Talking Back: Killing the Noise
There’s been a lot of discussion of horror here at the Control Forever office over the past month or so. A Quiet Place in particular got a lot of us a little riled up with conflicting opinions, even though we all seem to have basically liked it. Even my dear friend Dyllan admitted the film was alright, but that didn’t stop him from writing an article titled “Killing the noise: ‘A Quiet Place’ and the Death of Horror.” In that article, he suggested that horror films have “decayed” as a genre and don’t have the same value they had in decades past, if they have any value at all. His position was that horror has changed so much that it lost its way, despite naming several films, such as The Babadook and The Conjuring, that contradict his point. For him, A Quiet Place was the final sign needed to declare the horror genre dead. Now, I didn’t love A Quiet Place, but I thought it was alright. It wasn’t scary, and I’ve been told that approaching it as a horror film is the wrong way to approach it, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is that, even after discussing the matter with Dyllan and getting a clearer idea of what he meant, I have to say I could not disagree with him more.
What I found strange about Dyllan’s article was that, rather than talk about how exactly horror died, he talked more about what he felt were its best moments of life. First things first, the horror genre itself never died, although I do understand what he meant by that. The genre, at various points, plateaued. There’s even an argument to be made that mainstream horror died. It died in the late ’90s, had its body burned in the early to mid 2000s, and its grave was vandalized in the early 2010s. Yet, every single one of those deaths was considered a new form of life at the time. Right now, horror is going through its most legitimate second life. Even if it’s not consistently hitting the same highs as it did in its ’70s heyday, that second life has been pretty successful. I don’t mean to disregard the horror films made prior to the late 1960s, but I’m going to stick to the modern era of Hollywood horror because it shows just how alive and well horror is now.
Horror films in the mid ’80 through the ’90s were focused on the horror franchise film. Those years started producing horror films that were designed for people who didn’t like horror films, and they became the norm that were marketable. Freddy went from monstrous child killer/molester to a stand-up with bad skin, Scream was all about pointing out the flaws of the mainstream horror genre without really fixing them, and Final Destination was just about watching good looking people die in creative ways; it was fun for the whole family. The problem wasn’t so much that these safe horror films existed, it’s the fact that they were marketed as the horror films of the time.
They created the perception that the mainstream horror genre had to be about good looking youths dying in ways that were just bloody enough for a PG-13 rating. They’re why Misery and The Silence of the Lambs are brought up as thrillers or plainly good films, rather than good horror films. Mainstream ’90s horror had to have humor, a sense of campiness, and worst of all, a degree of separation between the viewer and the film. These films weren’t meant to be the kind of horror that follows the audience home. They were meant to sell Halloween masks and be a fun night out. There’s a reason Scream led to Scary Movie, after all.
After horror’s sterilization, a group of filmmakers, informally known as the Splat Pack, sought to make horror disgusting and terrifying auteur films again. Rob Zombie, Robert Rodriguez, James Wan, Eli Roth, and others all wanted to bring back the gore of the visceral, but overblown horror films that they grew up watching. From the early 2000s until around 2009, their collective vision would redefine the mainstream horror film. As I said, this is when horror’s body was burned; it was fun to watch again for a time, but ended up in an even worse state. Between House of 1000 Corpses, Hostel, and Saw, mainstream horror had a new fascination with “torture porn” and “gorn,” or gore porn.
These films weren’t about those rascally slasher villains we all knew and loved, and they weren’t about watching attractive “thirty-year-old” teens get quickly stabbed or crushed by a falling anvil. These films were for the twisted, and the audiences that wanted to see copious amounts of fake blood. They wanted audiences to ask themselves whether they could trust topless foreign girls they meet in hostel saunas, or whether or not they’d cut off their own foot if a tricycle riding puppet chained them to a dirty bathroom floor. They were their own gimmick, but they were niche, and didn’t have much going for them outside of the initial premises and the bloody payoff everyone knew was coming.
The torture porn never really worked for mass audiences, and the hardcore horror fans would either get tired of them or turn to better, more obscure versions of the same film. Hollywood tried to keep the horror genre afloat by remaking foreign horror films for the U.S., or by rebooting ’80s and ’70s horror franchises. Neither of those choices did much to make horror relevant again in a time when every kid was walking around with a camera in their pocket. No, instead, the reign of torture porn was ended by a style of horror film that almost immediately wore out its welcome.
Of course, when I mentioned the ’90s I left out one very important film: The Blair Witch Project. When it came out in 1999, it was a conscious attempt to move away from the pitfalls of the studio franchise horror films. It was the first hugely successful found footage horror film, however, it was not the last. First came Cloverfield, showing how the found footage technique could be used well. Then came Paranormal Activity, showing how the technique could be used lazily and combined with good marketing to generate a lot of money. The trailer for the first Paranormal Activity focused more on audience reactions than it did the film, basically telling future audiences how they were supposed to react because the film was just too scary to show in commercials; it wasn’t.
Why do I say this is the period when horror’s grave was vandalized? Well, because this is when creativity was just taken out of the equation. Paranormal Activity and the found footage films it inspired were about turning on a camera, using a jump scare or two, and moving some chairs or something. They were boring, but they were still sold as the frontrunners of the horror genre. They were made without any respect for the genre’s potential. I’m sure Oren Peli and Jason Blum had good intentions when they started the Paranormal Activity franchise, but Hollywood was so desperate for a new kind of horror franchise that they restructured the genre around a cheaply made product. Blumhouse Productions might have a good deal of prestige now, however, it still started out peddling the cheapest horror films it could make with nothing to them, but some marketing and a well-defined target demographic.
Now, with films like The Babadook, Don’t Breathe, The Conjuring, Ouija: Origin of Evil, The VVitch, Get Out, and yes, A Quiet Place, mainstream horror is finally becoming a quality genre again. For the first time since the days of The Omen, The Exorcist and The Thing, studio horror films are becoming intelligent and prestigious. They’re returning to a focus on solid narratives for audiences that want to think about being scared, instead of just reacted to jump scares or gore. Rather than going for gimmicks, following the leader, or putting marketability above all else, these films are trying to capture that feeling of lingering dread. These are films that trust the audience they’re intended for to come see it. Personally, I see modern horror films trying to figure out why horror films work, and crafting the film around the central tenets of horror.
Horror films take different shapes that depend on what type of scare they’re going for and what the catalyst behind that scare is. Scare types are basically the element of the film that is off-putting, or the element that, if removed, turns a horror film into a different genre. I define scare types as being either visceral response or paranoia. Visceral response horror is made up of elements like gore, body horror, and the unsettling gag-reflex/look away stuff. Paranoia is made up of all the other kinds of horror, which is the cerebral, unnerving stuff that follows viewers after the film ends. Scare types aren’t mutually exclusive by any means; the best of the best use both at once. Usually though, even if there are moments of both scare types, the whole of the film is structured around one or the other. Visceral response-based films make for stronger immediate reactions; and paranoia based films make for better narratives that grip the imagination.
Scare catalysts— a clumsy term, I admit— are the physically scary element. They are either tangible or situational: tangible covers things like cursed artifacts, haunted houses, and of course, scary monsters; and situational covers curses that aren’t limited to one object or unexplained curses, or human behavior that expands beyond one monster, and basically anything else that doesn’t involve killing/destroying one bad thing to save the day. Tangible scare catalysts are the more marketable of the two for the obvious reason of creating a product/scary mask to sell, but situational scare catalysts are usually the more highly regarded.
Those labels may not perfectly define all of the horror film canon, but they’re good criteria for judging whether or not horror films have died, plateaued, or “decayed” over the decades. For example, classical horror.
The movie monster film: creature features. These are the films where boogeymen live, things that are outside of the normal world, waiting to tear apart anyone that stumbles into their territory. If one could escape the boogeyman and kill him, they’d be able to return to the normal world and be safe. They’re visceral and tangible. The modern high point of this kind of horror film was with films like 1974s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film is why people fear hillbillies and chainsaws. It was all about brutal kills, and the horrifying idea of being butchered and eaten like an animal; it was great. It led into the heyday for this kind of horror film, the 1980s. The ’80s were the era of classic slasher villains like Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Pinhead, and the like; it’s the era of classic cursed objects like the Necronomicon and the Puzzle Box. The Conjuring series and Ouija: Origin of Evil are successful takes of the cursed/haunted variants of this kind of horror.
Other forms of horror include the visceral, situational “killing curse” kind of film. In those films, for one reason or another, death is coming. Death has some people in its sights, and there isn’t anything those people can do to stop it. Delay it, maybe, but no matter what, there’s no escaping death’s designs. That’s what these films are all about. The difference between this kind of horror film and classical horror is that in these films death isn’t attached to one or just a few people. Death is omnipresent, just waiting for the heroes to mess up. This is where A Quiet Place falls, as well as films like Final Destination and most zombie films since Night of the Living Dead.
Paranoia tangible horror films are the ones that keep the evil in the dark, or hidden in plain sight. People are afraid of the dark because they don’t know what’s in it, and they’re afraid of other people because they don’t know what they’re capable of. This kind of horror film plays on those two ideas, hiding the horror among a crowd of unassuming faces or in the shadows. These kinds of films work well when there are visceral elements as well. When something seems normal, the best way to scare the audience is by making it viciously abnormal; as seen in The Thing and the blood testing scene. Films, like Don’t Breathe and, in some ways, Get Out, are signs that this kind of horror is also still alive and well.
One of my favorite kind of horror film is the paranoia situational kind of horror, the one versus all kind. This one’s similar to the last type, except that there’s no single finite source of horror. Instead, the hero of the story is the thing that doesn’t belong, and there’s an evil that’s unstoppable. Survival means isolation. The defining high point for this kind of horror was 1978s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of a 1956 film. It captured just how creepy it would be if everyone in the world started to behave differently than they should, and how helpless one would feel if there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.
One recent example of this isolating kind of horror was The VVitch. It was a psychological period piece that derived its horror from the surroundings, a wide clearing bordered by a forest, and its characters, a dysfunctional Puritan family of early settlers in New England. The world itself was against the family, and there was a creeping sense of claustrophobia despite the openness of the setting, as if the world itself was keeping the characters prisoner.
I don’t think I could ever say enough to cover all of horror. As much as I love, love, independent arthouse and non-Hollywood horror films, I kept this conversation about mainstream horror films that get wide releases. Still, I hope I’ve said enough to prove that horror is alive and getting stronger, rather than decaying or stagnating. Regardless of where A Quiet Place stands in terms of quality, it is part of horror’s revitalization into an artistic genre for the creative, twisted outsider. It pushes the conversation forward; it’s a family drama with horror elements and strong tension (even if it is too reliant on jump scares).
Is horror what it was in the 1930s? No. Are we, as a culture, what we were in the 1930s? Would the same things that scared us then scare us now? Would those films make money? Not sure about the last one, but the first two are definitive no’s. Horror, and genre films in general, are sitting with the cool kids now, winning Oscars and putting their casts and crews on Hollywood’s radar. They’re creative, and there’s demand for that creativity. It’s a great time to be a fan of horror films, even if every film doesn’t please every fan or audience viewer.