I know that Halloween was two days ago at this point, but I can’t help but use the opportunity to once again complain about the state of one of my favorite story genres. I’ve spoken about this topic several times before, but I never went too in depth on it. I mostly lamented how horror uses tropes as a crutch, continually making stories without any real stroke of originality.
Also demons. I’m really REALLY sick of demons.
But in the end, demons are only a symptom of the problem. To find out where the horror genre went wrong, we have to start by taking a look at some of the classic horror movies. I’m going to be using The Thing (1982) as my main example here. The Thing is a movie about a group of antarctic researchers who are hunted by a malevolent alien entity that can assume the form of its victims. It carries a palpable sense of tension and dread throughout the entire movie, as the characters have no idea if the person next to them is the alien or not.
The Thing is a slow-paced movie, choosing to focus on the paranoia brewing between its characters rather than the horrific appearance of the unmasked alien monster (even nowadays the contorting of the alien’s form is pretty gross to look at). And this is where its greatest success is, focusing on the characters instead of the monster. The paranoia between them can even be seen as an allegory for the Cold War paranoia that was still present in the country at that time.
By contrast, what is Paranormal Activity about? Well…uh…two people being dicks to each other for most of the movie instead of using their time to battle the demon that has LITERALLY BEEN FOLLOWING ONE OF THEM SINCE CHILDHOOD?!
Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed Paranormal Activity. But this is the problem I see with modern horror films. They’re not really about anything anymore. They’ve become mostly soulless, vapid popcorn flicks, meant only to elicit momentary frights. Once you’ve left the theater though, all the terror that you may or may not have felt evaporates. Nothing lingers in your mind because there is nothing to linger. It’s all just loud noises without any subtext.
Recently I wrote a review of Blair Witch, which is a direct sequel to the original Blair Witch Project. And while I lamented the fact that it was basically a shadow retelling of the first movie (which makes sense in a way since the first movie came out seventeen years ago), I more lamented the fact that it was just chock full of scares that had no purpose other than to make you jump. It gets so bad that at one point, when they jumpscare you twice in a row, one of the characters mutters “stop doing that” under her breath in the movie’s attempt to make a self-referential jab at itself. And that’s another thing I hate about modern horror films. They’ll crack jokes like that about themselves as if being self-aware of how cliché they are makes everything better.
No. No it doesn’t.
You can write a horror story about people making bad decisions (and let’s be honest, all horror movies are pretty much characters making bad decisions) without pointing that fact out. It doesn’t make your story better to do that. If anything it breaks the immersion for the audience by making them even more aware that this is an artificial construct made solely for the purpose of scaring them. Horror didn’t used to be like that. Take The Shining (1980) for instance. The Shining didn’t really feature a visible monster or demon of any kind. It was more about an omnipresent evil taking advantage of Jack Torrance’s already present weakness due to his alcoholism and anger issues. In this way, the evil becomes a reflection of what’s already there, instead of just being some foe the characters attempt to defeat.
Even The Exorcist (1973), one of the original demonic possession movies, was about more than just “ooh demons…spooky scary!” It was about the family and how the event affected them. It was about the priest who lost his faith and must find himself again. It was about the corrupted innocence of a child beset upon by evil. It wasn’t just about cheap thrills. It was about trying to unsettle the audience in ways that went beyond gore and loud noises.
It sounds weird, but to put it simply horror movies seem too focused on trying to be scary instead of actually being scary. And to me it seems to have started with the rise of slasher flick movies in the ’80s and ’90s.
Now I hate to do this, because I don’t like generalizing a whole genre of anything. And I understand that Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are iconic horror characters. But I can’t help but feel that slasher flicks marked the turning point. The rise of slasher movies meant that horror movies went from having deep, involved stories to having flimsy pretexts for watching teenagers get hacked to pieces. Like I said, I hate to generalize like this, but it seems to me that these movies almost fetishized violence in a way. And following that, horror movies become less and less thematic and more and more shallow. As much as I like Paranormal Activity, any sense of terror I feel when I’m watching the movie fades away the moment it’s turned off. Nothing really lingers. I don’t feel any sense of creeping dread. I don’t find myself looking over events in the movie, searching for hidden meanings or anything like that.
All of it is very surface level when it comes to being scary. It’s not something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the pod people are really just an allegory for the Red Menace (AKA Communism). Instead it’s about a demon who spends the entire movie just messing around with the main characters instead of killing them outright.
You know, because reasons. There’s no rhyme, reason, or logic to it. It’s just meant to drag you along for an hour or two until its inevitable conclusion.
Although there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. There have been more horror movies as of late that eschew the normal formula. Like The Witch, a movie which just came out earlier this year. I haven’t seen it myself, but from what I understand it takes place in the 1600’s and focuses more on a family slowly turning against each other rather than some kind of monster. It’s supposed to be a dark, brooding movie rather than a loud, brash one.
There’s also 10 Cloverfield Lane, which some may argue is more of a thriller, but it still has horror elements to it. 10 Cloverfield Lane traps its characters inside a handcrafted survival bunker while some unknown catastrophe may or may not be happening outside. But the true creep factor of the movie comes from John Goodman himself. Throughout the entire movie you’re never sure if you can trust him. Just when you start to, something else comes to light that skews your opinion of him once again. It’s a tense movie that never lets up, and that’s what makes it so great.
That’s what I want to see more of in horror: tension and suspense that isn’t just a setup for an eventual jumpscare. I want a character to be able to walk down a dark and spooky hallway without it always ending with someone or something jumping out at them like an older sibling playing a prank on you. I want characters who don’t feel like monstrous idiots who deserve everything that’s coming to them because they ignored the obvious warning signs. Horror works best when it places believable, complex characters in unbelievable situations. We don’t need more walking stereotypes with the IQ of a bag of rocks.
And seriously, stop with the demons. We get it, Ouija boards are bad news. Enough already.
Well that’s all I have for this time. Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.
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