Filmy people will (understandably) reject the question. But I am often asked why I watch horror by those around me. Here’s four semi-formed thoughts as to why.
Horror allows us to ruminate on the supernatural and the unknown. In many horror films, the supernatural is plainly real. There is life after death and power is wielded from beyond. In something like The Conjuring franchise God and the Devil exist and are able to exert power on earth. These films, particularly The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) sit at the intersection of these kind of powers, and how humans can possibly hope to interreact or counteract those forces. Horror also allows us to grapple with physical things that may be true. Pondering whether there is life beyond earth in a universe that is apparently endless can leave us feeling alone and shit scared. Strangely, aliens in film, while making elements of that fear more tangible, can also be almost comforting as the concreteness of them allows them to be explored in a new way. They can provide real danger and menace, but they can also be defeated. Horror films can answer the ‘is there x’ in the first 5 mins and spend the rest of that time looking at how the fuck that operates and how it effects characters.
Horror is a physical experience. Apart from a ‘side splitting’ comedy, film is rarely a physical experience. In horror there is tension and release. Often the former is long and the latter sudden. Watching a decent horror film is never a flat line. It is up and down. Terror and comfort. Total engagement. Horror comes in short bursts. Though at times this physical element can go too far. The claustrophobia of The Descent is an experience that was too oppressive for some viewers (though loved by many). Horror is concerned with the physical form in many ways. It’s destruction or its transcendence (sometimes both). But more than any other genre, it makes the viewer more aware of their body. How it tightens, grips the seats or even how the eyes can be averted to a part of the screen that is perceived as safer (how many viewers have taken a spell looking at the exit sign to the side of the cinema screen rather than at the film unfolding). Nothing in cinema compares to getting caught out by a jump scare – the absolute and immediate rush of adrenalin and fear, the sharp relief and then so often the awareness and embarrassment of sheepishly looking around to see who noticed that the film really got you.
Horror is a way of engaging with the fucked-up world in a safe way. It’s not quite that crime fiction thing of being comforted by the bad guy always getting caught so we are safe. It’s something realer and often more unsettling than that. Horror is often drawn from fact and some of the best of the genre does not shy away from the fact that the bad guy does not always get caught. Great horror can grapple with murder, sexual assault and other real-life horrors in a thought-provoking way. It can examine and illuminate. This can happen in a few different ways. Something like Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013), or even Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011), immerses us in an event that has been repeated in passing endlessly. But these films dwell on that horror and make us feel a tiny percentage of what the people there would have been feeling. Strangely this deeper engagement with real life horror and real-life horrific people is often perceived as more disrespectful than passing mentions or flat out pretending an event did not occur and that it did not irreparably change people and places (a debate most recently seen here around the release of Kurzel’s Nitram (2021)). The Purge franchise has evolved to fit this description too. What was initially a just a cool high concept idea has evolved alongside the rapidly changing world. Embracing head-on the sweeping tide of conservatism and Trumpism, incorporating the real-life atmosphere more and more into the events and messaging of the film. Along the way, and perhaps as a result, growing into the best contemporary horror franchise there is.
Horror is comforting. All genre thick with iconography comes with a level of comfort. Even horror. There’s reassurance in that surface level familiarity. Hats and guns in the western, chases in action, cops and baddies in crime films. Here it’s basements or grotesquely oversized animals that charm and strangely comfort. The classic Universal Monsters series trades heavily on this, and films like House of Frankenstein (1944) are predicated almost solely on this. This underappreciated classic is a jaunt of characters such as Dracula and the Wolfman, with charming effects and playful tropes (quicksand!). And that’s really all there is to it. That stuff is a warm blanket to horror fans. This is repurposed and taken to an extreme in something like the Hotel Transylvania series or even the playful takes on horror from The Muppets and Lego Star Wars that we’ve seen this October. We also see more modern creature features trade in, and update this. Something like Anaconda (1997) or particularly Lake Placid (1999) are charming in the scripts they choose to lay their gigantic killers against. The creativity of the visuals and the kills make the horror fan feel at home.
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