What I find really interesting (and a bit frustrating) about the horror genre is that while there’s an over abundance of books about horror movies, books, and TV shows there hasn’t been very much written about why a given work of horror either is effective or ineffective. Why it works or why it doesn’t work. In fact the only book that I could ever really recommend to anybody on this subject is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which was based on a series of college lectures King gave in the 80’s. From what I’ve come to understand from this book and from watching way too many horror movies (and reading way too may scary books) is that you can basically boil it all down to two words: tension and release. At its core a work of horror is made up of build ups of tension and anxiety in the person experiencing it followed by a release, basically a sigh of relief.
Good works of horror build up tension and anxiety by tapping into central fears in the minds of its audience and exploiting them to full effect. For example, Psycho is about creepy motels, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about creepy houses and hillbillies, and David Cronenberg’s entire body of work is about the fucked up things you can do to the human body. Even gore movies and slasher films are based on the basic human fear of being sliced up by a nutjob in a hockey mask.
From this point you can go a couple of ways, according to Stephen King. You can either seriously try to scare your audience by building atmosphere and/or by putting your characters in a claustrophobic setting and if that doesn’t work you can try to gross them out with gore and bodily fluids. And if either of those don’t work…just throw a bunch of jump scares in and call it a day.
Ah, the jump scare. If you’ve watched any modern horror films made in the last 10 years you might have noticed a tendency of directors and screenwriters to employ them over and over and over in film after film. A jump scare isn’t inherently bad in itself. It’s pretty much just another trick you can pull out of your bag to scare your audience. The problem is that it’s such an easy trick. It’s hard to make someone get that feeling of doom in their guts, it’s much much easier to just have stuff jump out in front of the protagonist. It’s the equivalent of a cruddy fun house where ghosts on springs jump out and go “boo” in your face. I’m honestly surprised, but kind of not really, that it’s employed so much since it’s so overused but it makes sense since it’s the easiest trick in the book and Hollywood doesn’t have a reputation right now for really putting a lot effort in when it comes to horror (James Wan excluded). But let’s take a look at why a jump scare works or doesn’t work.
Let’s use as an example one of my all time favorite jump scares in one of my all time favorite movies: the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Please pull out your DVDs, class, and skip to the scene where Kirk gets killed. Now throwing aside all notions of cultural over saturation (everybody and their grandmothers know who fucking Leatherface is by now) up to this point we haven’t really seen the main antagonists of the film yet beyond the hitch hiker (even though we don’t find out how he connects to things until much later). We know something awful is going to happen but we don’t quite know what yet. Through the skilful use of atmosphere, suggestion, and one fucked up crazy dude we know that things are eventually going to come to a head and somebody is going to die a horrible death. Everything that’s happened in the whole first part of the movie has been leading up to this point. And that’s an important thing to note. For a jump scare to work you must have an effective build up. You also have to have characters in real danger or why the Hell should we fear for their safety? Leatherface appearing for the first time is the payoff but he’s not what’s really scary. What’s really scary is the lead up to that moment, where we try to figure out what’s going to happen and our imagination’s create situations that are much worse than what eventually appears onscreen. The payoff is really just letting the air out of the balloon.
This scene also has what I like to call “a kicker.” The kicker isn’t that Leatherface just pops out and goes “boo” and then runs away. It’s that he slams Kirk on the head with a hammer and then drags him into the creepy house. He’s an actual threat and not just your dorky brother jumping out from behind the door so you pee your pants.
Now let’s compare this to The Woman in Black, the movie I watched last night. Woman in Black has some spooky atmospherics but doesn’t quite know how to use them effectively. What we get instead is a serious of flat jump scares that just don’t work. Why don’t they work? For one thing Daniel Radcliffe is never in any real danger. He is the sole protagonist so we know that he isn’t going to die and in fact he never even sustains an injury throughout the whole film. The one time that the film actually does work, I think I’ve figured out, is because at that point he might actually die in the marsh! Otherwise he’s simply going through a fun house with the lame spring ghosts. The other problem is that none of the jumps scares employed have any consequences. A ghost creeps up in the background and then goes away. A ghost jumps out in front of Radcliffe and then goes away. Jesus, push him down a flight of stairs or something! Most of the movie is not scary because even though the ghost is killing kids in the village, it’s not a threat to our protagonist that we’re supposed to be identifying with! If there’s no danger or threat to life and limb, then why should we as an audience care? And if there’s no threat there can’t be a build up of tension and thus all of the jump scares are just kind of there and essentially do nothing, making the film useless.
So, there you have it: my theory on why a lot of modern horror films fall flat on their faces: because they either don’t know what the fuck they’re doing or they’re limited with what they can do by a PG-13 rating and can’t go the gross out route. Sometimes it’s both. Uck, sometimes it’s both.
Everything has to start somewhere and while anything involving cinematic origins is up for debate we can at least be sure that the horror genre got it’s start all the way back at the very beginning of film. What exactly constitutes “horror” is a bit harder to define. While a lot of early films were meant to be funny rather than frightening there’s quite a few that contain debatable spooky elements. Do we lump them in as horror or just leave them as comedy? I guess it’s up to personal convictions.
What we can be sure of is that, like pretty much every other genre, camera trick, and cinematic convention, the horror genre was pioneered by a French magician named Georges Méliès.
I’m not going to get too into the life of Méliès, even though it is endlessly fascinating, but if you haven’t looked him up the basic gist is that he was pretty much cinema’s first genius and that we all owe him a huge debt. Sadly, even though he was incredibly innovative and his films are still a ton of fun to watch, he couldn’t keep up with the quickly changing face of cinema and was soon left behind to finish out his life as a toy maker. (Thomas Edison also had quite a bit to do with Méliès eventually bankruptcy after he sent his goons to steal copies of A Trip to the Moon so he could show it in America free of charge, but that’s another article altogether.)
What we want to look at here is the very first horror movies. In fact the very first horror movie, or what is generally considered to be so. That would be The Devil’s Castle (AKA The Haunted Castle) from 1896:
While Méliès other films used his, at the time, innovative camera trickery to make the audience laugh or stare in wonder at the things that were happening onscreen, The Devil’s Castle was really the first of his films, or any film for that matter, that obviously wanted to try and create a sense of unease in it’s audience. With it’s lonely castle setting, it’s random soldiers that wander into trouble, and even it’s hints of vampirism it set the stage for literally everything that came after and is thus incredibly important. This is where it all started folks.
Although it’s impossible to tell how well received any film from this time was, it’s telling that The Devil’s Castle was almost immediately ripped off! Check out this little film from British film pioneer George Albert Smith that came out in 1897, titled The Haunted Castle:
I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And yes, that is a color film from the 1890’s! If you’re wondering why they didn’t do that more often, it’s because they had to tint every single frame of film by hand!
Smith was also responsible for a couple of other horror type films from around this time, Photographing a Ghost from 1898 which is most likely lost and this one from 1897, either titled The X-Rays or The X-Ray Fiend:
With this film you have an example of something that was meant to be funny but that has slightly horrific elements to it. Would you count it or discard it when making a complete list of horror movies?
You could ask the same thing of this early Méliès film from 1896 titled A Terrible Night:
Again, it has (debatable) elements of horror and the supernatural, but it was meant to amuse rather than frighten, so it’s usually not counted as the first horror movie while The Devil’s Castle is. (For what it’s worth, The Devil’s Castle is also a much more interesting film.)
And that’s pretty much every pre-1900 horror movie that I’ve ever seen or heard of*. There’s also another Méliès film from 1899 alternately titled Cléopâtre, Cleopatra’s Tomb, and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb that was supposedly re-discovered in 2005 but most reports claim it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity so now we’re sitting here without what’s possibly the earliest instance of a mummy on film! Shame.
If anybody has any films from this time that I’ve missed I would love to see them! Drop a line in the comments. I’ll add them whenever I do a write up of the horror films of the 1900’s.
*I guess you could also count The Bewitched Inn (1897) which was the first of many “rube checks into a hotel and weird shit happens to him” films that were made in the very early days of cinema, but it’s meant to be funny and not scary! It’s so hard classifying things sometimes! Gah!
Does one really need to explain why one likes the things one does? You really shouldn’t have to, but if your hobby is watching/reading/talking about/breathing the horror genre, people really seem to want to know “why?” Why do you like to be scared? How did you get started with this junk? What the Hell is wrong with you?
The simple answer is that I don’t really have an answer. I’ve always been into this stuff. Some of my earliest memories are of a five year old me digging through the shelves at my local small town library, looking for books about ghosts and monsters. I used to check out armloads of them. In the 90’s there seemed to be no shortage of books for young people that were meant to stop them from ever sleeping again. Most of them were just toned down reprints of old ghost stories and lame folk tales but they were pretty intense to someone so young (Those fucking Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books still haunt my nightmares). They were also the only real outlet for my growing taste in the macabre as I was a pretty sheltered kid. My mother was very overprotective and I wasn’t allowed to watch any horror movies that were above kiddie level . When we rented tapes from the local small town video store, I would always sneak into the horror section and just stare at the VHS covers. The stories I made up about what they contained were probably more frightening than what they actually were, even though I was pretty squeamish about gore as well (I had to turn away when Itchy and Scratchy came on The Simpsons!)
It was in high school when I really got into horror movies, A lot of what I ended up watching was old films and crappy b-movies nobody else seemed to care about. This was right when DVDs started to become cheap and there was what I like to call, a dollar DVD boom. There were so many old movies that fell, or seemed to fall, into the public domain that you could pick up for almost nothing at Wal-Mart of Family Dollar, and a lot of which were horror related. The first time I ever watched a silent film was when I got Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in a pack of public domain films that I had received for Christmas, which also included some pretty crummy drive-in stuff as well (and Hatchet for the Honeymoon, a movie I still love to death).
That’s all well and good but it didn’t earn me many friends, or girls, or much of a social life at all but it at least helped to dull the pain of being alone on a Friday night or not being able to talk to any of the girls I could hardly look at, thanks to my crippling shyness. It was the first time that horror was there for me and it helped me get through some tough times.
It also got me through the four years of stress and loneliness that was my time in the US Air Force. When you don’t belong and you hate your job and have nobody to talk to that understands you, you kind of need an outlet. At least I did. That was when I got heavily into the exploitation and gore genres, trying to find the sickest most debased films I could rent from Netflix or order from Something Weird Video. I’m proud to be able to say that with government money I was able to watch classics like Cannibal Holocaust, Make Them Die Slowly, and Island of Death (one of the most hilariously fucked up movies I’ve ever seen). Don’t get me wrong, I was also balancing it out with non-horror classics that every film nerd needs to see, but my weekends were usually filled with blood and depravity while everyone else drank themselves into a stupor (although I managed to do that occasionally as well.)
So, to answer that annoying question of “Why?” I’d probably just have to say “Because I just fucking do, okay? Now leave me alone. I just found a batch of old Count Chocula commercials on Youtube…”