I’m going to be honest, when I was a kid, I loved Poltergeist and Gremlins. They were fun and engaging but even then, there was no real danger. None of the main characters died and they were pretty tame as far as violence. Viewing them now I find it difficult to believe that the directors of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Howling were responsible for these movies about middle class families dealing with ghosts or funny little creatures. The fact is they’re safe, and horror isn’t supposed to be safe at all. The horror film is, at its essence, a dare or a challenge. It confronts the viewer and engages a physical reaction, that of fear. A great horror film can make you ask yourself if you are ready to see it or if you can handle the experience. If you walk out of a horror film feeling safe, then did it really do its job? You might love Poltergeist but is it in any way as devastating as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Is Gremlins as grotesque as The Howling? It seems that the “safe” horror film has endured in the last decade with films like The Conjuring and Insidious spawning new franchises and performing extremely well at the box-office. While I don’t hate these films, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for enjoying them, I am arguing that they are essentially failing to achieve any real level of fear beyond a few well timed “jump scares”. In addition to going into detail my reasoning for the failure of these types of films, I will offer examples of films I believe to be successful horror and explain why.
Death is the Great Equalizer
The biggest problem I find in these films is pretty straightforward, everyone can’t survive. Death is a huge fear for almost every single person in the world and the uncertainty surrounding it propels a large portion of our other fears. Not one member of the family in Poltergeist bites the dust, not a single one. If they all make it then really there are no threats or consequences. Sure, there are suspenseful moments in the film and a cool scene of a melting face but at the end everyone is fine. A similar problem can be found in The Conjuring, all the characters survive. Somebody needs to die; I don’t say that as a sadistic desire but rather to illuminate the threat. When a life is lost the stakes are raised and the danger in the film is elevated. The film doesn’t necessarily need to rack up a slasher body count, but if the danger isn’t lethal then it isn’t really all that dangerous. The Kubrick film The Shining also deals with a family facing ghostly threats, the difference is two characters actually die and it is tense and terrifying. I walk away from a film like that and feel that the supernatural force is something not to be messed with, the evil in the Overlook hotel is overbearing and inescapable. The solution to the spirits in Poltergeist is to simply move out. If U-Haul can solve my problem then I’m probably not in any danger, but if the spirits convince my Dad to swing an axe into my skull then my problems are a bit bigger. In 2018’s Hereditary the whole family is basically pushing up daisies by the time the credits roll, there is no Patrick Wilson to show up and perform an exorcism before the possessed mother turns on her family and the image of her sawing her own head off with a piano string surpasses any clapping ghosts in The Conjuring.
Thanksgiving Dinner will Never be the Same
Look nobody wants their Mom to try and murder them and become a floating headless corpse but that image will definitely stick with you. The more traumatic a film is, the scarier it is. Happy endings are great for certain films but for horror it feels like a cop out. It is as if they tried pushing boundaries but just couldn’t bring themselves to go all the way. The Conjuring almost pushes the envelope but in the end the family sticks together and love prevails or whatever, at the end of Hereditary there is no hope just emptiness. Some of the absolute best horror films leave one feeling completely devastated. For instance, the 2008 film Martyrs by Pascal Laugier is absolutely one of the best horror films I have ever seen and at the end of that film I needed a hug because it broke me a bit. The inhumanity that film is capable of questions any level of decency or love and even leaves you wondering if you can go on. It is existential and emotionally draining and yet visually beautiful even in its most brutal sequences. I’m not writing a recommendation here, though if you haven’t seen it you need to, I’m simply pointing out what makes this film terrifying while films like The Conjuring are just casual viewing experiences. One I can watch in the middle of the day with a support group and still feel my stomach in knots while the other I could watch in the middle of the night by myself and fall asleep halfway through. Which brings me to my final point.
Part of the reason horror is such a popular genre is people like to be scared. I worked as an actor for almost six years in two different live haunted attractions. I saw people cry like little kids and sprint towards the nearest exit because they were terrified of what was behind them. I also saw those same people come back every year or even the next night ready for more. There’s an excitement with being scared that’s hard to explain. Even the films that I have torn apart and kind of put down still drew crowds because people wanted to be scared. The problem is that while they may have offered a few good jumps, they have no lasting effect. Once I knew what Poltergeist was, I wasn’t scared anymore. I’ve seen The Shining countless times, but I still get uncomfortable when Jack just stares out the window. If you enjoy The Conjuring then by all means enjoy it, watch it with your friends or loved ones and have a blast, but if you want to see something that actually scares you then find a film that pushes the boundaries. Get out of your comfort zone and see something that you may not be able to finish because it freaks you out too much and then finish it anyway. Come on, I dare ya.
Tank’s picks of the week: