Oh, The Horror! The…Not So Horror?

A movie poster from the 1979 horror smash hit "Alien"
A movie poster from the 1979 horror smash hit "Alien"

Growing up in a household where being scared was part of the daily ritual (jump scares, jump scares everywhere), I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for horror movies and culture alike. From classic slashers like Friday The 13th or Halloween, to monster flicks like Alien and The Thing, I was practically raised on horror films from a young age. It was always interesting to me how producers and writers could take something you had never even conceived of, and turn a simple idea into a film that could terrify generations of watchers, making them second guess about that bump in the night. But still, people flock to theaters in the millions to bear witness to the horrors of the big screen, testing their hearts and fraying their nerves each and every time. There’s just something oh-so-satisfying about that rhythmic thumping as your heart tries to escape while you command yourself to stay seated.

Or at least there used to be. It all started in September of 2009. Paranormal Activity was making its debut across the United States, bringing the paranormal genre back to the cinema spotlight. It was a smash hit, with a total domestic & international gross of over 190 million dollars. “More!” cried the public, and so more came. Five films later, what was once a titan in the horror industry, has now been effectively run into the ground. Commercials will boast of still terrifying audiences across the country, but let’s get real here, those movies are at this point a joke to a fair amount of devoted horror movie goers. And unfortunately, this has been the recurring theme in the horror film industry. Someone came up with an inspired idea? Okay let’s all copy it for the next 5-10 years!

In horror’s defense, this has been the trend for as long as the movies have existed. It’s easy to go back in horror’s history and pick out specific sub-genre booms: monster, slasher, psychological, gore, zombies, you name it. But as of lately, it seems this trend has simply gone too far. The new “genre” isn’t really even one at all, it’s simply an over-used element: jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the jumpiest person around, those moments of sudden shock in horror movies (and even just in normal life) have me jumping almost every other day. However, when you really think about it, when was the last time a horror movie actually horrified you? When was the last time you went home genuinely disturbed and scared to even look out your window, nevermind in the closet (where all ghosts hide, apparently)?

I know that for myself, I can’t even remember the last movie that has done that to me. Nowadays, if anything, I find myself either laughing in hysteria at the comedic value of seeing a B-rate actor pretend to be scared as they are dragged away by invisible ghosts, or rolling my eyes at the sad, predictable “twists” of recent horror flicks. They might as well be Goosebumps movies! Where’s the primal, disturbing fear? The slow-burn that slowly shreds at one’s nerves? The original ideas and designs? The truth is, it’s all gone because people don’t want it anymore. Or at least, they don’t think they do. Producers today can sell a movie simply on the franchise name, and so they will squeeze as much money out of it as possible. As long as people line up to be mildly frightened, that’s the best our horror movies will get.

A movie poster from "The Thing", released in 1982.
A movie poster from "The Thing", released in 1982.

In reality, movie producers and writers alike just don’t know how to horrify people anymore. The solution really is simple, yet no one seems to have been able to pick up on it. People claim to have seen it all when it comes to horror movies; this is the problem in the first place. They have seen it all. The most horrifying thing in the world, is your own brain. An example is the fear of the dark. What you may perceive as a paralyzing fear of the dark, is really the fear of what is in the dark. You don’t know what’s in the dark, and so your brain starts cooking up the most twisted visions possible of everything that plays on your deep, dark, real fears. It’s a defense mechanism from back in the prehistoric days; dark was when all the predators came out to hunt, so it was dangerous. Your brain is telling you, “Yes, be afraid of the dark. Stay away. Be vigilant.” Don’t believe me? The next time something goes bump in the night and it’s pitch black, try to figure out what is really scaring you, the night, or what caused the bump in the night?
It’s a simple fix for horror movies: let the viewer scare themselves into paralyzing fear, you don’t even have to do it for them! Give a short glance, vague enough to leave them wondering, but specific enough to recognize as something wrong. Not monstrous, or covered in blood, just plain wrong. It adds to the feeling of mysterious slow-burn dread that really horrifies people, as opposed to a slightly distorted ghost popping up out of nowhere yelling “Boogaboogaboo!” Psychology shows, the imagination will cook up something far worse than what the Hollywood producers can ever even imagine. Your brain is tailored specifically to you, and what disturbs you; no one knows you better, than you. Now that right there, is some solid science for you.

There’s other media mediums offering a good nerve-ruining nowadays though: video games, novels, even comic books are getting in on the fright action. Still, it doesn’t quite match that feeling of sitting in a crowded theater yet feeling all alone, slowly sinking further and further back into your seat. Horror movies as we knew them are unfortunately a dying breed. Replacing them, are jump-scare fests that are spooky at best.  Point is, if we keep settling for less, we’re going to keep getting less. So don’t settle for less! You deserve to be horrified better than that!

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