I have an intense, bizarre love/hate relationship with the horror genre. As you might already know, I absolutely adore speculative fiction, which encapsulates science fiction and fantasy. But it also includes horror, which can overlap with either, both, or neither of its sister genres.
What is horror, exactly? As it turns out, this seems to be a rather difficult question to answer. Horror’s just anything that’s designed to frighten us, right? Well, not necessarily. The film Halloween is a horror film, no doubt, but is The Wizard of Oz, which has the murderous, frightening Wicked Witch for its antagonist? Why isn’t Plants vs. Zombies horror, even though it has zombies in it? Why isn’t Black Swan considered horror, even though its goal is clearly to unnerve its audience?
I would argue that horror, like science fiction and fantasy, is a more malleable and inclusive genre than one might think. I propose that horror is defined not by what is designed to unnerve, but rather what could unnerve. I do not find the novel Dracula to be frightening, for example, but its atmosphere is undoubtedly moody and oppressive, befitting the danger that befalls its characters. I would classify The Nightmare Before Christmas as horror, even though it’s not designed to frighten its viewers, because it has a similarly moody atmosphere and similarly brings great mortal danger to its characters. In short, I argue that horror is defined not by what frightens the viewers, but what frightens the characters within it.
Of course, many horror films aim to shock and frighten its viewers while it causes mortal peril to its characters. However, I would argue that most horror films are grievously misused; they lose a great opportunity when attempting to give their audiences a great thrill. If that adrenaline rush is in and of itself the main goal of the piece, I argue it has its priorities in the wrong places. After all, what exactly do you gain in the long-term by getting that thrill and rush of adrenaline? What does the film (or book or game, etc.) have to offer you that you couldn’t get bungee jumping or riding an intense roller coaster?
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, I have very little patience for works that pander directly to their audience. It is for that reason I hate fourth-wall humor, winking pop cultural references, gratuitous fan service, and jump scares. In my opinion, these elements date works and make them less likely to last throughout the ages, because they can only resonate with the audience of here and now (if even that). Only a specific audience with a specific mindset has anything to gain from it, and even then they gain nothing but cheap thrills and pleasures. Even if fan service or gratuitous pop cultural references resonate with me, I think, “Keep it out of my entertainment,” because I want to be bettered and challenged by what I watch, play, or read.
When a work brings up fear or sexuality, it has a fantastic opportunity: it can use it to explore one of the two most primal and basic (and therefore deep) aspects of our humanity. Unfortunately (especially with horror) when the two are used they are usually merely there to titillate or excite the audience (specifically, the usually heterosexual male audience). I want to weep every time I’ve seen this happen, because other works have used the same things to be deep and meaningful (a notable example of this is the Silent Hill games) while the works that stoop to cheap pandering loose all profoundness they might have had.
I want to see more things like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Harry Potter, or American McGee’s Alice, that use the terror within them to explore the characters and ask questions about the mysteries of life. Notice that those three works have little to no jump scares; they rely on you to actually think about them to bring out the terror that lies within.
Here’s to horror; actually meaningful horror. We need more works that are.