I was once told that my film taste and my personality do not combine, but instead: clash. I’m kind, good-humoured and loyal to my friends – yet I like being terrified to the extent that whilst sitting in a darkened room for around ninety-minutes, my soul is crushed and stamped upon repeatedly until there is nothing left but absolute despair. If this is the case, what’s the appeal? The majority of my friends do not like the horror genre, and if asked if they’re willing to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a look of horror (if you’ll excuse the unintended pun) appears across their face. It is understandable. Nobody likes being scared because it’s a negative emotion. But I like being scared in the safe realms of a cinema, where I know I cannot be touched. I think horror films are somewhat cathartic in that respect. But there must be more of a reason to explain why they appeal to me so much. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush, but if that was the case, I’d utterly adore thrillers. But, it’s not. I like being made to feel uneased, uncomfortable, terrified, depressed, and disturbed. People say that horror films are for sadists, quite the opposite: the horror experience is a masochistic one – and no, I’m not talking about kinky chains, unless of course if Hellraiser comes into the question. There’s a theory called pleasure through displeasure – a concept revolving around getting a subversive pleasure through feeling negative emotions. It is why we like rollercoasters, and horror films even more so.
I think to really pin down my obsession with this genre; I have to start off with my experiences. The first real horror film – and by ‘real’, I mean one that genuinely terrified me, was John Carpenter’s Halloween. There is something so unnerving about that music, the constant ticking of the piano like the ticking of the death-clock for each character. For the first time, I felt the sheer sense of ‘edge-of-your-seat’ suspense, and to say that I yelped like a pre-pubescent school-girl would be an understatement. I also watched it with the lights on because my dad cannot abide watching telly in the dark. Yet, even with the lights still on, the sheer terrifying power came across. The pacing of the film is perfect and the way John Carpenter constructs shots is sheer genius. He uses foregrounds, mid-grounds and backgrounds effortlessly – you are constantly searching for shadows, and where Michael Myers will pop up next, yet it is impossible to guess. You’ll look for him in the background and he’ll be in the foreground. I remember going to bed that night. I had to walk up the stairs to get there, and the stairs in my house don’t have a lightbulb, so I had to walk up the darkness to get there – and yes, I feared that around the corner was a man in a mask carrying a butcher’s knife, getting ready to stab me to my impending doom. As soon as I went into my bedroom, I turned on the lights – of course, nobody was actually there, but if this was just one great horror film, what on earth would the other ‘greats’ do to my emotions, I thought. I was hooked on horror ever since.
My next experience was with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It was the first Kubrick movie I saw, and of course, he would then come to be one of my all time favourite directors. All I knew about The Shining was the infamous line: “Heeeeeeere’s Johneeee!” The Shining is now one of my all time favourite horror films for the simple reason that it works every single time I see it. Kubrick is a master-craftsman of atmosphere, and this is one of his most atmospheric works. It is safe to assume that with most horror films, you could draw a graph consisting of peaks and troughs in terms of the tension and terror produced by them. There would be a moment where the audience is allowed to ‘relax’, and then they are caught off guard where something suddenly terrifies them. The Shining is genius because it doesn’t work like this. It is constant. From the very first shot there is a sense of unease and this constant feeling of uneasiness spans the entire film. It is the only film that during viewing I did feel my heart thump in my chest. This is a physical reaction which I’ve never had with any other film.
Then there was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film so terrifying that I had another physical reaction: I was shaking as the credits were rolling. I had to call my best friend to calm me down.
Of course, there will always be those that will arrogantly dismiss the horror genre entirely, claiming any film in this genre to not be ‘art’. I would disagree. One of the many pleasures of art is that we can discover who we are by experiencing them. If we identify with a certain character any film/book/play, for example, that would be a signifier to what kind of person you are. Horror films go deeper than that as they raise questions about our deepest fears, and if you’re terrified of one film but not another, it could be because you fear one thing but not the next. Horror films have explained to me what I fear the most. I don’t fear death, but I fear pain. I fear being alone. I fear the dark. I fear being followed. I fear being isolated and having everybody go against me. The fact that I don’t find The Exorcist or any of the Hellraiser films scary is probably because I can’t fear hell, because I don’t believe in it, and I wouldn’t fear the devil even if he/she did exist because in The Bible, the devil has killed nobody and God has killed thousands. I fear religion being used for evil purposes, and due to this, I enjoyed films such as Red State. I fear people in higher positions and corrupt governments – I found the film adaptation and book of Nineteen Eighty-Four to be one of the most terrifying and depressing things I have ever experienced, and yes, I would argue that they have elements of the horror genre in them. To go back to the concept of religion in horror, I think if a film relied on the fear of God, I might find it more scary, considering I have a blatant dislike and mistrust for people in power. I think everybody is different and complex, and this is why the fears that horror films attempt to prey on are very generic and broad. To me, a horror film fails or succeeds on whether it exploits our basic, instinctive fears. I have nothing wrong with blood or gore because it can be used effectively to create disturb. However, it is when films rely purely on torture and gore to terrify that there is no effect for me, emotionally. Nobody fears having their fingers cut off, but some people do fear pain – if the ‘torture-porn film’ is to ever be successful, it needs to understand this factor.
Horror films can also be considered ‘art’ because the violence of a horror film can be used not just for an emotional effect but to add to the philosophical messages of the film. It is well documented that some disturbing films use violence to accentuate a political message: Blue Velvet, I Spit on Your Grave, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom and A Serbian Film. Blue Velvet incorporates violence to savagely attack the notion of the American dream, I Spit on Your Grave uses violence as an anti-masculinity and anti-rape message, perhaps the most blunt of which is when the rape victim cuts off one of the rapists penis with a butcher’s knife, signifying that she has stripped him of his power in the same way that he did to her. Salo: 120 Days of Sodom and A Serbian Film use violence, torture and sexual abuse as metaphors for how totalitarianism rapes society and humanity.
Moving on from the art/trash debate. Horror-films, even though a successful genre in itself, isn’t as successful as the ‘feel-good’ movie because people are put off by horror films due to their content, and their controversy. It is well-known for religious groups and insane right-wing mothers to complain about horror films. Horror films have been censored and banned, criticised and been deemed to be a corruption of society – the most well-documented case of this happening is in the 80s ‘video-nasties’ list. Films such as Driller Killer, The Evil Dead and Cannibal Holocaust suffered immensely due to this. But if anything, I think this has added to the genres power to shock and scare.
There’s something delightfully subversive about the horror genre. Watching one feels – to me, anyway – somewhat rebellious. It’s the 18 certificate, or in the old days the ‘X’ certificate (which had more of a mischievous punch to it – and no, the X-certificate wasn’t just for porn). It’s that age-old thing, tell someone to not step on the grass, they’ll step on the grass. Telling a 14 year-old child to not watch Cannibal Holocaust will only encourage him further to watch it. Horror films appeal to that anarchistic streak in all of us.
Horror films are also one of the most interesting genres because it seems to me that it has spawned more sub-genres (and sub-sub genres) than any other genre in cinema. Slasher, monster-movie, zombie, haunted-house movie, possession movie, rape-revenge film, cannibal film, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, gore-movie (which has now developed into that infamous genre which the right-wing press invented for films like Saw and Hostel ‘torture-porn’)…the list goes on. The horror film has grown quickly and organically over the years because it allows young directors to earn money quickly and simply, anyone can make a horror movie. The most obvious famous directors to start out in horror are: Sam Raimi and Francis Ford-Coppola.
Yet, with so many people making all of these horror movies, surely over the years, originality ceases. This is true with all films, but more so with the horror film. This adds to the genres appeal. If something is clichéd and predictable it will not be scary, so when a truly inventive and terrifying horror film comes along, it makes the event of seeing it more impactful. Yet, there’s still some fun with watching conventional predictable horror films, particularly the slasher film. Guessing who’ll be the one next is always fun, and because I’ve seen so many, I’m usually right – and therefore my ego boosts, meaning that I enjoy the film more than I should’ve done.
I shall now end with my most important point about what I like most about the genre. By the genres very nature, it is bitter, cruel, cynical, dark and twisted. Horror films never usually have happy endings. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find happy endings less memorable in comparison to cynical or depressing endings. I think I’ve worked out why, and the reason is simple to explain because everyone can understand this:
We never remember happy dreams, but we always remember – whether we like it or not: our nightmares.