Thursday, October 2, 2008

So What Is Horror?

Horror, to me, is any form of art that is created with intention of instilling dread and/or revulsion in the viewer. It's a dangerous, outlaw, gruesome medium that has been ghettoized as a backwards, lowbrow form of entertainment.

My definition of a GOOD horror story is anything that can create a proper sense of doom and dread while telling an entertaining and engaging story. The stuff that sticks with me, the stuff that I come back to over and over again, are the stories that click with my imagination, slip under my skin and keep me up at night, listening for things that can't possibly exist.

People like me, the nutty minority who identify ourselves as genre fans, are a strange bunch. We like getting our bell rung, we like that jolt of adrenaline, we like the sense of taboo and the safe exploration of the forbidden that comes with being a fan of this stuff. This sort of thing especially appeals to the young. Every time I go to a horror movie I always check out the audience. Without fail, there is always the group of teenage girls, conspicuously without any boys present, who jump all over each other, shrieking and laughing in terror.

Obviously, people have different levels of tolerance for this stuff. One man's endurance limit ends at the original Halloween and another is unaffected by anything short of Cannibal Holocaust. By extension, the stuff that triggers different people's sense of dread varies. Torture porn, for example, really doesn't do anything for me except make me feel mildly sleazy and uncomfortable, but The Blair Witch Project scared the bejeezus out of me. A lot of people, especially people in this generation, don't really connect to the supernatural, off-camera scares of BWP but they can easily identify with the body-mutilation scenarios of the Saw and Hostel franchises.

I think interest for the horror genre tends to start early with most people. Remember when Goosebumps used to take up whole sections of the bookstore? Kids ate that stuff up, mostly because fear is a universal component of childhood. I remember always feeling overwhelmed and afraid as a kid, and these emotions are very easy to tap into, to explore, and ultimately to control.

Maybe I'm being presumptuous here, but I think that characterization is almost secondary to the genre. Horror is first and foremost about setting mood, about engaging the audience directly. The characters in horror fiction are the cyphers the creators use to affect the audience. We can't be in the story, opening the door to the Evil House On The Hilltop(tm) so we have some stand-ins do it for us.

On the flip side, the horror genre tends to be full of grotesquely overdone stock characters. The virginal survivor, the unbelieving knucklehead, the cop-on-the-edge, the burned out mystic, cryptic warning dispenser. Shit, it's become a cliche.

Find the middle ground. Create characters I can care about, but don't forget to scare me. I will love your work forever.

Death's Rich Pageantry

One of my favorite books from when I was a kid was "Cut: Horror Writers on Horror Films." Some day I'll get around to writing an I-Dig-It post on it, but basically it's a collection of essays on the horror genre, written by the major writers of the early nineties. The writing styles and subjects ranged from the thickly academic work of Katherine Ramsland to the folksy, conversational tone of Joe R. Lansdale. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Go buy it.

One of the essays in the book is the highly entertaining "Death's Rich Pageantry" by splatterpunk authors John Skipp and Craig Spector. The core idea that they present is that horror is the engine that powers every movie you've ever loved. The anxiety that drives the story forward, that compels the characters to act, comes from the emotion of dread.

I used to really back this theory. When I saw No Country For Old Men I categorized it as a horror movie. How can I not? Anton Chigurh is as cold, as uncommunicative, and as motiveless and purposeful as any slasher movie killer, and the story is as bleak and nihilistic as any early Romero piece. My girlfriend accused me of wanting to shoehorn everything into the horror genre just because certain tropes are present. In the end, the movie is not about us being afraid of Chigurh but it's about the characters in the film and their spiral into annihilation. It's not a happy piece and anxiety abounds, but it doesn't have a lot of horror as I understand the emotion and how it relates to the genre.

horror, lower case, is a very broad emotion. I feel a minor sense of horror every time I look into my bank account or when I have to clean up after my pet rabbit. Anxiety exists for all of us on a daily level. Horror, capital letter, is a specific genre. The anxiety is not a side effect of the drama, it's the meaning of the piece.

Besides, stuff that wants to be catagorized as horror tends to be fairly obvious. Blood, death, shadows on the box art, bloody lettering on the dust jacket, vampires, ghosts, chainsaws, and the other tropes of genre. Good, bad, or just banal, horror tends to wear it's heart on it's sleeve.

I do think that it's important that horror pay attention and assimilate stuff from other genres, particularly the emphasis on story and character development, but if the work compromises the end goal of scaring the audience, it becomes a less effective hybrid. It becomes a horror comedy. Or it becomes a thriller.

The Fine Line Between "Horror" and "Thriller."

Man, I love Hannibal Lector. He is so dangerous, so utterly without conscious, they have to keep him locked away behind plexiglas in the deepest, darkest crypt they could find. He's erudite, cerebral, and so utterly devoid of morality that he's essentially alienated from the rest of the human species. He eats people! Man, could this dude be any more a monster?

No, my friends say. Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller. Calling it a horror movie is so base, so vile, so....wrong.

There are some obvious bullet points between the two genres that can be compared.
  • Thrillers tend to have a stronger basis in "reality", especially police-procedural thrillers. Horror tends to play fast and loose with the rules of the world, especially when it comes to the supernatural.
  • The antagonists in thrillers tend to be better developed characters, their actions most often triggered by intense obsession. Horror antagonists tend to be much more linear; they simply are. They are outsiders, problems to be solved, situations to be overcome.
  • Thrillers tend to emphasize the slow building of tension, placing their characters in isolated, claustrophobic, stressful situations and then roasting them slowly. The "average" horror tends to go for a wider variety of emotional engagement, using everything from tension build-up to jump scares to ghastly displays of body violation.
  • Thrillers are "respectable." By and large, they are marketed to an older, more mature, more educated audience as a way for intelligent people to get the shivers. Horror is marketed to kids, the immature, and the maladjusted.
This last point seems to be the most contentious when I bring up my theories to my friends, but I stand by it. The vast majority of thrillers seem to star middle class white people in peril, suburbanites who find the sanctity of their homes violated by madmen who, gosh darn, just don't listen to reason.

Look at Lakeview Terrace. You have a young, successful couple who just want to move into their successful little house, and suddenly some madman comes around being all irrational. And he's black. And he's a cop! Oh noes!

I want to show a couple of scenes from my favorite movies. The two I've chosen are strong examples of the different philosophies and techniques of their respective genres. Check them out, see what kind of fears they are trying to play on, and see how they go after the emotions they are trying to engage in the viewer. Turn the lights off first.

The tension from Silence comes from the setup of the scene, the performances, and the strength of the dialogue. Clarice Starling is alone, inexperienced, and vulnerable, manipulated by her supervisor in an attempt to get Lector's assistance. She's left alone in a gloomy little pit, sitting across from a man who is still a threat despite the safety precautions taken to keep him caged. Lector, with his vast intellect and contemptuous mannerisms, psychologically assaults her, probes her insecurities, and dismisses her. Is it any wonder that Starling breaks down in tears almost immediately after this scene?

Now, let's look at a traditional horror scene, one of my favorites: the death of Noah in The Ring.

In The Ring, the threat is more supernatural, something the human mind is fundamentally not capable from understanding. The scene begins to immediately build dread as Aidan poetically informs us that Samara is still a threat, that the steps the heroes took to lay her spirit to rest failed to address her boundless rage. After all, she never sleeps. The spirit of Samara Morgan crawls out of the TV, does her thing, and I don't get a good night's sleep for a week.

Both scenes, as you can see, have very different constructions and very different outcomes. The entirety of the Silence piece takes place on a single set and involves nothing more than a dialogue between the characters. By this point in the film we've gotten some degree of insight into Clarice Starling, and the way Hannibal Lector goes right to her vulnerability shows just how capable and brutal a monster he is. Conversely, the scene in The Ring is a culmination of the journey Rachel and Noah have taken to protect themselves and lay the angry spirits to rest. It's a classic campfire ghost story, and the scene is more visceral and primal than Clarice's encounter with Lector.

Soooo, what's your point, cousin?

I think a lot of entertainment marketed to the thriller audience has elements that cross over into stark, bleak horror. But I can't really include them in the category any more that I can buy Skipp and Spector's horror engine theory. In the end, I think thrillers have their toes too deeply into other genres. It's not fundamentally a bad thing, obviously, but I think it limits a thriller's ability to generate that primeval creeping dread that I enjoy in works of horror. I'm too detached, too aware than I'm watching characters in a drama. Thrillers are a different thing, marketed to a different group, feeding to a different sense of anxieties.

I'm still claiming Hannibal Lector as one of ours, though.


Jeff said...

Amen Brother.

I just rewatched Silence again not too long ago, and was blown away.

I had forgotten what an experience that movie was.

The night vision goggles scene has to be one of if not the most suspenseful scenes I have ever witnessed in a film.

Creature said...

The weird thing is, that scene is very traditionally slasher. The killer's POV is straight out of Friday the 13th.