5 Things I Would Change About Modern Horror

In one of my previous posts, entitled “The Frightening State of Horror” (I know, puns right), I talked about how I feel that the modern state of the horror genre is severely lacking.  There’s an over-reliance on too many of the same types of scares, plot lines, and enemies, which leads to an overabundance of eye rolling.  I’ve talked a lot about the things I feel are wrong with the genre, but I haven’t talked much about ways where the genre could make itself better.  I’ve made my problem clear, now it’s time to start generating solutions.  I got the idea for this post from a Youtube video which you can watch here.

And so follows a list of five things I would change about the modern horror genre.

1. Jump Scares

Modern horror seems to be having a love affair with these things.  To put it simply. jump scares are those moments in horror movies that make you…well…jump.  It can be anything from a loud noise in the darkness to a creepy, white-faced man jumping out at the main character and screaming.  They usually do their job, soliciting a knee jerk reaction from the viewers, causing them to tense up and flinch.  But the real question remains, is it actually scary?

Such a question is a hard one to answer, because what is scary depends on the person.  Plenty of people found the game “Slender: The Eight Pages” to be one of the most frightening things they’ve ever seen.  Me?  I found it incredibly dull and ineffective, focusing way too much on sudden, loud musical blasts into your ears than anything overtly frightening.  It’s the difference between believing that there’s something out there in the dark stalking you, and your annoying friend standing behind you banging two frying pans together.

Which is not to say that jump scares don’t have their place.  One of the most effective I’ve ever seen occurred in a video game called Eternal Darkness.  In it, you have a brief vision of your character lying dead in the bathtub in a pool of her own blood.  It’s shocking and gruesome, but the thing that truly made it scary for me was that it happens during something so mundane as just clicking the “B” button to examine the tub.  All the prompt is “examine”, leaving you woefully unprepared for the scene that confronts you.  Not to mention that examining objects in this way is something you do many times throughout the game.

Modern horror uses jump scares far too often.  Dark hallway?  Jump scare.  Creepy music?  Jump scare.  Dark hallway AND creepy music?  What do you know, another jump scare.  It’s all become so artificial and obvious.  Horror movies and games tend to rely on the same bag of tricks far too often, which quickly makes things stale.  If they changed things up a bit, utilized jump scares a bit more like that one in Eternal Darkness, they might actually be more effective.  Jump scares work best when they catch people truly unaware.  Building your entire game or movie around jump scares is not a good way to go.

2. Setting

Dark mansions, spooky castles, and abandoned mental asylums.  All places we’ve seen many times before.  All places we’ve grown plenty tired of.

There’s nothing wrong with the familiar, but as with the jump scares, overabundance of them leads to weariness.  We can only traverse the same environments so many times before they lose all meaning.  Not to mention that many of us have no connection to these types of places.  I know I’ve never had to wander through an old mental asylum or creaky mansion in the dead of night.  And yet, I consider myself an old pro at exploring these places, at least within the realm of video games.

But with familiarity comes loss of power.  This is why horror movies and horror games aren’t as satisfying the second time through.  You already know what’s going to happen, so it doesn’t affect you anymore.  It’s the same thing with horror settings.  Unless you do something inventive or new with it, it quickly becomes stale.  While it is true that nothing is one hundred percent original, a creative touch here and there can go a long way.  Part of the reason why I liked the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent so much was that while it took place in a cliche, creepy castle, it did something rather novel in not allowing your character any weapons.  Your only defense was to run and hide in the closest closet you could find.  It’s the same with horror settings.  Old settings can find new life if they are handled correctly.

The video game Outlast takes place in a creepy mental asylum (gasp) where crazy experiments happened (double gasp).  Picture taken from Steam store page.

The video game Outlast takes place in a creepy mental asylum (gasp) where crazy experiments happened (double gasp).  Picture taken from Steam store page.

3. Demons

Seriously, enough with the demons.  That is all.

4. Character Development

This is something I feel like horror movies don’t really do.  Horror movie characters are usually two-dimensional, fulfilling stereotypical roles to serve as the exemplar of the “everyday”.  While this is fine in some circumstances (such as the movie “The Cabin in the Woods”, an excellent horror movie satire), mostly it leads to a kind of Schadenfreude, or “shameful joy”.  We come to enjoy watching certain characters get killed off because they’re annoying, unlikable, or just plain boring.  By developing the characters more, by giving them a better back story than just being the football jock or the nerdy kid would allow us to identify with them more, which would make their plight that much more tense.

Amnesia A Machine for Pigs is a game I’ve referenced several times for being an intriguing and unique horror experience.  Part of this was the character that you play as.  Oswald Mandus is a man who has done terrible things.  But his reasoning behind them is what really gets me.  Rather than just being some guy who selfishly wants to survive (as in the character from The Dark Descent), Mandus goes about his path because he feels a philosophical depression.   He doesn’t want to save himself, he wants to save everyone.  The way he goes about that is horrific, but his motivation is at least noble in a twisted sort of way.  It’s more than you get from a lot of horror protagonists, who usually just go mad and start doing things because hey, they’re crazy and all.

Ellen Ripley from the Alien movie franchise is another good example of a well-defined character in the horror genre.  She’s incredibly brave, considering all she has to go through in those movies, but at the same time she reveals her vulnerabilities at key moments.  She feels fear just like anyone else, but she rises above it to do what has to be done.  This is especially true in the first movie, Alien, where she is constantly at the mercy of the vicious alien stalking her as well as the government conspiracy underneath it all.  It’s a very psychological movie, which is something that a lot of modern horror lacks.  It’s too much about the physical onslaught of some horrific beast these days, and not enough about the psychological aspect.  With more well-defined characters at the center of these stories, psychological horror will become natural.

5. A Light Touch

A brief whisper in the night can be just as powerful as the slamming door.  We’ve all had that experience of a door mysteriously slamming in the midst of the night due to the wind blowing through an open window.  It makes us jump and scares us, but that feeling leaves after a moment.  The thing that frightens us most in that situation is the uncertainty, the unknown.  For that one, brief moment we experience pure terror before our senses return to us and logic overrides our irrationality.  But it’s that brief moment that’s so powerful.  And it’s all because of one little thing.

All it takes is a light touch.  Drawing back on the over the top music or noises, just for a little bit, can frighten far more than a monster barreling down the hallway at you.  In those situations, your imagination takes over.  At least if there’s a monster chasing you down, you know what you’re up against.  But in those moments when a faraway door creaks or a piano starts playing by itself, you have no idea what you’re about to run into.  You start feeling like a helpless child, knowing that you probably shouldn’t go towards the spooky noise but at the same time driven to know what it is.  These moments are so far and few between in modern horror that it is truly a shame.

This is why I like the Paranormal Activity movies a lot (aside from the lackluster fourth entry).  They build you up, taking their time before they unleash anything truly bizarre or horrific.  It gnaws away at your nerves, making you wonder when something big is going to happen.  You drum up your expectations for the inevitable drop, and when it does finally come, it’s far more intense and powerful than it would be if the movie started off with it.  I’ve preached this a lot in my other posts on horror movies, but it’s true.  There is a lot of power in the build up, the suspense.  And all those little touches (the brief flicker of a shadow, the far away door creaking, and so on) go a long way towards building up this suspense and atmosphere.

The video game Barrow Hill is another great example of horror that utilizes atmosphere more than anything else.  In fact, I don’t recall the game having any jump scares at all.  It merely uses creepy sound and music to draw you in, telling a creepy tale of people disappearing near some ancient burial mound.  It’s very similar to the Dark Fall games that I’ve mentioned before, which makes sense because the guy who made those games assisted in the development of Barrow Hill.

Despite the game not looking super amazing graphically, it still managed to immerse me in its creepy atmosphere.  (Barrow Hill)

Despite the game not looking super amazing graphically, it still managed to immerse me in its creepy atmosphere. (Barrow Hill)

But sadly, most video games have become truly bad at this, as many of the independently made horror games rely far too much on these sudden images popping up accompanied by a loud noise.  It goes back to the jump scares that I talked about at the beginning.  They can’t be very effective if you aren’t given time to appreciate the setting or the atmosphere.  In good horror, your imagination does most of the work.

Closing Thoughts

I truly do love horror as a genre (as you can plainly see), but I regret the path that it has gone down in recent years.  While these changes I would make may not be to everybody’s liking, they were by no means meant to be a comprehensive “here’s how to fix horror” guidebook or anything.  But I do feel that these five things could go a long way toward bringing horror back to the days where it was truly powerful, back to those days when it was a cavalcade of fears and not just a broken record.

Most of these things I have talked about at some length beforehand, but I just wanted to consolidate everything and create a list of things I think would change the modern horror genre for the better.

That’s all I have for this week.  Next week’s post will hopefully NOT involve demons.  Because seriously, demons suck.

Until then, have a wonderful week everybody.