As mentioned in my review of A Quiet Place, I consider myself a huge fan of the horror genre. There’s a lot of work that goes into the genre, and quite frankly, I believe that a lot of the modern horror movies that come out today are cheap cash grabs coasting off of the momentum of successful horror films.
Why are horror films so bad?
This may initially seem like a leading question, but if you type “why are horror movies” into Google as an incomplete question, the autofill feature will finish the rest of the question for you as “why are horror movies bad?” I don’t believe horror movies are bad, and in fact, I believe that they require a lot of skill to make correctly. Now, of course, you do have your run-of-the-mill “haunted house” or “exorcism-based-on-a-true-story” hogwash horror films that come out every month — these films are not true to the horror genre, but rather, playing on the desires of the fans of the genre.
What do the fans want?
Have you ever had a friend say, “I hate horror films. They suck”, or voice their general disapproval of the genre with the utmost of conviction? Horror movies are practically a psychological phenomenon, and I find the ultimate goal of horror movies to be very different from the goal of most movies or even other forms of entertainment, like magic. Why do people watch magic tricks? Because they want to be fooled. Magic tricks provide escapism for its audiences, reverting them into a childlike state of fantasy and wonder. Movies were invented in the late 19th century and perfected in the early 20th century as a result of the ongoing tensions and horrors of war. Although there were millions of soldiers dying in the trenches of World War I, movies provided those back at home a form of escapism and relief from the brutal nature of war.
But then, if that’s the case, you’d think that horror movies are opponents of the goal that movies try to achieve. Horror movies don’t provide escapism from the stresses of life, but rather, they introduce more stress into your life and feed on the primitive concept of fear. Despite this, fans of the genre want to be scared. I liken this notion to the idea of spicy food — people eat spicy food because the pain of the chemicals in spicy food provides endorphins from the brain to the body to relieve it of the pain. The aspect of fear in horror movies allows audiences to experience a similar effect — the stress and frightening components of the movies elevate audiences heart rates and adrenaline, giving them a high of sorts.
How do horror films achieve this?
This might seem like an obvious question at first, but it’s far more complex than you think. The reason that your average “Haunting of _______” B-list horror movie doesn’t do so well is because the crafting of good horror requires a great understanding of the human mind, and not just the ability to throw jump scares in the midst of a half-baked plot.
Take a look at A Quiet Place. Besides the existence of a coherent plot, what did John Krasinksi do differently than most horror film directors?
He didn’t play all of his cards at once.
In 2017, A24 Studios released It Comes at Night, a horror movie quite unlike any other. I actually went on the record stating that the film was a masterpiece, and the most underrated film of 2017. It Comes at Night exercises the principle of unseen horrors, which is the idea that what is happening off-camera is far scarier than what is happening on-camera. Think of it like this: most kids are scared of the dark. Even cavemen at the dawn of humanity were scared of the dark. The dark itself isn’t scary, but the idea that something unfathomable, something inexplicably horrifying could be lurking in the dark — the fear of the unknown is the most basic of human fears, and yet the hardest to play to in horror movies (take 2016’s Lights Out as a literal example of this). In It Comes at Night there isn’t a particular monster that is hunting down the characters. The main antagonists of the movie are the characters themselves, and the main horror of the movie is the horror of the unknown — what lurks behind the foggy treeline that’s so frightening? Why is a good portion of the human population dead?
A Quiet Place tackles the concept of unseen horrors through the unique usage of sound. The monsters in the movie are blind, but hyper-sensitive to sound — any noise that is made could trigger them into locating the characters. This leads to some wonderful setups by Krasinski, as the audience can never quite relax due to the looming presence of the monsters off-screen.
By playing to the deep-rooted universal fear of the unknown, directors of horror movies can provide a psychological buildup that results in a brilliant payoff once the jump scares are executed.
Why don’t you hang your arms and legs off of the bed when you sleep?
Why do your ears perk up at the slightest noise when you’re home alone?
Questions like these are the ones that are worth answering for directors of the horror genre, and by being able to play at the basic idea of unknown horrors, directors can properly generate some momentum for their movies before playing all of their cards.
The horror genre is entirely underrated in essence due to the large volume of films that place jump scare after jump scare without a thought. Meticulously crafted horror films are short in number, and yet, completely masterful. Directors who can play to the weaknesses of the human psyche are scarce in number, but are the titans of the genre. Next time a great horror movie comes out, I encourage you to go see it and study the techniques used by the director. You’ll find yourself coming home checking your closet and under your bed before you go to sleep.