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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Boo!

With Halloween just a couple of days away, it’s worth asking, what makes a good horror movie?

To answer that, first we need to ask, what exactly is a horror movie?

It seems to me that, as a genre, horror is something of a parasite. While many would consider horror to be a genre in its own right, it often tends to attach itself to another host genre. The scariest movies frequently turn out to be ostensibly a mystery (Psycho), a crime procedural (Silence of the Lambs), science fiction (Alien), fantasy, adventure or even romance (Twilight) or comedy (the Evil Dead movies). For example, one of the scariest movies of all time, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, is basically a seafaring adventure story. Is it properly considered a horror movie? I suppose that depends on how purist you want to be.

Horror, as the very word implies, is meant to scare you and to do that it is more or less a convention that there is some menace that is beyond what we usually encounter in normal life. That usually means that the menace is supernatural, say, a ghost, a vampire, a monster or sometimes an ostensibly normal human being who is so wacked out mentally that he (it usually is a he, although not always) seems to be something supernatural. At the end of the day, the shark in Jaws is just a fish. But it is so large and fearsome and deadly and cunning and seeming to hold a grudge against individual people that, for all intents and purposes, it becomes something supernatural.

To work, a horror movie has to straddle the line between invoking real basic fears that we have in real life (wild animals, poisonous creatures, crazy/violent/random people) and notch them up to obliterate whatever cocoon of safety we normally build in our minds about these dangers. At some level, if it really wants to scare us, it needs to make us identify with the victims and/or potential victims and make us believe that it could be happening to us.

With no disrespect intended to the many fine artists in the areas of makeup and special effects, if you think back to the movies that scared you most, you will probably find that it was the dread of what might or was going to happen that scared you the most. When the monster or killer actually appears, it really is something of a relief because the suspense has finally ended. There are many ways to build suspense. Lighting and music can help, but it really comes down to what the filmmaker lets the audience see, how much and when. A babysitter going alone down into a dark basement can be scary because we do not know what is lurking in the dark. Many masters know that you can make the suspense worse by actually showing something or someone that the heroine doesn’t see—causing you the viewer to be in the difficult situation of being more aware of the danger than the protagonist and being unable to do anything about it. Many scary movies, even ones with relatively little gore, start out with a horrible act, e.g. the unseen shark grabbing the nighttime swimmer in the opening moments of Jaws. That precedent is then in our minds during the entire rest of the movie, and we are on edge the whole time, waiting with dread for something similar to happen again.

Why do we even like to watch scary movies? How did it become entertaining to pay for and watch something we would do everything we could to avoid in real life? The explanation has always been that scary movies perform something like the same function as nightmares. To live with our deepest fears, it is necessary occasionally to purge them, either by playing them out in our minds while asleep or in the dark with other people while watching a movie screen. This function of film goes all the way back to Georges Méliès, the magician who, by making some of the first movies, was a big part of defining what cinema was all about. In his case, it was all about the illusion, of making magic real. Magic has a light side, but it also has a dark side. One of the purposes of movies was to give the viewer an adrenaline rush, the same way that a roller coaster or carnival funhouse does.

A few years ago, Entertainment Weekly compiled a list of what it considered the 20 scariest movies of all time. Many of them were the ones you would expect (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Personally, I gleaned a couple of bits of wisdom from their list. One was that horror movies are like pop music in that the effect it has on you has an awful lot to do with the age you were when you were first to exposed to a particular song or movie. There is something about adolescence that makes sitting through a scary movie a rite of passage. Someone once said, tell me what year you turned 16, and I will tell you what some of your favorite songs are. That same person could probably use the same information to tell you what horror movies made a major impact on you. For me, it was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It may be tame by today’s standards, but nobody did suspense better than Hitch, and he never did it better than he did in this movie. Forget that rule I cited above about putting something terrible at the very beginning of the movie. Apart from the title, Psycho gave no indication of what was coming during the first reel. Then bam! That shower scene with Janet Leigh, and then the movie began in earnest, as we waited in dread for something like that to happen again. In the best horror tradition, we couldn’t be sure that something supernatural wasn’t going on, and that added to the fear.

What EW’s list also brought home to me was that a couple of trends have changed what the horror genre is. One is the self-aware irony that was always there (but subtly) but became prominent around the time of Wes Craven’s original Scream. From that moment, the intention to scare the audience became compromised by the tendency to amuse or wink at the audience. The other trend was to combine or, in some cases, replace the element of suspense with assaulting the audience’s senses. In other words, instead of manipulating the viewer into scaring himself with his own imagination, the filmmaker tries to scare him with imagery that perhaps the viewer refused or couldn’t imagine on his own. With movies like Hostel or Saw, the challenge for the adolescent is not enduring the suspense but enduring stomach-turning images. But there is always a counter-movement back in the other direction, which tends to manifest itself in low-budget wonders like The Blair Witch Project and the current Paranormal Activity.

We can argue over which is better, but in the end it is a reminder that another thing that horror movies have always been about is pushing the envelope of whatever was considered acceptable at the time.

-S.L., 29 October 2009


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