It's been 17 years since Wes Craven succeeded in breathing life into the decaying corpse of the horror genre with the irony-laddened, post-modern twist on the slasher, Scream. The scary movie maestro teaming up with the new blood writer Kevin Williamson, to send up the genre that made him famous. It would reinvigorate the genre and re-animate the life of the scary movie.
Less than three years later and The Blair Witch Project would again, breathe new life into the genre, scaring the life out of audiences, harnessing PR to spin that the film was possibly even real* and thus creating a new sub-genre of it's own with the 'found-footage' horror film.
*The Blair Witch Project was one of the first films to properly use a website to bolster the PR hoax, pretending that the event was real. The original web page is housed here, on the now full website.
13 years later (and 33 Friday the 13th's - oooooh), the genre has grown from being left for dead by Hollywood and festering in the direct-to-video shelves, to a multi-billion dollar industry again.
What's the reason for this? Well, for Hollywood anyway, the genre is able to do that great thing of making stacks and stacks of money whilst being produced for a marginally small amount (this year's The Conjuring talking a cool $100 million over what it took to make with the theatrical release only). It's also a genre ripe for remakes and sequels. Horror films often don't rely upon the star-power of a famous actor or actress and instead rely heavily on a simple central theme (a possessed child, a haunted attic). This makes it easy to scoop up an old script and jazz it up for a new, un-suspecting audience. Plots are recycled and 're-imagined' for new spin of the scary wheel. And the things we might compare and pick up on in other genres, we let go with horror. When a new James Bond incarnation comes along, we oft compare the actors and action and whether or not the performances ring true of the originals. But with horror, all that matters is whether it scares us. Some of the most regurgitated plot points of the horror genre continue and continue to scare in all incarnations (as The Conjuring proved).
But what makes us, the audience like horror films? Why do we like to be scared, en-masse in a darkened room by our nightmares painted up on a screen. Well, actually, it's exactly this. Since man started having nightmares, we tried to find ways of coming to terms with them. Whether it be in a cinema with hundreds of people, or on the sofa with a loved one, the sharing of the experience is cathartic. And we can control the situation. Like a rollercoaster ride, we queue to get on it, scare ourselves and then, we get off. We go home. We get to share our nightmares, scream out loud and then, most importantly, we get to walk out of the nightmare.
So why is this something that's made it into films? Consider this: everyone has different dreams of what happiness is, but everyone has the same nightmares. We are all frightened by the same inalienable fears in life. Some psychologists believe we are even born with the same primal fears, built into our DNA to ensure our survival in infancy. And these fears stick with us into adult life (1. The fear of suffocating (or drowning), so not to be smothered by our parents rolling onto us in their sleep. 2. The fear of being chased, so to be able to run away as early as possible from attackers. 3. The fear of sharp teeth (which, interestingly develops into the fear of needles), so to recognise attackers that slip, un-noticed into where we're sleeping and bite us. 4. And finally, the fear of loud noises which is, obviously, to prepare us for recognising incoming danger*) So it fits, that when horror films exploit these fears, the response they get is wide and a much more profound response than that of the person-specific, happy motifs.
*Incidentally, there is one film, made in 1975, that is not very often classified as a true horror film but utilises all of these fears to great effect and caused a world-wide phenomenon. Also, according to a survey by behavioural psychologists, the film has caused more real and actual immobilising phobias in people than any other film in history. Can you guess what it is? Drowning. Teeth. Chased. And a very distinctive sound.
In recent years, we have seen Hollywood embrace and use one of these primal fears more than all the rest (sorry, no prizes here for guessing which one it is, I'm afraid) and has done everything in it's power to convince us that this is the lead and most pivotable tropes of the horror genre. Scan over the press ads and posters for any horror films in the last ten years and you're more than likely to see the description of it in the quote that all film marketeers long to get: 'Jump-out-of-your-seat horror'. That's right folks, the loud bang or 'BOO!' moment that capitalises on the loud sound primal fear to create a 'jump'. You know the one: A hapless victim backs into the shadows and something jumps out at them and us and the audience screams and jumps out of their seat. This is the most relied-upon tactic in modern horror... and for good reason.
"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it" - Alfred Hitchcock
Hollywood loves the jump-out-of-seat scare. Why? They're perfect for business. They offer real bang-for-your-buck when it comes to selling a movie (how many jump-scares were there? How many times did the audience scream?) but by their nature, these gags are sudden and shocking. However, they are also quick to leave you- You jump, you scream and then you relax. It's a short sharp shock, and doesn't create any long lasting tension. You might get a jump scare and then wait for the next one to pop up. This waiting creates an expectation and this is often mis-interpreted as suspense. It's not this. It's a very cheap way of replicating tension and suspense. A very easy way to replicate them. Also, and most importantly, the jump-scare doesn't stay with you after you leave the film. And Hollywood really loves this. There is no point scaring an audience so much that they go home actually scared or, God forbid, having nightmares about what they've seen. An audience needs to go and tell their friends what a great experience the film was, to 'go and see it'. They need to want to go back and see it themselves, a second time, and they absolutely need to want to go to see the sequel... and the sequel's sequel. What's the point in leaving your audience genuinely frightened? This is bad for business. Also, 'sustained fear' is something that might bump up your rating (it's actually specifically a description within the BBFC). Getting a 15 cert in the UK (equivalent of an R rating in America) cuts out a large portion of marketable teens for a horror film, and this is also bad for business. Getting an 18 cert (equivalent of a NC-17 rating in America) really takes a large portion away. The NC-17 rating is what gives film studios nightmares*
*To date, there are no horror films in the all time TOP 30 BOX OFFICE NC-17 rated films. None. The closest film is The Exorcist, which is the highest grossing R rated horror of all time.
In my humble opinion, there is a definite distinction between 'scared' and 'frightened' (not least from my grandparents' generation, who roll their eyes at the lazy use of the word 'scary'). 'Scared' is a moment, a short experience. 'Frightened' is something that conveys an indelible scar on your mind. Scares are quick to use, quick to set up and quick to drop. They are perfect for a short, 90 minute film, where you want to fit as much as possible into that running time. A film that creates real suspense, sustained fear and tension and real, genuinely frightening scenes that stay with you long after the credits roll are very rare. They're hard to create, to make, hard to get passed the censors and even harder to get greenlit by the studios in the first place. It's why I appreciate the ones that get through all this and make it to the screen.
But wait a minute, if watching a good horror film is a way of working through our own nightmares, why would we want them to stick with us after we leave the cinema? Why would we want any film to stick with us after we leave the cinema? Because it is not and should not be the responsibility of filmmakers to give us the answers. If a film manages (and there aren't alot that do) to connect with us in some way, whether it be related to our nightmares, our fears, our thoughts, happiness or life-views, then it is managing to make us think about it ourselves. These things are personal to us and I, for one, don't want a filmmaker (or film studio) telling me how to think. Horror films should connect with us, just like any other movie. And the themes it brings up, the nightmare scenarios it portrays, should cause us to work out own nightmares... for ourselves. The involuntary action of a jump-out-of-the-seat moment is not letting me do anything. It is not asking me to think or even use my imagination. It is a random reflex.
'Our society has reorientated itself to the present moment' - Present Shock, Doglas Rushkoff
In my opinion society now has become very 'jump-out-of-your-seat'. The world has become much more reactionary. We are all about the present, the now, what's happening live. We've gotten used to just reacting and dealing with events as they happen. We've gotten much worse at planning ahead and working out problems before they happen. We're waiting for the loud BANG and only then will we react. And because the actions in reacting are often involuntary and pure reflex, they are less thought out. Our culture too, is mimicking this reactionary way of dealing with things. We want things quick, we want then now and we're not too fussed if tomorrow we forget about it completely. But should this be what we give in to and expect of culture?
'Hold as it were the mirror up to nature' - Hamlet, William Shakespeare
If nightmares are a natural part of everyone's lives they shouldn't be thought of as something that we can (or should) do without. Nightmares allow us to resolve the problems and fears that plague our thoughts. We should embrace our nightmares. So too, we should embrace horror. We should stop looking at horror films as things that could potentially fuel our nightmares but, instead, see them as what they are - things that help us to work through our nightmares, to contain and resolve them. We should expect more of culture. We expect more of film and we should expect alot more from our horror movies.
The next time you go to cinema, give a little consideration to embracing a fictional nightmare and see a horror film. Seek out good horrors in the dusty archives and give yourself a real fright. Expect more of this genre and it will see way to making us think more about the real nightmares that we can't avoid or escape. For, just like the slow and stumbling zombies that creep through the shadows, they will eventually catch up to you and perhaps scream, in ironically fitting words, that which might have saved us all: 'BRAINS! BRAINS! MUST HAVE BRAINS!'
- See more at: http://www.otmcreate.com/fuel/opinion/do-you-want-see-something-really-scary#sthash.IGlO6NTu.dpuf