles. Aversion to the graphically bloody, the excessively violent and to the dependence on worryingly disturbing storylines has grown, with concerns that such movies are losing regard for the boundaries of decency echoing frequently through the film world. The advent of horribly descriptive terms such as ‘torture porn’ hasn’t exactly helped, either.

But there seem to be two things to say about this. Firstly, it is a complete misconception that gratuitous gore and violence is new to horror films– a quick whistle-stop tour of the last sixty years of the genre with which to verify a few details on this left me wanting to wash my own eyeballs. Also, gore features in many other areas of film without causing the sort of reaction that it is designed to have in the horror genre. The finale of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained rivals The Shining for the most amount of blood ever seen in a hallway, yet Django is not a horror film.

Somewhat unavoidably referencing another Tarantino non-horror, the House of Blue Leaves battle scene in Kill Bill appears in black and white, meaning that the astonishing level of blood shed is to some extent disguised (Tarantino’s actual reason for including black and white sections in Kill Bill was to pay homage to the method of censoring Japanese martial arts films that were screened in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, but the point about the volume of blood still stands – over 450 gallons worth of point, to be precise).

Natural Born Killers was also shockingly grisly but again, this is not counted as a horror film. Most people could have probably made a pretty passable attempt at a human anatomy exam after seeing the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan but this is an entirely different genre, again. Clearly then, horror movies can’t be dismissed on the basis of having an exclusive monopoly on the sickening and the disgusting, right?

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This leads neatly into the second point, which is that some of history’s all-time most frightening films actually contain very little that is visually graphic: Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist and Psycho are among the most obvious examples here. The sorts of gore-fest that tend to cause the most offense are not generally the ones that have achieved the most lasting and recognized ability to provoke horror. What all this seems to suggest is that there are in fact two distinct things that are important to horror movies – and that this is clearly recognized by both horror fans and non-horror fans alike. At their very basis, these two things could be defined as that which we don’t see, and that which we do.

But given that its nature is to include some of the most extreme concepts in cinema, the horror genre also has a wonderful and complex ability to flirt with the boundaries of what it can cover; the funny and the serious, the real and the supernatural, the ridiculous and the realistic – every aspect of the human experience from life to death seems to feature in here somewhere at some point.

On closer inspection then, it turns out that we might even be able to see a sort of spectrum that spans between those two basic points – a sort of scale on which horror films of whatever type, nature or level of success will have a justified place. What follows here is a brief experimental journey along that spectrum, beginning with those films that depend on keeping much unseen and moving the whole way along through to those films whose intention is to show as much as (in)humanly possible. Being as wide and as diverse as the field of horror is, it is with enormous reluctance that so many titles have had to be left out. But the hope is to have covered at least a couple of decent representatives from every area of this most weird, clever, daft, distressing and ultimately versatile of all movie genres.

Strap in, folks, this is a long one…

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At the start of our spectrum then, we find the sort of horror film that uses almost nothing that is visually obvious. Drawing heavily on the viewer’s nerves and on their more subtle perceptions to create atmosphere and suspense, these films work from the straightforward formula that less is more; the less the film actually allows the audience to see of what is happening, the more they will worry about what might be happening. In short, the film is creating dread. In order to assess the effectiveness of this, let’s look at it in real terms for a moment.

You hear a noise in your house at night. At what point are you most afraid? The point at which you are creeping downstairs with a hefty picture frame in your hand, edging open the living room door as the first act of Scream plays across your mind’s eye (in startling detail considering that you haven’t seen it for ten years)? Or the point at which you discover that it’s just the neighbour’s cat? Dread – that growing sense of impending doom – is hugely important to horror and the longer it can be made to last, the better. Horror directors don’t have the liberty to actually break into your house and stage something awful in your living room. What they do have though is the ability to make you do the walking down the stairs part for a good two hours.

Rosemary’s Baby is one of the best examples of this first ‘minimal-visuals’ stage of the spectrum, Polanski’s near-perfect classic takes a sunny, innocent-looking beginning and gradually weaves through it a slightly uncomfortable sense of doubt that is finally developed into a confirmed nightmare. The viewer never gets to see the titular newborn – but Rosemary’s own horrified expression as she looks into the crib makes us pretty grateful that we were spared the trouble.

The Ring – both the original Japanese version and the later American one– is another fine example of the power of purely suggested threat. Although the apparently death-inducing video is highly unpleasant, none of its images are anything other than just profoundly weird. What is awful, however, is that the characters themselves have essentially died of fear. And the fact that for several days after watching it we couldn’t hear a phone ring without needing to be within handy distance of a defibrillator.

The Blair Witch Project draws viewers helplessly in to the students’ own desperate need to work out something – anythingabout what is happening to them. The Woman in Black relies almost exclusively on the traditional scaring devices of sound and disappearing entities, and fear in The Orphanage essentially revolves around an empty sack of flour. Examples from the ‘home-invasion’ subgenre, such as The Strangers and You’re Next often depend entirely upon the questions ‘who are they?’ and – more importantly – ‘where are they?’ remaining unanswered until as late as possible. In both The Sixth Sense and The Others, the importance of what we don’t see is utilized to the extent to that we actually get a whole new film on the second watching. In all of these cases, the horror lies almost totally in what might be about to happen; human beings just do not like not knowing what’s going on.

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The next logical step along the spectrum brings us to those films that that still depend largely on a keen sense of suspense, but that do also place slightly more noticeable emphasis on the obviously visible. The 2012 plague-disaster film The Bay carried the promotional tagline – ‘Panic Feeds On Fear’; in all honesty there probably aren’t that many people for whom panic is kicked off by the sight of kittens or rainbows, but slightly lazy taglines aside there is a good point here; in order to get really frightened, it helps to already be frightened.

The Shining is a superb example of the art of combining tension and action, the total lack of soundtrack during some of the earlier visuals maintaining the strain through even these moments where it is all too obvious what is happening. In Sinister, the increasingly frequent appearances of the demonic face and the final, bloody, post-axing ‘house-painting’ are necessary conclusions of the film’s overall premise. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell was a slightly less extreme offering than his infamous Evil Dead, but the psychological tension still sits very efficiently alongside some well-timed slime and bugs – and a nose bleed that could give a Nerfgun a run for its money. Given its apocalyptic theme, World War Z must naturally rely on disaster-movie type visuals, but this is offset against long periods of intense quiet – which interestingly the story itself brings most noticeably to the film’s finale.

Even just a single moment can transform a film from creepy and unnerving to all-out terrifying. Despite it having already been mentioned in the ‘minimal-visuals’ section, The Ring is of course also well-known for ending with the horrifying revelation that the girl can actually get out through the television set. Although the moment is not gory in any classical sense, coming at the end of over an hour and a half of continual anxiety, the sight of the glass screen failing to stand between Samara and her victim qualifies it as unbearably disturbing.

Another standout example of ‘from unsettling to petrifying in sixty seconds’ comes from Guillermo del Toro’s thriller-fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. It is precisely because Pan’s Labyrinth does not officially belong to the horror genre that this film allows us to see the effectiveness of sudden isolated moments of sheer awfulness. If there is one thing in this film of which del Toro makes sure that we are truly afraid, it is whatever is awaiting Ofelia at that banquet table. We are not disappointed, either, as our attention is mercilessly dragged to the creature’s drooping skin, bloody fingernails and vile hand-eyes, all of which make the fact that it eats children seem like a pretty attractive feature.  Long-time master of the imaginary bizarre, del Toro succeeds admirably here in getting the viewer to join Ofelia’s desperation to avoid attracting the thing’s attention, which makes it all the more terrifying when we realize that when being told to under all circumstances leave the food completely alone, Ofelia clearly heard instead ‘just stick to a starter’.

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But the best example of a film creating fear into which it then releases unbridled panic is undoubtedly William Friedkin’s enduring triumph, The Exorcist. It followed the formula to the most literal degree possible, using semi-subliminal messages in its ‘unseen’ department and showing not one iota of restraint when it came to what was ‘very very most definitely seen – and imprinted on one’s memory forevermore.’ Add to this the almost total absence of sounds through which we might detect the approach of hide-worthy moments and you have something as close to real-time horror perfection as is perhaps possible. Still to this day – despite the pea soup, despite the dispelling of many myths, despite every attempt by its successors to trump it – The Exorcist remains a paradigm of how to initially scare people, and then neatly traumatize them for life.

Given that a balance between the seen and the unseen is a tried and trusted horror movie staple, it is likely that most horror films wanting mainstream status would be aiming to follow it. But it is also at this stage on the scale that it starts to become clear that filmmakers do have to be careful about how they bridge the gap into their big reveals. Poorly thought out or executed visuals are easily capable of destroying rather than reinforcing a film’s quality.

Mama was a fairly decent contribution to the thriller/horror group – all closed doors, distant thumps and mysterious visions- until we see Mama herself with about half an hour left of the film, at which point it’s difficult not to feel that the director hadn’t maybe seen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban one too many times. The Conjuring was brilliantly chilling – and therefore highly promising – for a good proportion of its running time, until the mother becomes possessed. Then, all manner of hell breaks loose and as it can’t possibly do much more, it isn’t long before it’s possible to develop a sort of immunity to what is happening on the screen. Insidious crept its deserved way into the spotlight in 2010 with a first half that seethed with quiet, inescapable suspense, only to reward its audiences for their suffering with a descent into a flurry of themes to do with vessels, possession, dimension travelling and astral projection. I have houseplants that could write better endings. The Devil Inside, The Haunting in Connecticut and Dracula 3D are all further examples of films that have evidently aimed to make it into this category, but that have instead made a whole new art form out of the epic fail.

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Films that use a long psychological build up towards a finale are also miniature examples of how the horror genre overall can live or die on what we do and don’t see. All too often it seems as if the films that do make it through a first offering by delivering a great balance of tension and action have an irrepressible need to destroy all their good work with a sequel. For example, the first of the Paranormal Activity franchise reminded audiences exactly why it is that the found footage genre can be so effective – effortlessly drawing chills from the simple sight of a character standing and staring into space, and ending with the revelation that this thing could, and would, touch you. The profound malevolence of the first film was continued fairly successfully by the second, which relied on the same devices of almost subsonic sound and the most physical presence that could be achieved by an invisible entity. But the temptation was apparently just too much, and the series promptly self-destructed with the third instalment for the simple reason that it just tried to do too much. The argument here might have been that if a third film was made, audiences would want to know this time what was actually going on. Clearly it didn’t occur to anyone at the studios that the simple solution to this would have been to just not make the third film.

Spanish ‘shaky-cam’ zombie classic .REC was also survived by its immediate sequel, the faster paced path of which had clearly been left open to it by its predecessor and which conformed to a perfect definition of a sequel. It then went entirely rogue with REC3 [Genesis], replacing the highly effective found-footage style with conventional cinematography and the highly effective everything else with blatant black comedy. The Saw franchise is another example of a clever and frightening concept being eventually turned into a scheme through which to simply draw the most blood in a myriad of rather worryingly inventive ways. Even The Ring managed to join the ranks of disgraced film series’ when it produced its inevitable sequel in 2005. We see very little of Samara in the first film, her concealed face and grainy appearances an essential part of the dark and unrelenting mystery that this film does so well. In the second film, however, Samara pops up so often that we start to quite miss her when she’s not there.

Moving on then to the next place along the spectrum and we start to enter the realm of the more obvious horror. Here, things get a little more complicated; we haven’t as yet moved too far away from the emphasis on dread and suspense and yet now the gore and violence start to become important in their own right. One of the most perfect examples of this stage is the aforementioned .REC. Whereas it is bloody throughout, and entirely outplays its own hand at this during the finale, .REC has one of the most celebrated endings of any recent horror film for the simple fact that it remained relentlessly frightening from beginning to end. The recent pair of V/H/S films are ruthless with their gore, but subsume it within such weird, realistic or claustrophobic contexts that the carnage extends quite naturally from the often slack-jaw-inducing horror. I Saw the Devil is renowned equally for both its emotional engagement and its shockingly grisly end. The 1977 cult classic Suspiria also qualifies here, with murders that are horrendously graphic from the outset, an assailant that is largely concealed and the nightmarish appearance of the film overall making it another fine example of how filmmaking can remain beautiful and skilful even when the subject matter is the grotesque.

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But there are some more obvious titles that make this point along the spectrum possibly the most important of all. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock introduced to mainstream cinema a feature that today we take completely for granted but was relatively new to that era. This was, of course, the concept of – as the title of his most famous work suggests – the psychopath. Psycho wasn’t gory as such, but what the film did do was alert the filmmaking industry to the fact that people, as it turned out, liked the extreme; along with the idea of the psycho naturally came the unpredictable and terrifying things that a psycho would actually do, and of course, the awful dawning realization in audiences’ minds that this could happen to them.

The slasher subgenre had begun its rise to fame. Black Christmas (especially important for its introduction of what was to become a genre-standard formula of naïve adolescents and a mystery stalker in an isolated location), Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street – films such as these helped propel horror out of the dark realm of the B-movie and into the light of the generally popular where they have remained ever since, bringing with them some of the most enduring cultural references and lending an instant fear factor to many of the ordinary things of life – cabins, sleepovers, balconies, hitchhikers. It was also during this time that George A. Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead unleashed zombies onto the mainstream scene, where they continue a very healthy non-life today, cheerfully merging gore and fear as horror-movie-nature intended.

Even though a few of the titles above are not especially bloody by today’s standards, the point about all the films mentioned at this middle stage of the scale is that what is explicitly grisly is vital to the realism upon which the fear in these particular films depends. The visually shocking and the unnervingly invisible are meant to work together as equal partners. But sadly, it is many of the titles in this area that prove what can happen when the artful use of gore is turned into the equivalent of standing ten feet back from the canvas and throwing buckets of paint at it. This process is also known by another name: The Remake. Here we have endless examples of originally excellent films being made – for lack of any word that will convey quite how bad this endemic is – not excellent. In the 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the gore is relatively limited, the rest of it being left to the not-too-challenging mental image of the sort of damage that would be caused by such a weapon. The 2006 version, however, made it look as though the original Leatherface was simply indulging his real passion of feather-duster tickling. Halloween showed relatively little blood in its original 1978 form, while the criteria for being doused in it in the 2007 remake was basically just standing still for too long.

The most popular tact among the re-makers seems to be ‘take everything that wasn’t seen the first time around and beat the audience senseless with it.’ In the 1963 version of The Haunting, malevolent forces terrorizing the characters staying at the house remain largely unseen. In the 1999 remake, director Jan de Bont manifested them into as many obviously visible forms as possible. The result was not an increase in the sense of threat – it was general hilarity. De Bont clearly disagrees with the idea that certain types of horror can be increased by allowing some things to remain unseen. God forbid he ever tries to remake the infamously mysterious Cat People–he may as well just employ the costume designers from Broadway’s The Lion King and have done with it. The House of Wax, The Wicker Man, The House on Haunted Hill, The Amityville Horror, The Omen – reams of innocent film reel have been senselessly lost to pointless re-imaginings of all types of horror stories and characters when audiences were still more than happy with the first versions. Vince Vaughn was so badly miscast in the remade Psycho that we probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference if he’d been playing the shower curtain.

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Returning from this depressing interlude to the idea that when used properly gore can be a crucial aspect of the fear itself, the first place to which its more explicit use goes is the body horror genre. Here we encounter the can’t-not-look-at-it wonder of films such as The Fly, The Thing, Alien, and Society. The role of the gore here could not be more obvious. Like the home-invasion concept, body horror plays on the fundamental fear of personal violation; the difference is that whereas home invasion is often effective when things can’t be seen, body horror depends precisely on a full dose of exposure to the trauma. In body horror, dread can pretty much be dispensed with – the terror comes straight out of our inescapable sympathy for any fellow human being whose body is no longer safe from itself. It is a natural human instinct to want to be the owner of our bodies; these movies eat that instinct alive.

But as effective as it is, the body horror subgenre provides the next move along the scale to the point at which many of that type of film – Slither and Teeth for example – tread a fine line between the disgusting and the ridiculous. That fine line becomes specifically intentional once we move into the realm of the true comedy-gore subgenre – where we find offerings such as Peter Jackson’s 1993 genre classic Braindead (or Dead Alive, as it is known in North America) and the ‘classically bad’ Basket Case – and also towards those films for which gore is simply the main event, such as Videodrome (off to wash my eyeballs again). Films such as these have been popular for decades, and yet their existence is often overlooked by those that criticize modern horror films for excessive carnage. Hatchet makes Hostel look like Mary Poppins.

Of course, it is perfectly understandable to describe these films as disturbing. But the sense of the ludicrous can be found in many a modern horror. The brilliantly surprising anti-stereotypical The Cabin in the Woods literally pulls out all the stops in terms of what frightens us (although I personally don’t want to meet the person whose nightmares involved those sorts of unicorns – nor do I want to know what version of The Little Mermaid they’ve been watching), but there are one or two moments in its finale that are undoubtedly intentionally comical.

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The time has come, however, to approach – with caution - the farthest end of the scale, where suddenly things are not so funny. Here we encounter those truly disturbing films that rely on showing the excessively hideous and yet appear to take themselves entirely seriously. These are most likely to be the films that gain the sort of notoriety outlined at the start of the article, and we can add Manic, Inside, Aftershock and Antichrist to that list, among others. Almost all of these films are often criticized, by horror fans and non-horror fans alike, for being truly gratuitous – for depicting extreme, disturbing graphic violence and bloodiness while leaving the film relatively unsupported by anything else of any real substance. And we cannot pass this point without dishonourable mention going to the 1980 Italian film Cannibal Holocaust. How to describe this…? Upon its release, its director was arrested. Will that do?

Despite the more common aversion to this sort of film, however, we can’t ignore the important role of interpretation. Leaving aside the list of admirably inventive adjectives that have often been strung together in order to describe The Human Centipede for example, not everyone had this reaction. Criticisms range from ‘the most horrific film ever made’ (this phrase is actually slightly apocryphal, but still – no smoke without fire and all that) to comments that suggested it actually didn’t go far enough to warrant the sort of cult status it has achieved.  Quite a few people simply pointed out the fact that the centipede would quickly die from malnutrition. Yes, because that’s what the point of that film was – biological accuracy. Several interpretations look past what seems to be a diabolical exercise in revulsion and state that The Human Centipede represents nothing more than a bit of classic freak-show type fun with a clear sense of humour. Oh, well – sign me up then.

But it is actually not hard to find support for that interpretation: whereas most American audiences were reportedly close to vomiting in the aisles, many Spanish audiences apparently laughed their way from one end to the other. The Human Centipede features on very few best horror films lists, but it won awards in certain circles – and they must have come from somewhere. Antichrist is also known for wildly polarizing audiences into those that believe it conveys something beautiful in its shocking violence, and those that, to put it in a printable format, don’t. It is important that we remember to allow for this variety of understandings….and to maybe try and avoid at all costs any Spanish prank shows.

Finally, there is one more classic horror-film device that needs a mention. This is, of course, ‘shock.’ Shock doesn’t fit in at any other particular point on this spectrum, precisely because by its nature it is designed to not fit in to anywhere in any expected way at all – this is the unpredictable, ever-fresh power of the good shock. The shock stalks victims mercilessly, driving them into a state in which they can barely bring themselves to look, and then giving them absolutely no choice. During the post-production phase of Final Destination, the dialogue in the scene immediately following the bus death had to be delayed for several seconds after test audiences jumped so badly that it took a good minute for everyone to peel themselves out of the lap of the person behind them and settle back down. During preparations for the infamous alien-abdomen-burst scene in Alien, the actors were not fully briefed on what was about to happen and their almost entirely genuine reactions were kept for the final print. There is something wonderfully poetic about the fact that one of horror-cinema’s most iconic scenes was dependent on the people on the screen being as badly frightened as the people watching it.

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And it is with that that we arrive at the proper conclusion of the journey from one end to the other of this trial (I repeat, trial) outlook on the various faces of the horror genre. As mentioned at the beginning, there are many glaring omissions from among the titles. But the intention of all this has not been to compile a comprehensive list, but simply to create a sort of rough framework for this vast genre that hopefully allows its various angles and approaches to all be fairly viewed as legitimate contributions to one of the most misunderstood categories of film.

Having said this, not all of the omissions were made for the sake of space; as much as it is important to respect all aspects of this genre, it is also important for the credibility of good horror-film-making overall to point out that genuinely bad films appear in this genre as much as they do in any other and that they are too usually the result of directorial error, terrible plots, bad acting and questionable scripts. John Boorman must have accidentally left the radio on in the background while he watched The Exorcist in preparation for making his dire sequel The Exorcist II: The Heretic – how else do we explain his total failure to notice that an absence of background music was vital to the first film’s atmosphere? And despite the genius that was The Sixth Sense, M.Night Shymyalan hasn’t directed a horror film since The Happening – presumably because he is still in hiding from the hoard of angry horror fans who want an hour and a half of their lives back.

But even films such as these provide the perfect point at which everything can be brought back to what is possibly the most important characteristic of the horror genre –personal preference. One of the whole points of this spectrum – of the fact that it began from certain criticisms that although understandable seemed somewhat unfair – is that none of the types of film along it are necessarily good or bad in themselves, or better or worse than any other. What one person might find intolerable while another finds it hilarious is simply a matter of taste. Horror is possibly the most subjective film-type of all, but quite why it should be criticized more than any other genre is not entirely clear, even when the argument goes that there is enough horror in the world without it having to be made up for entertainment value.

If that is the rule then why not ban all films that are based on a true story on the basis that it actually did happen, or all war films on the basis that we have enough war? Why not attack all films whose theme is a kidnapping on the basis that we have enough kidnappings in the news? Or all films that are based on the books of Nicholas Sparks on the basis that…You get the idea. In fact, the horror genre has the advantage of being able to include the entire awful and gorgeous range of human life in a way that is seldom recognized but that is unrivalled by any other. Whether it is the emotional sympathy of losing or saving a loved one or whether it is the comedy factor, be it good old fashioned morbid curiosity or empathizing with the relief of an escape, or whether it is simply the rush that comes once the whole thing is over and you can let go of whichever cushion/limb/passing pet you were clutching and turn the lights back on, there is no doubt that horror movies are an art towards which human beings will continue to be irresistibly drawn.

If there are two things that human beings can be counted on to do in this world, it is firstly to die and secondly to want to look the instant that someone shouts “don’t look!” Fortunately in the world of horror cinema, we have a collection of movies that deal with both of these inevitabilities at once, and that can do it with all the care, love and skill of any other genre.

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