It is Halloween time: Time to put out spooky decorations, buy costumes of unnecessarily sexy version of mundane occupations, and watch horror movies. I am a connoisseur of many forms of media, so much so that there is a large swath of horror books and movies I have yet to touch, so I turned to the internet for ideas and suggestions. Turns out, there is much to debate about what is considered “horror” or “scary”. For example, many do not seem to see what is scary about the recent remake of IT, and consider it more of a comedy-thriller. I found it to be pretty terrifying. Sure it has has some goofy moments and a few cheap jump scares, but the movie itself carries an overwhelming sense of dread. There are subtleties that the filmmakers implanted into the film which make it unsettling. If not IT, what exactly should be considered “horror”?
In any discussion I find it important that everyone be on the same page regarding what the hell we’re all talking about, so let’s look up the definition of horror (As per Dictionary.com).
What is Horror? What is Fear?
Horror: an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear.
I think the most important part of that definition is the fear part. So let’s define that too, shall we?
Fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.
Generally, fear is subjective. Whether it be rodents, ghosts, clowns; no one thing has the same effect on every single person. The one thing I believe most people can agree on, is that suffering and death is bad. If you are a living, breathing human person, chances are you don’t want to die. Life’s pretty cool! We’ve got video games, pizza, and inexplicably sexy soldiers and dentists. Who wants to miss out on that? So while different things can instill feelings of danger and distress to different people, it all comes down to not wanting to be hurt and die.
What to do …and what not to do
A good horror movie should be a vehicle of fear of death, not just the end result. You can’t show a bunch of people dying in succession and call it horror. To me, that’s what separates movie franchises like Hostel, Saw, and Final Destination, all huge gore fests. The premise behind Saw doesn’t really instill much fear. How likely is it that a killer with a complex will kidnap you and toss you into increasingly ridiculous death traps because you may have done something bad in the past? The franchise relies 100% on gore. Final Destination is only slightly better, with its Rube Goldberg-esque deaths. It attempts to make you fear the mundane by having people die due to unfortunate mishaps from partaking in day-to-day activities; the idea that death is literally everywhere. Unfortunately, their idea of mundane boils down to events starting with putting a quarter into a malfunctioning jukebox at a bar and ending with 18 bottles of Coors Lite launched up your urethra. Hostel, on the other hand, manages to achieve more substance with its style. It’s not just about being maimed to death. It’s about being afraid of where you travel, where you stay, and who you trust. It’s about not knowing how awful another human being can be.
Even in the realm of video games, it’s important how the fear is delivered. You can’t just have it shoved down your throat. More often than not, one of the goals of a video game is to NOT DIE. A good horror game will mix intimacy with helplessness; it will make you feel like you are in the shoes of the character you are playing, and that you’re pretty much screwed in terms of survival. While Five Nights at Freddy’s is a fun and generally scary game, the fear doesn’t go beyond the gameplay. The interface and lack of mobility causes a high level of stress and anxiety, but once you turn off the game, it’s done. The first Resident Evil, however, will make you rethink how comfortable you are in your own home. REmake, specifically, does such a good job with the fixed camera angles, rendered backgrounds and ambient sounds that you not only feel a level of empathy for your character, but the intimacy of the setting makes you second guess your own surroundings.
Horror as a medium should persist after you are done taking it in. When done properly, it should not only exacerbate existing fears, but create new ones as well. I’m more afraid to travel overseas now than I am of having a serial killer with a questionable motives put me in a death trap for forging my time-sheet at work. What do you guys think? What defines horror for you?