There is something terribly wrong with the horror genre, and I want to address something that I think is often misconstrued in modern cinema. I want to talk about some scary, and some not so scary stories and what makes them scary.
I’m not an authority on the horror genre, it’s just something I never really got into because I didn’t understand why people liked it so much. Horror usually doesn’t scare me that much because the majority of the horror genre is focused on quick scares or gruesome deaths. The famous jump scare is one example of this. Imagine a scene where a person is walking thru a hallway when out of nowhere the character set of a trap wire, a chainsaw swings from the ceiling, guts up against the ceiling and what have you. The viewer jumps out of his seat for a second, then laughs it of. Now play out the same scene, but tell the viewer there’s a trap somewhere and let the rest of the scene play out the same. We now dread every single step, because we know each one could be our characters last. For maximum effect a writer could set up a so called red herring by having the character walk around the suspected boobytrapped hallway but not setting of any traps. The viewer is relieved and suspects nothing when the character walks back and the trap goes of. In a lot of modern horror movie they forgo the process of setting up a trap, in favour of having more of them. You may get scared the first few times, but after a while this just gets dull. This is one of two reasons why horror movies often fail to truly scare me.
Explanation after explanation
As annoying as jump scares often are, the horror movie trope that really makes my blood boil is that writers and filmmakers always feel the need to explain every single detail of the threat. One of the founders of the cosmic horror genre George Orwell held the stern opinion that fear of the unknown is the most primal, true fear we can experience. His stories therefore don’t offer explanations for most of the events in his works , leaving a lot of room for interpretation. He, for instance, chose not to describe his monsters, but let the reader’s imagination run wild. Orwell’s believes have since been backed by science, and writers can use this to their advantage. One example of this is my favourite movie of all time: The Shining. Thus far this Kubrick masterpiece is the only movie I couldn’t finish in one sitting. Not because of the jump scares, of which there are none, but because I felt just as uneasy as the characters. It’s not scary in the traditional sense of the word but it does hit a very deep feeling of dread. I think this is because we get very few hints as to what’s wrong with the hotel the movie centres around: a few murders in the past, build on a indigenous burial ground, et cetera. It is however never truly explained which one, if any. If you look at the film very closely it’s feasible the entire haunting plays in the imagination of the characters. We don’t even really know what happens
to the character if the antagonist wins. Not knowing can be scarier than knowing.
A lot of this might sound like I’m contradicting myself, on the one hand I tell you to explain the danger our characters are in, and on the other I’m telling you not to. There is however one big difference. Setting up a jump scare is a small part of the story, remove a jump scare and the story barely changes. My second complaint is about the story as a whole. You therefore have to explain both a lot, and a little. A daunting task for any writer for sure, but one that pays of in a big way. Many of the horror greats keep you in the dark for as long as possible. The Shining, Psycho, and The Blair Witch Project all scare us on a much deeper level than many other modern movies because they understand a fundamental truth about the horror genre:
A horror film is more than blood and gore. Sure, they show the occasional axe murder and stabbing, but nothing like most films would do. This mostly had to do with either their age in case of The Shining and Psycho, or budget in case of The Blair Witch Project, which doesn’t show any gore. The film was made on a budget of just 60 thousand dollars. What would you do with a budget that small? Would you get out the ketchup for blood and call up a friend who likes to do make up get them to do some prosthetics? Or do you use your budget to hire some good actors and film it on a cheap camera so that it looks like found footage? Which one is scarier do you think? Exactly. Out of the three The Shining is by far the most graphic, but it is graphic without relying on gore for horror. The true horror in this movie isn’t the murder, it’s the prospect of murder. When we finally see a murder it’s far more impactful. And as for Psycho: it’s black and white, so we don’t even see the colour of the little blood that is spilled, furthermore there isn’t even a lot of violence in the film.
I think it can be summarized like this: tell your audience there is a trap but don’t necessarily show the ensuing explosion or gore if you don’t have the resources to do it right. Even if you can make gore look right you should always ask yourself this simple question: What purpose does this gore serve? If your answer is ‘none’ you should consider leaving it out. Blood is redder in the mind.