If you believe the hype, horror is getting harder and harder to nail down.
A few months ago, Vice published an article that boldly declared, “Horror Is the New Drama.” The column argued that an army of filmmakers have been “using terror as a Trojan horse for indie drama” – that is, tricking audiences into seeing complex, character-driven pictures with the promise of a few spooky thrills.
As Vice columnist Noel Ransome explains: “Over the past few years, a few prestige horror films have achieved a backdoor bait and switch. They’ve used fear as a hook to fill theaters, all the while boldly taking on topics like indie dramas without box-office f*cks to give.”
Ransome’s piece (which prompted discussion and some eye rolls throughout the genre community) is part of a larger trend of reclassification. BBC commentator Nicholas Barber recently wrote an article lamenting the proliferation of terms like “elevated” and “art house” horror to describe chilling films deemed too respectable to be grouped alongside their trashier, slashier peers.
“More thoughtful and experimental than the average scary movie, these films have prompted journalists to brand them not just ‘elevated horror’ but ‘post-horror’, ‘smart horror’, ‘horror-adjacent’ – anything but horror,” he notes.
A few days later, I waded into a conversation on Twitter about the idea that certain horror movies can more accurately be described as “Art House films with horror elements.”
The discussion got me thinking about one of my favourite horror films. Helmed by an innovative, controversial director, it’s a moody period piece about a group of acquaintances brought together when mysterious figure with inscrutable aims enters their lives. Throughout the course of the plot, faith is tested, marriages are shattered, and deeply-held beliefs about life, love, and morality are questioned. With a limited colour palette; slow, deliberate plotting; minimal gore; and an unsettling sensuality intermingling with the terror, it couldn’t be more different from what mainstream audiences would consider a “horror movie.”
The film I’m describing is Dracula (1931).
Obviously, I kid. If I seriously tried to argue that this seminal vampire flick doesn’t qualify as a horror movie, I’d be laughed off the internet. So why are commentators increasingly insisting that some of the past few years’s best horror movies aren’t horror movies at all?
The films most commonly relegated to this genre purgatory are Jordan Peele’s darkly satirical Get Out, Robert Eggers’s paranoid period piece The Witch, and Ari Aster’s raw family drama Hereditary. Also lumped in are more conventionally scary films like The Babadook and A Quiet Place. I wouldn’t be surprised if Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (an update of Dario Argento’s beloved giallo gothic) gets the same treatment upon release -it’s directed by an Oscar nominee, after all!)
These films aren’t horror in the conventional sense, the wisdom goes – they just use the tactics and tropes of horror to explore non-popcorn-friendly issues.
“A 2018 film like Hereditary uses the supernatural to increase the stakes of its drama and emotions—tragedy, culpability and inescapable grief,” Ransome writes. Similarly, Get Out, The Witch, A Quiet Place, and The Babadook “all use elements of the horror genre to sell drama, tickets and even win Oscars.”
What do these films have in common that supposedly allows them to transcend the trappings of their disreputable genre? Is it because they burn slowly, avoid cheap jump scares, and lack overt gore (but then where does that leave Get Out, in which a man is disembowelled by a deer head, or the sadistically twisted Hereditary?) Is it because they address weighty social issues? Or is it just because respectable reviewers will admit to liking them?
That’s not to say the hype about these movies shouldn’t be believed. They are, for the most part, every bit as intriguing as the think-pieces claim. Get Out is a smart commentary on contemporary racism. Hereditary is a relentless examination of grief and trauma, as is The Babadook, and The Witch has lots of interesting things to say about religious fundamentalism, superstition, and the subjugation of women.
Moreover, it’s easy to see why filmmakers are increasingly turning to horror to explore serious themes. When presenting a social issue like racism or sexism, a recognizable horror setting immediately establishes stakes and a sense of the threat presented; and when dealing with human drama, it’s obviously more compelling to represent emotions with ghosts and monsters (instead of, say, expecting audiences to read a character’s mind).
But once you stop thinking of these stories as metaphors and take them as they are, all these movies are unambiguously horror. Get Out was a Twlight Zone-esque nightmare that draws from slasher films (come on, it’s about a guy trapped in a house full of serial killers without a working phone) and forgotten B-movies about brain transplants. A Quiet Place had a sweet story about family at its core, but its main purpose is to stoke terror with its tense plotting and isolating sound design. Both Hereditary and The Witch featured families tormented by literal witches. The Babadook is admittedly more symbolic – the film’s monster turns out to be a manifestation of a widow’s repressed grief – but still fits comfortably alongside more conventional ghost stories like Mama or Light’s Out.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all excellent, original films – instant classics, even. But are they really doing anything that groundbreaking?
As Bloody Disgusting editor John Squires pointed out in a set of tweets, hyperkinetic slasher movies are a relatively recent development. If you asked most people to name the quintessential horror movies made prior to 1980, they’d probably list Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie – all well-crafted films with limited gore and emotionally compelling examinations of religion, bigotry, toxic families, and the agonies of parenting.
Even classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon moved at a lumbering pace compared to Jason Voorhees, while plumbing societal debates over sexuality, evolution, and the limits of science. After hanging out with Dracula and his son at one too many lame house parties, it’s easy to forget how provocative these movies were for their time.
(Speaking of The Witch, it’s telling that one of Robert Eggers’s next projects is a Doug Jones-starring remake of Nosferatu).
Even beyond the realms of so-called “classy” horror, there’s complexity and meaning to be found throughout the horror genre. The whole reason horror has staying power is because it taps into something within the human condition – dark and shadowy as it may be.
Many of Stephen King’s beloved tales (Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, etc.) chronicle vividly-written characters whose everyday lives are shattered by seemingly random events. So-called “exploitation” films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes have been said to tap into fears about economic stagnation, class inequalities, and nuclear war. Don Mancini’s Child’s Play series, a kooky slasher saga starring a possessed killer doll, makes a conscious statement about LGBTQ rights by incorporating multiple gay, lesbian, and non-binary characters. Clive Barker’s grotesque gorefests (Hellraiser, Nightbreed) use mutilated, shapeshifting monsters to explore the grey areas within conventional morality. Even Halloween, the prototype for mute, mindless slashers, leaves the audience with unsettling questions about how evil can flourish without reason or provocation.
Horror movies have always been smart, and they’ve always provided opportunities to depict the struggles of life more viscerally than conventional dramas.
I’m not lamenting the recent crop of exemplary horror films. And it is gratifyingly to see great movies like The Witch finally get some of the critical kudos they deserve. But they shouldn’t be treated as the exception to the rule.
The false dichotomy between horror films and “art” films suggests that horror films are not art; that horror fans have to be hoodwinked into seeing anything with more substance than Lumberjack IV: Chainsaw Summer; and that directors are just using the genre as a marketing gimmick – a severed foot-in-the-door to allow them to make “serious” films. That’s insulting – not just to horror fans, but to the artists and writers and directors who are serious about their craft and genuine in their respect for the genre.
Horror is diverse, boundary-pushing, and more sophisticated than it’s often given credit for. That’s why the critical impulse to liberate certain exemplary films from the genre leaves many fans feeling irked.
And trust me, critics – the horror community is not a crowd you want on your bad side.