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What is Horror?

A simple question often sparks intense debate. Incluvie attempts a working definition for the beloved horror genre.

“If movies are the dreams of the mass culture… horror movies are the nightmares”
– Stephen King 

This simple question causes a lot of (sometimes dishonest) debate. While it is not reasonable to expect everyone to have film genre theory under their metaphorical belt, it is still frustrating to hear people spout problematic criteria that falls apart in microseconds under the most basic scrutiny. I’ll be critiquing some of the more nonsensical takes before ending with a working definition. Horror filmmaking is rooted in stories, folk tales, tall tales, and any other storytelling intended to scare, shock, and thrill listeners. It is meant to repulse us, often with a central villain, monster, or threat that is often a reflection of the fears being experienced by society at the time. This person or creature is the monstrous other, a term that refers to someone that is feared because they are different or misunderstood. The Horror genre changes because society changes.

Scary Movies vs Horror Films

There is an annoying idea that a film is only horror if it scares a given viewer. This is problematic for a number of obvious reasons. After all, what’s scary to you is only Child’s Play to me (the Horror Dad joke goes). The earlier definition encompasses an intention to scare, shock, and thrill. This is important because it is based on the storyteller’s intention, which is a far more solid ground for debate than the idea of what’s “scary” to a given person. Especially since many horror fans mistake their genre saturation and inability to be genuinely scared when they can see horror plot beats and jump scares coming from a mile away with a genuine assessment of the scariness of a film. The intention is what matters, we can critique execution but that does not categorize a film. Sure, a clumsy film like Sharknado has bad CGI, a nonsensical plot, and isn’t scary as much as it is hilarious, but that just makes it a bad Horror film, but a Horror film nonetheless.

Supernatural Elements?

Ever wondered what makes a good jump scare?

Many genre purists argue that there must be a supernatural element to the story to separate it from the thriller genre, but this debate is ongoing, as it would eliminate most slasher films (Scream, Halloween), monster movies with a natural (Jaws, Lake Placid) or science fiction origin (Jurassic Park, Frankenstein), and extraterrestrial threats (Alien, Predator) from the genre.

While some people have argued against any of these individual films being included as horror, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who agrees that none of the mentioned films count as horror, especially regarding slasher films. Ditto for films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ Antebellum, which are the height of horror for many Black horror fans, but were dismissed by minor critics in culturally insensitive ways (this is likely more to do with wanting horror to cater to mainstream [read white] sensibilities than honest analysis). Get Out was a body horror film replete with anxieties about the white gaze, the desiring of Black bodies, and the implications of fetishism. Antebellum is a specific body horror idea for those descended from the African Diaspora, waking up in a world where your body and life are no longer your own.

The truth is, like most things in reality, we are imposing our categorization on complexity that doesn’t end discretely like we want. Though film is a human creation, the feelings it elicits are not, leaving us unable to tie them into neat boxes that are mostly meant for marketing purposes anyway.

So, What Is Horror?

Have you checked out the treasure trove of horror stories animated on YouTube?

Horror is about attraction and repulsion, monstrous others, and the complex relationship between genre conventions, audience expectations, and the feelings a film elicits. Horror films are normally sombre, low-light, moody affairs shot in foreboding locations with atmospheric concerns front and center. Viewers expect a reasonable fright and/or shock, something that elicits a feeling or exploration of darker themes and primal fears. Filmmakers and genre fans should make sure not to get wrapped up in the labels and instead focus on the feeling.

Horror is always changing. The post-pandemic world saw a resurgence in zombie films and other horror subgenres playing around with isolation, using zombies and other threats to keep people separated. The body horror and virus-based zombie outbreak is popular at the moment with films like #Alive and anime like Zom 100 and Attack on Titan being extremely popular right now.