Horror fans are not all that easy to please, or for want of a better way of putting it, they are very critical and know what they like. This is simply because it is such a diverse genre and the task of hitting a nerve with all horror fans is never going to be easy. You look at It Follows, which was widely praised by critics and fans alike for being original, creepy and having an impending sense of dread unlike no other film out recently, but those seeking blood, guts and shock were left disappointed, and some even walked out of the cinema. Similarly with The Babadook, praised again by many that this was a genuinely creepy film that scared even the most hardened of horror movie fans with its sinister, ever-greying backdrop to a horrible tale brought out of mental instability. Yet, again, many found it dull and lifeless. Why is that?
I don’t class myself as a horror buff, which is why throughout this piece I’ve reached out to a few blogs I follow who are better informed than me. Nevertheless, I went through a phase back when I was younger renting every horror VHS I could get my hands on, from Faust: Love of The Damned, to The Birds, to Ginger Snaps, to The Candyman, to Dog Soldiers, to Evil Dead trying to find one where I would be scared, but none of them worked. I’ve always laughed at them, never had nightmares, but it didn’t mean I enjoyed them any less. I moved on to 28 Days Later, Hostel, Saw, The Ring, Mum & Dad, Eden Lake to name a few – none of them worked. They were getting better, some were incredible, but why is it when an eyeball is being cut off after having a blowtorch shoved on it by Louis Litt from Suits that the entire cinema is laughing?
As I got over my young decision to avoid subtitles, I quickly progressed into the weird and wonderful world of films like Exte, Meat Grinder, Shutter, Haute Tension and Audition – searching high and low for the perfect scare, and then this viewing quest culminated at Martyrs. A film that soiled my fragile mind to the extent that the traditional scares simply didn’t do it for me anymore. I felt like I had seen all there was to be seen – it surpassed all expectation. I’m not alone as having rated this particular film so highly, as Alex from HorrorDeconstruction echoed;
I can be scared with an idea…. Martyrs hits several key things that spook me. Death itself, harsh random brutality and the unknown. To others, the movie might just be a disgusting, artsy gorefest, but to me, the whole film is stuck in my mind like a bad memory.
That sums it perfectly. Some would class it as ‘too far’, and I know that in situations where I have shown the film to friends, some have even stood up and left the room. It is a horrific film, an absolute masterpiece and even to this day I have only managed to sit through it a handful of times.
It didn’t mean that I wasn’t enjoying watching horror films up until this point though, or that I didn’t feel sick, but I just wasn’t scared. I don’t say this to try to act tough. I will be the first to admit that when I went through the Saw Maze at Thorpe Park for the first time I was absolutely petrified, and I would be lying if I said that when I walk home at night in central London that I feel completely fine. But perhaps my lack of fear of things on the screen is due to the era I have been brought up in. Seeing websites like ‘Rotten’ and videos from Faces of Death, splicing the boundaries between what is actually real and what was fake, while I was still enjoying Adam Sandler movies is obviously going to take its toll on someones mental ability to be scared.
As a result, rather than sickening cannibal type movies, or slasher serial killer vibes, it seems the most successful fear often comes from the unexpected, unpredictable but relatable. It’s why found footage horror does so well, regardless of whether it involves something paranormal. Just look at the current hype machine for Unfriended, despite blatantly ripping off the idea from the brilliant The Upper Footage as explained by director Justin Cole and replicating almost the exact same presentation as The Den, it has hit a nerve with the vast majority of audiences because it is relevant.
Everyone has that fear of what they did the night the night before, worried that it will catch them out the next day – I think of myself as lucky that I didn’t go to school in an era when we were so dependent on social media. But imagine that cranked up to 11 with a death involved and you have this section of found footage horror. Similarly, if you have been robbed or have a certain paranoia about that possibility, then home invasion films like The Strangers or Kidnapped will absolutely petrify you. The list goes on, and as long as there is a tangible link to something personal to you, in your life, then there is a higher chance of hitting that emotional boundary of being scared. Alex from HorrorDeconstruction went on to question if on that basis, if any horror film can tick everyone’s box;
Fear is subjective, on personal experience even in relation to cultural upbringing, though the notion of a boogeyman is universal, I think that one’s fears are shaped throughout life. Films feed different phobias and I don’t think there can be a single universal film that can do so.
With the links between horror films and phobias, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a phobia index type of website with corresponding horror films – it seems a natural fit. You’re not going to find a film that scares everyone, but to have a refined search for elements you personally would hate or would find uncomfortable to watch, and a horror film is suggested as a result would be extremely handy for those who believe they cannot be scared. You won’t find a film that meets all the criteria, but then, you wouldn’t have to if you were just trying to scare yourself.
Seeing as my phobias are minimal, I have struggled to find something to match up to the standard set by Martyrs, where the thought of being skinned alive is enough to unsettle most people. As such, my interpretation of the genre has been blown wide open in my bid to see something scary. The traditional plots and scare tactics listed in the films above, and even the ones that play on relevancy still do nothing for me overall. However, this has raised the question that if something is horrifying, does it make it a horror movie? As Thea from Horror-Harbour said;
I can’t remember the first movie that truly scared me. What I do remember are the movies that haunted me. The ones that had a particular concept or idea that crept into my brain and stuck. The ones that remain captivating long after the last credit rolls.
A quick glance down this list I compiled at the likes of Requiem for a Dream, Michael and Irreversible, are all examples of non-horror films that haunted me, made me feel sick, and left me in a state of shock well beyond the final credit. Not entirely scared, but the reaction they garnered from me is something usually intended for horror films. Perhaps the boundaries of what a horror film actually entails, films that haunt you compared to ones that scare you, is for a different discussion.
The problem with seeking out the ability to actually be scared is that naturally the quality of mainstream horror films has declined, as the sheer quantity of horror films in general has increased. Gratuitous and tasteless sums up the majority of the current offering, but I feel like we are on the cusp of a resurgence. You only have to look at the recent movies like Spring, The Babadook, It Follows, The House At The End of Time, Backcountry to realise that there are still good horrors being released. That’s without even tapping into the independent market for which you only need to look at excellent websites like horrormoviesuncut, horrordeconstruction, moviehooker and scour latest DVD/VOD releases, but the key point here is that ones now gaining mainstream coverage are showing that you don’t need to be universally scared to appreciate them. Maybe this is the way forward? With the sheer quantity of horror films out there at the moment, and fans being more critical than ever, opting for more of a unique uneasiness and a not-so-typical scare seems to be drawing more acclaim than the your typical torture-porn exploits.
Fundamentally, fear is subjective and relevant to the individual. To class a film as ‘shit’ because you weren’t scared seems lazy. The film can still be shit, but to argue that it is because it didn’t make you jump is silly when it was not the films intention. It’s about as valid as the woman who complained that Drive had very little driving. It was never its intention to be a driving movie, just like It Follows never intended to be a gory slasher movie. As Mark Kermode excellently explains in this video, he hasn’t been scared for a long time now, he can detect a bad movie, but it doesn’t mean that he enjoys the good ones any less. Much like Danny from HorrorDeconstruction who views ‘horror more as comedies with blood‘, Kermode classes them as ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’, but asks his audience, when was the last time you felt like you weren’t going to be able to sleep that night?
I can’t tell you how to think, how to rate your own scare or your interpretation of the film, but I feel like we are at a tipping point for mainstream, accessible horrors. For too long we have been very black and white in our approach of horror films, relating good and bad to scared and not scared. As Thea from Horror-Harbour went on to say;
The more horror movies you watch, the harder you will be to scare. So it doesn’t really make sense to judge quality in terms of terror, especially when it’s completely dependent on who you are and how good you are at anticipating twists and turns.
As a lover of horror, I never measure a good film in scares. Any movie can create a moment of dread or make you jump with the right camera movement and score. But a truly great horror film uses momentum. It builds and draws its story across a well-crafted landscape. It has enough reality to ground you, but enough imagination to make you suspend disbelief.
With all of the outside influences of the horror that take place in reality, the generic and predictable mainstream horror movies, and the attempts to push the envelope from abhorrent pieces work like Serbian Film & Human Centipede, they have rendered the vast majority of us immune to cheap scares and gore. Maybe now we are seeing the grey area come to light, and a rise of horror films (including horror comedies) that are not about all about the traditional scares anymore. Horrors that have that combination of reality and imagination nailed down.
You can look beyond the genre like I have done up until now, but I think it’s about time I started coming back, because while fear itself is subjective and I won’t be scared at everything, we should at least try to embrace this new wave of horror. No doubt these films have always existed, but they have not been this accessible before. These horror movies are creative, unique and different, and it is the best it has been for a long, long while.
So go on, can you still be scared? If so, what does it for you?