A Serbian Film, Alfred Hitchcock, Alien, An American Werewolf in London, Audition, black magic, blair witch project, categories of horror, curses, Dark Water, Daybreakers, demonic posession, evil spirits, folk lore, Frankenstein, ghost stories, ghosts, Gore, gore fest, gore hound, Haunted House, horror cinema, horror cliche, horror film, horror niche, horror themes, Hostel, Human Centipede, I know what you did last summer, Mirrors, Norman Bates, onryo, Pan's Labyrinth, paranormal activity, Psycho, psychological horror, sci fi horror, science fiction horror, Scream, Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, slasher, supernatural horror, teen slasher, The Grudge, The Ring, The Woman in Black, themes of horror, Vampire, vengeful ghost, Walking Dead, werewolf, witch, zombies, [Rec]
Moving swiftly along from my last post, welcome dear readers, to the first in a series of articles by moi – your fabulous editor in chief. Feeling inspired after a brief excursion into the darkest recesses of horror, I shall be exploring censorship, desensitisation and horror as a vehicle for hi-concept themes over the next few week.
And as a means of diving head first into this intriguing category, let’s start with a look at terminology and the categories of horror.
If you really think about it – and I have – horror can broadly be split into three thematic categories.
Part One: The Three Themes of Horror
Pretty obviously this is anything where the central horror element has a supernatural explanation. Big genres within this category include: ghost stories, demonic possession, vampiric and werewolf curses, black magic, folk lore, evil spirits and zombies. It should be noted that these categories are not fixed. Ghosts and demons for example always (or as good as always) have a supernatural explanation – whereas zombies or vampires might be given a science-fiction explanation (see below). Obvious examples of the purely supernatural horror genre would be The Woman in Black (image right), The Ring, An American Werewolf in London and Insidious.
So Alien is perhaps the obvious science-fiction horror that leaps, acid dripping, tail flailing, teeth gnashing at you from the darkest recesses of your imagination. BUT alien nightmares are only one subset within this broad genre. Zombie and vampire stories which provide a scientific rather than supernatural explanation slide neatly into this category too – think Walking Dead and Daybreakers respectively. Following closely behind come the killer disease horror. The mother of all science fiction stories – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – is the finest example of ‘man vs. god’ and ‘the horror of creation’ sub genre which includes all the mad scientists and experiments gone wrong. It’s Alive!!! With Alien and Mary Shelley’s masterpiece in the list, you would be forgiven for thinking that sci-fi horror is the intellectual pinnacle of the genre.
Hello Norman. Any Hitchcock horror falls into this category but Pyscho is the obvious flagship. Following on this masterpiece’s coat-tails comes its bastard off-spring: the 90s teen-slasher and the 00s torture porn. Recent times have seen a serious decline in the use of tension and suspense to define this genre, and have in turn resorted to gratuitous gore and violence. I hate to say it but Saw, Scream, Hostel, A Serbian Film and Human Centipede all belong here. The again, Audition, Se7en and Silence of the Lambs also belong to this genre, so it isn’t all bad. But see what I mean about the gore??
Part Two: The Two Categories of Fear
A horror film always, always, always does one of these two things: makes you scared or makes you sick. And sometimes they do both.
There are lots of ways of scaring the audience and many different forms of fear. You might be on the edge of your seat with tension. You might be dangling from the ceiling with suspense. You might catapult across the cinema with a jump scare. You might want to look away with horror. You may be unable to look away in terror. You may be frozen by the unrelenting onslaught of white fear. Or you might be chilled to the bone by the unsettling and unfamiliar.
There’s one type of sick: gore. Whether its blood, guts, bone crunching, brain oozing, vomit producing filth – it all comes down to the same thing. You may think you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away. Why? Well, that’s the wonderful mystery and also the damning reality at the heart of all horror: what makes us want to be afraid? I’m not a gore hound, I don’t even like gore hounds (sorry guys). I don’t find this stuff scary and I don’t go looking for it – but used well – as the visceral edge on a horror movie – and gore is what achieves the perfect pitch. But when a movie is only about the gore – it fails. I’m looking at you Saw Franchise. You aren’t the only one, but I feel like picking on you right now.
Part Three: One Horror Niche
Horror fans, despite their protestations to the contrary, are creatures of habit. Sure, studios make what sells (and they make it cheap), but you keep paying for it. Horror films are, for the most part, set in the modern day. They have a broad audience of people willing to see them because they have an easy pay off (you go to be scared – you get scared – job done). They have a small, closed set (haunted house, cabin in the woods, indistinguishable dark and murky back drop). The effects are low budget (fake blood, prosthetics). Basically – it’s all very cheap. And studios churn out this rubbish at a low price because they know we will watch it. So when a guaranteed seller comes along – they jump on it. Here are a few of the biggest bandwagons to role through Amityville:
Japanese Horrors in the 90s/00s, particularly Onryo ghost stories. These are then pretty routinely remade as western films. Ringu, Ju-On, Dark Water, Mirrors, etc.
The grotesquely nicknamed torture porn movies: Saw and Hostel being perhaps the most notable, with A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede following, both of which are even more pathetic and revolting than their progenitors.
Lost documentary movies: Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, [Rec], The Tunnel, Appartment 143 and all the dreadful bandwagon jumpers like Grave Encounters. These are the absolute lowest of the low in terms of production costs (and sometimes values).
Slasher-Movies: Scream, I know What You Did Last Summer, Final Destination… literally too many to list or to even care about.
And then you get niches that transcend these passing fads. The haunted house story, the demonic possession, the malevolent witch or a curse that blights an individual. Vampires and werewolves, vengeful ghosts and evil spirits – these notions have existed for millennia. They are embedded in our psyche, playing on our most primal, secret fears – horrors which we no longer understand but which maintain their malevolence. These stories were a part of human culture long before cinema, long before the printing press and even the written word. They will continue to be a part of our existence, an expression of our darkest fears for a long time to come.