So what do we talk about when we talk about Horror?
This might sound like an obvious question but it’s useful to define our terms before going further. Horror is defined by most as a subsection of The Fantasy genre (Though I prefer Neil Gaiman’s metaphor of horror and fantasy as sister cities with a few dark highways connecting them). At times it bumps up against Science Fiction as well, though the relationship between them has never been chummy. In the great family reunion that is literature Horror and Sci-Fi are cousins who try to never talk to one another.
There is bleed over of course; both Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi used their training as horror directors to give their big budget mainstream films a darkly powerful visual imagination. The Orcs and the comic book villains who crawl through their films are genuine monsters. Though neither their comic book or fantasy epics ever cross into out and out horror, there is a feeling of danger to them, of unpredictability. The fact is that at any moment they could do just that.
But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Let’s take two movies, one that involves demons, Lovecraftian beings from beyond time, clockwork monsters, and mad immortal monks. The other involves a mild mannered motel clerk and some missing money. The latter is a horror movie the former for all its trappings, is not.
We’re talking about Guilmero Del Toro’s Hellboy and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. While Del Toro’s film is an immensely entertaining movie, and one obviously head over heels in love with horror iconography, its focus is not on horror. Its focus is on Ron Perlman’s wisecracks and all the neat stuff that Del Toro gets to show. Psycho on the other hand, has no monster save a human one and will be scaring folks for as long as people care to go to the movies.
The point is that what makes a horror film is intent not iconography.
Let us for the sake of expediency define a horror film as a movie whose goal it is to horrorify the viewer. This may seem fairly obvious but actually it ends up being quite useful. Particularly we’re faced with the old, “Is it Horror, fantasy or sci fi?” question. Alien is a horror film, because its goal is to horrify you. Aliens is a sci fi action film because its goal is to show you neat battles between Aliens and Space Marines. Not much horror there.
Of course there is some grey area even here. Something like Paul WS Anderson’s woeful Resident Evil scene is really just an action movie that uses zombies for its targets rather than something else. However unlike Del Toro’s action themed Hellboy its protagonists are helpless before the zombie hordes (at first Milla Jovovich underwent an unfortunate power creep) and I think one of the useful dividing lines between horror and fantasy is the amount of power the protagonists have to fight the horrors they are facing. Call an orc a monster and it could work its way through the roster of summer camp quite nicely. Face the same monster against Viggo Mortenson in chainmail, with a broadsword and he will have a much lesser rate of success. Or to once again point to the handy xenomorph, in Alien the unfortunate cast could do little but gibber in terror at the monster and run. In Aliens the space marines could unload clips of automatic weapons at them.
What about the line between those glossy thrillers so popular in the 90’s which somehow managed to be considered respectable fair for adults while always feeling so much sleazier than anything in the horror genre (say what you will about Friday The 13th, but it is upfront about its baseness). In one of his finer moments The Outlaw Vern threw up his hands on a tricky to define film and declared it “A Thriller about a slasher.”
Then there’s the fact that the majority of programmer horror fare doesn’t inspire anything like real terror. Once again I would argue that intent goes a much further than effect in proving genre. The lesser B-Movies and sequels may be the cinematic equivalent of a carnival spook house haunted by cardboard ghosts. But it behooves the horror fan to give the benefit of the doubt.
But for all the grey areas inherent in trying to define a genre (And really it would be incredible if there wasn’t some kind of bleeding around the edges. No pun intended.) let us define a horror film as a film whose main purpose is to inspire fear. A broad enough category to encompass both a chilly work of art like Don’t Look Now, and films whose main reason for existing is to inspire dates to lean a bit closer to one another.
A horror film can incorporate a sci fi concept for a nasty edge (ala Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s version of The Fly) or set itself in space and still be a horror film. The other half of the equation is that a film can bring in all the Demons, Vampires, and assorted creatures of the night it wants. If the main purpose of them is to give someone something to aim a shotgun at, it’s not a horror film.
But what about the divisions in horror itself? King divided the genre’s effects into Terror, Horror, and Gross Out, a division that I still think is useful and we should touch on before proceeding into the dark woods of the genre.
Terror is defined by King as stories that work completely on the level of what the mind sees. In other words, stories in which we actually see very little that is out and out horrific happen. The quintessential example of this is Robert Wise’s often imitated never duplicated The Haunting. A film that creates fear out of pure inference.
I think this is an accurate definition as any but for my purposes I believe I will broaden it. While a great deal of terror is about technique, I think in this case what we’re dealing with content as well. Terror is simply put, horror on a spiritual level. In other words horror that strikes you where you live. Though I’m sure I would find it most unpleasant to have a hulking undead figure slam a machete into my face, It’s not really on my list of day to day anxieties. Compare that with Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, in which a man is literally haunted to death by his grief. Or to point to a film in our 30 year range look at Frailty which exploits religious paranoia better than any film I’ve seen (The Blair Witch Project would be another candidate. As would The Strangers, my personal pick for best horror film of the aughts. Even Paranormal Activity, which at its core is the story of tying yourself to a mentally unbalanced spouse).
These stories are rare, both in print and celluloid and for a reason. They’re really hard to do. It’s tough to not show anything and yet avoid the trap of “just showing nothing.” Furthermore it’s tough to film something that takes on day to day anxiety without the buffer of metaphor and not come off as preaching. But when these films hit, they hit big, usually becoming instant classics of their genre. When a horror film crosses over into the critical community, or becomes an unexpected mainstream hit it is usually one of these.
King defines horror, as a strain of “fear that is not entirely of the mind. Horror invites a physical reaction by showing us something physically wrong.”
Horror is the monster in other words. It’s Freddy Krueger’s burnt glistening face. It is the piteous mewling thing that Jeff Goldblum becomes at the end of The Fly. The shuffling crowds of Romero ghouls.
Unlike terror, which hits you directly where you live, horror is fear in metaphor form. The zombies in Romero’s films might be (depending upon the film) shuffling, moaning avatars of depersonalization, the underclass, or simply living, eating entrophy. But they are also on a textual level flesh eating ghouls. The killers in Hostel might be representations of both the third world’s revenge and the upper class’s decadence (nifty conceit that Roth came up with, love the movie or hate it there’s a lot going on there) but they are also psychopathic killers. Clive Barker’s Cenobites might be cautionary examples of allowing ones appetites to run unchecked and warp and control a person. But they are also demons from beyond our dimension.
Instead of confronting us with what truly scares us directly like terror does, Horror hides itself behind a gruesome mask. But no matter how frightening the mask is, it is one we can bare to look at.
King’s last category is the gross out. Which hardly seems to need explanation. Go ahead pick your favorite. Jason shoving a steam room rock through someone’s guts. Tom Savini decapitations and disembowlings without number. Freddy Krueger going through the paces for whatever high concept set piece the filmmakers are putting him through this time around. Whatever nasty trap that Jigsaw has constructed in his spare time. They are moments whose purpose is simply to make the hardened genre fan sink a little lower in their seat, and the more meek among us to feel like whoosping their cookies.
The gross out is horror subtext free. It’s one and only goal is repulsion.
One thing to note about the gross out is how non threatening. How unhorrific it really is. When fans gather around to discuss their favorite genre beats of this type, it is seldom with any feelings of real distress. As the Splatterpunks of the eighties realized there’s something almost friendly about this extreme gore. When you watch the hapless hero in Dead Alive strap a lawnmower to his torso to deal with the hordes of zombies, you’re more likely to feel admiration than real fear or disgust. (Not everyone feels this way as I watched Day Of The Dead with a non horror fan friend assuming she could watch the Tom Savini effects from a point of detachment. She still hasn’t forgiven me.)
|(Not my brightest idea)|
It should be pointed out that one of the exceptions to this rule is David Cronenberg, who has mastered the art of making the gross out an act verging on psychic violence. Watching, say James Woods grow a vagina on his chest only to probe it for a horribly organic gun, is grosser and stranger than anything in the folks behind the Friday the 13th’s series imagination. But I find it difficult to believe that anyone is going to giggle through it.
The striking thing to me is just how diverse of a genre horror really is. Having something with the elegance of Val Lewton or Mario Bava sit next to The Ghastly Ones on the video store shelf is like having The Goldberg Variations sit next to Gwar.
Of course to a certain extent all genres have this kind of flexibility. Let us not forget that nominally at least El Topo and Wagon Train share the same genre. Yet in horror this seems especially apparent. Here is a genre that can accommodate any plan of attack, any technique. Yet just as remarkable as these diverse modes of attack is the singularity of purpose. A horror film wants to with the single minded intensity of Michael Myers, go after you where you are weak. And it will do anything to get there.