All Noise: Where the Horror Genre Went Wrong

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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Spooky Scary Stories: Why Does the Horror Genre Exist?

It’s that time of year again…the spooky time where all the spooky things come out and spook people.  THE SPOOKS!  They’re too spooky for me…

But in all seriousness, Halloween is a holiday associated with all the things that like to go bump in the night.  And sometimes squeak.  And sometimes “rawr”.  And sometimes they don’t go anything at all.  They just creep up behind you, sending a chill pulsing up your spine.  You know something’s there, but you can’t see it until the faint, smoke-like tendrils of its hands seize your throat and-

Oh right, I was supposed to have a point to all this.  Whoops.  Got a little carried away there.

Last year around this time I did a post entitled “The Allure of the Scare”, where I talked about why people like me enjoy the horror genre.  This year I want to take things a step further and ask the question “why”.  Why does the horror genre exist at all?  What purpose does it serve?

Horror can trace its roots all the way back to ancient legends and folktales, but it wasn’t really until the 18th and 19th century that horror really became a genre of literature.  It was thanks to the efforts of writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe that horror came to the forefront of people’s minds.  Poe had his famous works like “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado”, but Mary Shelley created one of the most iconic horror stories ever: Frankenstein.  I’ve always seen horror as an exploration of our fears, of the things that we cannot see or understand.  And sometimes, it is an exploration of our faults.  Frankenstein is a good example of this.  It is one of the original “science gone mad” stories, where the brilliant yet unhinged Frankenstein creates a monster that he cannot control.

Interestingly enough, in Shelley’s version the monster actually speaks and is quite eloquent.  He torments Victor Frankenstein after Victor refuses to acknowledge him and even tries to destroy what he created.  It’s a different tale than the film version, where the monster just groans and walks around causing havoc and mayhem.  In this sense, Shelley’s Frankenstein exposes the darker side of ambition, of the human need to push boundaries.  It’s not the most well written book (it suffers from what I like to call “ye olde prose” syndrome), but it is a classic in every sense of the word.  The style of writing may not stand up to today’s standards, but the story still has power.

But horror isn’t just a way to explore individual fears.  It’s a way to explore cultural fears as well.  Take the sci-fi/horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  In the movie, the inhabitants of a small town are slowly being replaced by emotionless, alien duplicates of themselves that look the same and know everything the original knows.  They’re pretty much identical, except they’re evil and stuff.  Basically this movie is often seen as a metaphor for the spread of Communism, or rather our fears of it at the time.  The original version came out in the 1950s, during the Cold War, an era that wouldn’t end until the early 1990s.  And it makes sense.  Replace the aliens with the Red Menace, and you’d have a pretty chilling propaganda movie.

And that trend continues even today.  One theory as to why demons are such a prevalent trope in movies today is because of our fear of terrorism.  Demons are a representation of that fear, the fear that nice, ordinary people could suddenly turn into violent weapons of destruction.

Of course it could also just be that one movie had demons in it, did super well at the box office, and now everyone is trying to capitalize on it.  But that’s a boring theory.  I prefer the interesting one.

But in any case, horror does well as a genre because, like I said earlier, it taps into things that other genres either can’t or won’t touch.  It reminds us of what it is like to be human, to be afraid.  In a strange way, horror feels more grounded than some other genres out there (despite a prevalence of paranormal phenomena in it).  It shows us characters that aren’t invincible or impossibly heroic in their actions.  Often, humans make stupid decisions, and characters in horror movies do the same (hey we should split up and search for that spooky noise).  Horror touches on those things that we often don’t like to talk about or acknowledge.

And sometimes, it’s just fun to be scared.  Because I’m a masochist like that.

 

Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Have a spooky, wonderful Halloween and tune in next Wednesday for another post!