How is it that despite all the blood, guts and frights, the horror genre has become one of the most boring in modern day film?
I realise that’s a big call, but the last film I recall being genuinely affected by was last year’s horror hit Hereditary.
It stuck out because it wasn’t so much a horror as it was a psychological family drama about grief and mental illness. It rejected the horror formula and focused in on a character, instead of going for cheap jump scares it steadily built a sense of dread, and in doing all of that it freed itself from all the usual tropes that frankly, are dragging horror down.
Other than that, nothing surprises or even amuses me anymore, let alone scares me.
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This week I’ve been watching at least one horror film a day – usually two, sometimes more – in honour of Halloween. I do a Halloween marathon of sorts every year as an excuse to catch up on all the horror films I’ve missed throughout the year, and every single year I find myself reminded of exactly why I ignore the genre for the other 11 months of the year.
I get that most genres follow a format. The rom com does some variation of heterosexual couple meeting, hating each other, and then realising they misjudged each other and are actually wildly in love.
The sports movie does some variation of an underdog failing, montaging their way to most-improved player and overcoming their initial rivals.
And the horror movie does a variation of someone messing with things they definitely shouldn’t mess with, slowly succumbing to darkness and eventually either dying or defeating the boogeyman.
I also get that these formulas are important, and in any other genre, the predictability of it all is something you can easily live with. But in horror, the entire point of the film is that you are supposed to be fearful which – presumably – involves not knowing what will happen next.
But we always do.
We’ve been trained to expect a jump scare after either a long silence or a dramatic build in music. We’ve been trained to know that when a main character has an option to make a smart choice, they’re definitely not going to make it. We’ve been trained to know that when someone makes a heartfelt speech, they’re probably going to die.
We’ve been trained to recognise that when someone looks in a mirror or closes a mirrored bathroom cabinet, something terrifying is going to be behind them. Much like when the camera comes in close, when it zooms back out you know our hero will no longer be alone.
Then there are the religious tropes, the character archetypes, the creepy children trope, the animal sacrifice trope (ie. if you own a dog, the resident psychopath will definitely leave its corpse at your door), the abuse survivor trope (if our protagonist has power, it’s probably because they’ve faced real-life monsters) and of course, the mental illness trope (are they being haunted or are they just losing it? NB: This protagonist is usually a woman).
The tropes and techniques of the horror genre have been used so often and so reliably, we’re no longer scared of them. Since Sunday, I’ve watched about 10 different horror films – including In The Tall Grass, Wounds, It: Chapter Two and more – and I am yet to be pleasantly surprised.
How is it that the number one rule of horror is that the things people don’t see coming up behind them are the scariest, yet the genre hasn’t stopped giving up the ghost, as it very much were.
We’ve been reduced to jump scares and body horror and outside of that, we’re in that kind of Darren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier and dare I say Robert Eggers territory where they try to take horror into arthouse territory and wind up losing any actual impact because we’re all too busy either trying to erase gratuitous and over-the-top imagery from our minds or we’re just googling “what the hell just happened?”
Even the upcoming Doctor Sleep – which is the follow up to The Shining , aka one of the greatest horror films of all time – seems to have ditched the psychological dread that drove the original, in favour of a more mass-audience-friendly formula. (Though I sincerely hope to be proven wrong on that front).
I know what you’re thinking: “Stop watching it if you don’t like it”. But this it the thing; I do like it – or rather, I want to. The horror genre has been my favourite for most of my life. I want it to pleasantly surprise me.
I’m hoping the Ari Asters and Jordan Peeles of the world are at the head of a horror revolution, but until then, I guess I’ll be skipping horror movies ’til next Halloween.