Welcome to the 2015 Halloween Blog Hop
While I was preparing to launch The Demons of Plainville, a fellow author asked a question of me via Twitter, “What does horror mean to you?” I had planned on answering the question because it intrigued me, but the book launch and a trip to California had derailed those plans. Now that we’re in the Halloween season and I’ve launched my Young-Adult horror novel, The Unseen Kingdom, it’s come time to address that question. It’s an especially pertinent question as I prepare to countdown some of my favorite horror movies for Halloween.
Quantifying horror is something of a moving target, as I believe that a combination of popular culture and real world calamity has altered our collective consciousness of what constitutes horror. Even putting aside current events and culture, the concept of this genre has always been debated. In addition to horror, we have the standalone genres of thriller and suspense. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate these from one another. Add on top of this the conundrum of sub-genres such as supernatural horror and the supernatural thriller, and it really comes down to splitting hairs. I fear part of this stems from some natural bias against the horror genre. Compare how many thrillers have won an Oscar compared to horror movies. But here is a dirty secret, few films or books are strictly one genre. Nearly all stories, both contemporary and classic are inherently cross-genre in nature.
So let’s take a step back and ask a simple question. What is a horror movie? The simple answer is any movie which horrifies you. However, by this logic some might consider James Cameron’s Titanic a horror film. Think about it for a moment. Doesn’t Titanic have some elements of horror or moments that will horrify even the most jaded of audiences? How about The Hunger Games trilogy?
Clearly, we need a better definition of horror. It’s not enough to horrify the audience. Instead, there is a symphony of emotions that the story must evoke before we can label it as horror. There needs to be some level of tension in the story and this is accomplished by ratcheting up the stakes as the story progresses. This tension will inherently be transferred to the audience as the story proceeds.
I also believe there needs to be a level of genuine fear. This emotion needs to be shared by both the protagonists and ultimately the audience. I also think that there need to be plot points or scenes that the audience finds disturbing. Now don’t confuse the idea of being disturbed with the idea of gross-out gore. A great example of what I’m referring to is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In one of the key scenes, the injured daughter dies and rises as a zombie. Without going any further, many people were immediately disturbed by that scene, because the audience understood the ramifications. George Romero really didn’t need to show anything else for that one moment to be anything other than horrifying, and of course, what followed would help seal the film’s legendary status.
Does this mean that horror can’t be funny? Heck no! Injecting comedic elements into a horror story can effectively control levels of tension, fear, and pacing. Playing with the audience’s expectations can render upcoming scares and surprises far more effective. Comedic elements can also mitigate over-the-top levels of gore or shocking moments by making light of the situation, blunting its harsh edge.
Now, I have to rant a little and I know some of you will not agree with my feelings. That’s perfectly fine because we each have our own personal preference. These are just my opinions, but I’m going to try to defend my points. Are you ready? Alright, let’s do this!
There has been this trend in horror to make the entire cast of protagonists completely unlikable, if not utterly reprehensible people. Here is my fundamental problem with that strategy. My first stated ingredient to creating an effective horror story was to add tension. This tension must be shared by both the protagonists and the audience. If you absolutely abhor the protagonists, the audience will not share the characters’ emotions. The audience will not fear for their safety and hence will not experience those moments of shock or surprise when something happens to one of them. Why? Because they just don’t care.
Now this isn’t to say that the audience won’t experience any moments where they experience general shock, or in the case of a film, react to a jump scare or find a particularly gory scene disturbing. Eli Roth’s film Cabin Fever immediately comes to mind here. The movie is gory enough to be disturbing at times, yet it seems to fall well short of what I personally would term horror. When the audience experiences no shared emotional connection with the protagonists, they’re not going to experience the feelings necessary to evoke what I’d term as horror. Instead, you end up with an audience cheering the gory elimination of the characters and I’ve seen this in both movies and even books.
I don’t have a problem with there being one or two unlikable characters in a story. The presence of an unlikable or problematic character can help increase the tension and add an element of drama to the plot. A great example of this is Stephen King’s The Mist. An author or filmmaker can use the plot as a foil to redeem otherwise annoying or unlikable characters, as well. This can make the horror more effective when that redeemed character then falls victim to the plot.
All of this is my roundabout way of saying that I believe horror needs to be character driven. If the audience has no shared empathy or concern for the characters, then you’re not dealing with traditional horror. I know there is this derogatory term “torture porn” that some film critics label these movies, but I don’t think that’s fair. Instead, I’d label them shock, gore or splatter films or novels. There’s nothing wrong with these concepts. There are certainly elements of them I enjoy myself. And to be blunt, many horror books (mine included) and films contain scenes entirely intended for shock value, but seldom are the stories structured entirely around those concepts. I see this along the lines of adding salt to food. A dash of salt is used to add flavor, but too much can spoil the meal.
Alright, with that rant out of the way let’s muddy the waters some. Earlier, I referred to horror as a moving target. Unfortunately, at this point we need to differentiate books from films. I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula still stands on its own as classic gothic horror. However, how about 1931’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi? In that decade, audiences were terrified by Lugosi’s performance and the movie, in general, shocked audiences around the world. If you played that same movie to audiences today, it would not invoke the same emotional responses. Without a doubt, Bela Lugosi’s performance would still stand out, but viewers would likely not be horrified by the events unfolding on the silver screen. During the 1950s, at the peak of “The Red Scare” days, the specter of nuclear war was fresh in the minds of movie audiences. This made the idea of radioactively mutated giant monsters a new concept that terrorized moviegoers. They already had an innate fear of a nuclear conflict and its consequences, and also a fear of communist infiltration which opened the doors to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, today’s audiences would not experience the same level of thrills and chills from these concepts anymore.
There are a few reasons behind this change. Firstly, they’ve seen it all before. Secondly, the fear of nuclear war and the ravages of radiation have receded from public consciousness. Lastly, they’ve seen far more gruesome concepts both on the screen and in real life. We are a nation that’s witnessed televised wars, terrorist attacks, mass shootings and serial killers. Our old fears have become replaced by new fears, fears more real and visceral than the horror movies of the 1930s-1960s. These films no longer meet the expectations of modern audiences. Although, certainly some fears are instinctual and eternal, even those need a good twist now and then to keep them fresh.
Now, does that mean I’m saying some of these classic horror movies of yesteryear are no longer good? Hell no! These films are considered classics for a reason. But here’s the trick with that. While most people would no longer be frightened by them, the performances of the lead characters and creepy cinematography continue to leave a lasting impression on audiences. Does this mean that the beloved Universal Movie Monsters are irrelevant and could never stage a return? Well, I think it would be difficult but possible. Universal Studios has been hinting at a comeback, but so far attempts have fallen well short of the mark. I blame this more on the writing and acting than on the concepts themselves. Screenwriters will need to recreate compelling characters, and find a way to modernize some of the themes to play to modern audience’s fears. I know some are suggesting that Universal step away from the horror genre and focus on more action-oriented thrillers, which they attempted to do with 2014’s I, Frankenstein. Again, I think the overall idea was intriguing, but it failed in execution. Universal needs to take a page from the famous Hammer Film Productions on how to reinvigorate old school concepts while still staying relatively close to their roots.
Now with all that being said, what draws me to the genre? I see horror as an emotional investment both as reader and writer. More than any other genre, I see horror as the searing fire to forge a compelling, sympathetic character who has the opportunity to grow. When exposed to the extremes of the genre, your characters will exhibit the best and worst of human attributes. The fragile nature of the human condition is laid bare in your characters, and their raw reactions and emotions, when done effectively, will be transferred to the audience members. The more you can make the audience care about those characters, the more you’ll own their emotions by the end of the novel. A solid horror plot applied to the main characters will turn them into steel, or melt them into oblivion. Either way, a well-tuned horror plot will take the reader and moviegoer right along with them. As a member of the audience, I want my imagination take me into the darkness along with those characters. As an author, I aspire to take all of you with me. And that folks, is what horror means to me.
Join me again tomorrow when I unveil my top 12 horror picks to watch this Halloween! In the meantime, visit these other great authors in the 2015 Halloween Blog Hop!