Saturday, 25 June 2016

Horror Isn't Scary

I was listening to the Geek Gab podcast as I usually do every week, and an interesting topic came up.

No, it wasn't retro gaming (the 8 and 16-bit eras are still king), but the topic of horror that the Gab spent most of the show talking about. It was quite an interesting conversation.

You can watch the episode here:

It's well worth listening to.

Daddy Warpig goes on to explain that horror simply doesn't work without innocence. It doesn't work without the possibility of true and terrible loss. It isn't simply about being killed--you can turn on the news and see that every day. The true terror of horror is the possibility of soul-sucking dread and the realization that there is something more to the world than what you see before you. Think of your favorite horror story, and there are very few chances it doesn't contain that essence in it.

And that isn't what horror is anymore. It hasn't been about that in a long time.

At least, that's what it's like in the mainstream. Horror has become about people being hunted down and gutted as messily as possible. Think of that terrible Rob Zombie Halloween movie where Michael Myers is not only given a detailed backstory, thereby missing the point of the orignal, but where the "scariest" kill involves him slamming someones head down viciously for a minute straight. That's it. Spooky, right?

Basically, these stories can be summed up as: Everything is out to get you, you will die bloodily, and there is nothing you can do about it.

How unique.

But it's also boring. And repetitive. And empty. And tired. And repetitive. And pointless. What made The Thing scary was the sense of dread and alienation rolled in heavy paranoia where even at the end you don't know who the real monster is, but you know there is one. What made the original Frankenstein scary was the implication of what meddling in things you don't understand can cause--and it can be horrific, and it can destroy you and everything you treasure. The universe is a mysterious place. There is more to these stories than mindless carnage and death. These stories show a wider world than the one we know of.

There are moments* like this:

Out of nowhere, here comes a supernatural invasion! There's mystery, intrigue, and unbreakable rules right out of the gate. You are in a new, wider world, where things are not what they once were. Everything is upside down, now how do we figure it out?  Horror is the one genre of film that lives and dies by the scope of its moral core. A horror movie with a diseased conscience is a bad horror movie.

Even something as simple as Nightmare on Elm Street (only the ones directed by Wes Craven, the others are trash) have a moral center. Simply watch them and pay attention to what hurts Freddy Krueger and what ends up getting other characters killed. There's a moral core at play. The Dream Warriors is set up specifically as an anti-Freddy force where good finally triumphs over evil. As far as Wes Craven goes, and most fans, that was the final film in the series. There was nowhere else to go.

But then they screwed it up with the next movie. To go into spoiler territory, because you shouldn't ever watch the other films, every single one of the surviving Dream Warriors from the previous film is unceremoniously murdered in the next movie. This is done because of a lack of imagination. They simply couldn't figure out how to tell a story without a bunch of people being murdered for no reason. As a result, Nightmare on Elm Street became standard slasher fare.

Just as in Alien 3, which is a movie that might exist in some alternate dimension, kills off everyone from Aliens. The creative staff completely rejects the rules and themes of the previous film in order to make what they want instead. And what they want is always a rehash of a previous entry in the series. Every movie after Dream Warriors (except Wes Craven's satire, New Nightmare) is essentially just another slasher movie with nothing to say except to show stupid people getting murdered in gruesome ways.Yawn.

Horror works because of clear cut rules that the filmmaker is never allowed to break and because of a sense of wondrous dread, a conflicting atmosphere, that pulls the viewer in and doesn't let go until the credits plays "Bad Moon Rising". Books are the same way, as are comics. Rules exist to lock the audience into the universe.

If a rule is broken, a price is paid. If the universe is disturbed, it must be explored as to what caused the disturbance and what can fix it. There has to be a moral status quo as the baseline to contrast with the horrors going on. If the "real world" is as hopeless and empty as the encroaching horror is, then, what is the point in partaking in the horror?

If the end result of the story is the same as if every character blew their brains out in the first five minutes, or pages, then how can I be invested in the story? There has to be more than a hollow shell for a story to work. The story has to be working towards something. The characters and story have to go somewhere.

There has to be a reason to fight the darkness, and there has to be a reason for the characters to do so.

There has to be a soul worth fighting for. And that, is what horror is about.

*Yes, The Devil Rides Out is my favorite horror film. How did you know?


  1. An excellent riff on the episode. Thanks for listening!

    Two examples of otherwise solid horror films tarnished by nihilism: The Mist (based on my favorite Stephen King short) and The Krampus. As you commented on my review of the latter, the ending nullifies the entire rest of the movie.

    Quick correction: Wes Craven only directed two Nightmare on Elm Street films--the original and New Nightmare. I agree that parts 1 and 3 are the best in the series though, and for many of the same reasons you stated.

    Craven was raised Christian and seriously studied philosophy. He fell away from the faith, but his art always retained a healthy respect for the unseen and unknown that nearly all contemporary film makers lack. James Wan is a notable exception.

    1. Oh, my mistake! Wes Craven wrote Part 3, he didn't direct it. But yes, it is one of the best in the franchise. I also recall that he hated the stinger at the end of Part 1 because of how schlocky it was and how it undercut the conclusion. The man seriously respected his craft.

      The Mist went from being a great movie in the beginning to sliding in the mud the longer it went on, but I would have forgiven any faults if that ending wasn't such trash. The story would have been no different if he just waited to die with his wife in his house at the beginning.

  2. Good article. Well said.

    What do you make of the horror writing of HP Lovecraft? He was an atheist, and the horror of the atheist universe, namely, that the universe is empty, hostile without love or light or sanity in any other place but this one small shrinking corner known as New England.

    Myself, I do not find Lovecraft scary in the least, but the disorienting effect of finding out the universe is much, bigger, older and stranger than you once thought is enough of an emotional and aesthetic thrill for me to have read every scrap of fiction he ever wrote.

    But he has no moral core to him. Or does he? I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    1. Thank you for reading, Mr. Wright!

      This might sound odd, but I've always thought of Lovecraft as more of a mystery writer than a horror writer. His obsession with finding the truth and discovering what lies out there is fascinating. Everything is not as it seems, the curtain is pulled back, and slowly the world is revealed for what it truly is.

      It is like a man staring at a black wall who sees a single puny pin prick of light breaking out of the corner. The light is tiny, but it gnaws at him. He claws at it. He must find out what it is that stops him from staring at his black wall. And what he eventually finds is extraordinary.

      Lovecraft had a grand imagination that went as far as a universe with a roof can take you. So, while he is creative, his horror still comes short of actually being scary.

      This is a problem Stephen King has. His best books are still "The Shining", "'Salem's Lot", and "The Stand", even after over thirty years of writing. Stories about ugly monsters tearing unlikable people apart, Christians being horrible, and talking killer cars, just don't compare to the possibility of facing down the eternal unknown, and having the whole universe changed.

      Horror that doesn't point to the eternal in some way is just reveling in nihilism. It's not a story that does anything for me.