Essays · Features and Columns

Why Horror Matters

Horror has faced aspersions time after time. In being on the fringe of pop culture, the genre has had the space to do bold things. To be transgressive. To leave an indelible mark on the medium of film.
Get Out Daniel Kaluuya
By  · Published on October 31st, 2018

“The cinema was made for horror films. No other kind of film offers that same mysterious anticipation as you head into a darkened auditorium. No other makes such powerful use of sound and image. The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream and horror films are the most dream-like of all. Perhaps because they engage with our nightmares. ” – Mark Gatiss

In November of 2017, I visited the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)  in Seattle. Not knowing anything about MoPOP ahead of time, I felt delighted and genuinely surprised by everything I encountered. I walked through an insightful section about independent developers and video games with live demos, spent a fair amount of time in a remarkable exhibit about Jim Henson‘s career that included real Muppet fur on the walls (it’s softer than you’d think), and couldn’t help but do several laps around a wonderful David Bowie exhibit that featured rare photos of the rock star by Mick Pop. I took a break and eyed the brochure. A certain exhibit piqued my interest: “Scared to Death: The Thrill of Horror Film.” I rushed over and found myself descending a creepy stairwell and into the heart of an incredible collection of horror props and history. I felt at home. Seeing all of the different people of all ages wander around the exhibit re-affirmed what I knew all along: HORROR MATTERS.

Fast-forward to October of 2018, my copy of the new Fangoria reached my mailbox. I took the issue out, flipped through it, and couldn’t help but feel like I did exploring MoPOP’s horror exhibit. I adore everything about the new Fangoria from the beautiful design work and magazine stock that feels like a trade paperback to the thought-provoking essays and insightful interviews. Longtime scribe for the original Fangoria, Michael Gingold, penned a new essay for the Fall 2018 issue called, “IT IS A HORROR FILM.” It’s a lovely reflection of the genre and Fangoria magazine, the “is it or is it not a horror movie?” debate, and how things have changed in some ways and stayed the same in other ways. It brought me back to my early years with the genre.

Horror has faced aspersions time after time. In being on the fringe of pop culture, the genre has had the space to do bold things. To be transgressive. To leave an indelible mark on the medium of film. This isn’t to say every horror movie is inherently great, but it most assuredly has the potential for greatness. The genre is perfect for poignant stories that tap into a primal part of us. Horror movies can be exhilarating and boast rich subtext. Some more so than others and that’s okay. There are different subgenres and kinds of horror movies. This hasn’t stopped people from dismissing the entire genre, much like people dismissed science-fiction movies during the genre’s nascence.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the flaws of the work within the genre—including problematic things—for having a dialogue is how we can be mindful and do better. Essays upon essays have and will be written about this topic. Engaging with the genre instead of dismissing it entirely is important. My mother forbade me from having anything to do with horror when I was a child. She had her own preconceptions about the genre, perhaps due to the sociopolitical climate at the time, the negative reputation of horror that spawned from the onslaught of the slasher subgenre, and her own fears. This didn’t stop me from feeling drawn to horror. It primed my imagination, scared the living hell out of me, helped me process traumatic parts of my life, and thrilled me in a way that felt entirely different.

My earliest memories with horror were surreptitiously reading pages of Stephen King‘s Pet Semetary in the library, watching bits and pieces of the IT mini-series on ABC, and looking at all the VHS covers for horror movies at video shops. I had to make do with my imagination and accounts from people who were familiar with these things. Long before I had watched The Exorcist (1973) for the first time on DVD, I had seen the VHS cover of it countless times, as well as glimpsed bits of it on a nearby drive-in screen during a re-release of it. My mother eventually changed her mind about horror and later watched even watched a few movies with me. I dove headfirst into the classics—often with my grandma who loves movies and the genre—while trying to keep up with the new releases. I worked at a movie theater as a teenager which was next to a home video store, and I’d take recommendations from co-workers and pick up used horror DVDs to watch and later discuss with them. My love for it hasn’t waned.

At its core, horror is about fear. Survival is innate to us. Programmed into our autonomic nervous system are two responses: the sympathetic (“fight or flight” response) and parasympathetic systems (“rest or digest” response). Think of them as a “balancing act” to either amp us up or relax us with physiological changes in the brain and body. It’s a survival mechanism. This along with our brains placing a greater emphasis on narratives with emotional resonance are why horror is thrilling, memorable, and has prevailed for so long. We live in a world that has beautiful AND horrific things. There are acts of compassion and grisly acts of violence. There is life and there is death. There is what we know and what we don’t know. The unknowable is terrifying and at the heart of what we fear.

Horror is a fertile ground for stories that can take us to dark and dangerous places without actually being dangerous. Universal’s classic movie monsters brought horror literature from the page to a medium in its nascence. Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are fascinating explorations of mortality and the downfall of egotistical men toying with things beyond their understanding. Psycho (1960), Black Christmas (1974), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) were what set the stage for Halloween (1978), which in turn led to Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Child’s Play (1988), and Scream (1996). I don’t have the space to name every slasher horror movie, but those I’ve mentioned all have different approaches. Then there is, of course, the spate of horror films from Hammer Film Productions in London throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. At Hammer’s peak, they made vibrant, gothic horror movies that pushed content boundaries with the well-oiled machine that was the production studio and lean budgets. Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) is a beautiful tribute to the gothic atmosphere of those Hammer films.

Horror can explore difficult or even unspeakable subjects and give the audience a greater understanding through metaphorical imagery and the visceral nature of the genre. Rod Serling left the guaranteed screenwriting work inside the movie studio system and put up his own money for The Twilight Zone (1959) television series. Serling wanted to write stories with sociopolitical messages, and his work was stymied over and over by the network sponsors’ demands. In creating an anthology show that billed itself as “science-fiction,” but really felt like the nexus of the former and “horror,” Serling was able to write stories with biting social commentary. The reputation of the genre gave The Twilight Zone a facade to subvert viewers’ expectations and escape the censors. George A. Romero pushed the genre further with Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) — all movies with an incisive social commentary, and boundary-pushing gore and thrills. Get Out (2017) masterfully uses horror by subverting the supernatural/possession subgenre and creating a powerful story about race in America. The Twilight Zone (2019) revival series in good hands with Jordan Peele at the helm.

Horror feels like the direct descendant of fairy tales, folklore, and the like; they’re stories we told to run each other through the gamut of emotions. John Bloom in his detailed essay published in the Texas Monthly about the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre cites professor and critic Mikita Brottman‘s analysis of the movie as an “inversion” of the fairy tale with parallels to Hansel and Gretel. “In this fairy tale there is only evil: the good that exists is either defeated, annihilated, or driven away.” Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and The Shape of Water (2017) are beautiful and haunting fairy tales framed through a lens of modern sensibilities. I love that Scream (1996), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Juan of the Dead (2012), Cabin in the Woods (2012), and What We Do in the Shadows (2015) all exist together as earnest subversions of the genre made with the utmost love for it.

Horror movies don’t happen in a bubble. Ask any horror filmmaker to name their favorite horror films, and they’ll rattle off not just a bunch of horror movies but also a bunch of movies. That’s the magic of storytelling. If you love a medium, you may be partial to certain genres or subgenres, but you can love more than one kind of thing. The beauty of horror movies is that there are different spectrums they fall under. You have bigger and smaller movies, artistic and mainstream films, and stories that intersect with other genres such as comedy and science-fiction. There’s an undeniable visceral quality to the genre. If done right, the catharsis is palpable. You can appreciate the artistry of the visual effects, the energy of the performers, and the craft of the editing and sound design. The story, characters, and themes can be simple and surface-level, but they can also carry multiple dimensions. There’s room for nuance. This isn’t relegated to just horror or the medium of film, but every genre and every form of storytelling.

During the process of writing this piece, I came to the understanding that fear is relative to each of us and how we FEEL about something is more important in a medium than necessarily how we UNDERSTAND it. I’m most assuredly not alone in my experience with the genre of horror. Each of us has a story to tell about our relationship with it. For this piece, I reached out to writers whose work I like a great deal and asked them how they would define “horror.”

Here are the great contributions I received:

“Horror, for me, is about sedition: an active (often gleeful) irreverence for givens about our world, bodies, and values. Horror picks at sanctified safety blankets like ‘organs stay on the inside’ and ‘it’s wrong to eat people’ and makes us watch. There is discomfort here but there is also joy. Joy and relief at confronting the disturbance of hallowed ground and coming out the other side in one piece. Mostly.” – Meg Shields

“At the bottom of it all, fear and revulsion are among the most common human experiences. They are certainly the first emotions we feel when we’re brought into this world, and to a lesser extent, we encounter them every day. Horror brings out the animal in all of us, and it not only reminds us of what we fear, it inevitably makes us ask ourselves why we fear it. These fears are not always specifically about death and decay, though those are obviously huge parts of horror, but also social mores and taboos. I think the best works in the horror genre elicit strong physical and emotional responses that may not make sense on an intellectual level until much later. But the gut level is where the intellectual work begins.” – Kate Blair

“For me, the best horror strikes straight to a dark, thrilling place in my heart, a sort of cozy scariness, both a safe and unsafe place that reminds me of hiding behind the couch while my big cousin watched A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, or staying up late to watch POLTERGEIST on the TV after my parents went to sleep, eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. It feels old and new in that way, hitting both the nostalgic and adventurous parts of my brain. Great horror always makes me feel 8 years old again, like I’m getting away with watching something I shouldn’t be watching, and I love that feeling.” – Meredith Borders

What I love about all of these responses is that each one is different but all stem back from one thing: WHY HORROR MATTERS. John Carpenter‘s In the Mouth of Madness (1995) feels like a reflection of horror and us grappling with our fears through it. The scene in which John Trent (Sam Neill) walks over to the portal torn through Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) and can’t help but stare at the horrors in the abyss encapsulates why we watch horror movies. The genre matters because it’s persisted not just in the medium of film, but in storytelling as a whole. Fear is a primal part of us. It’s a necessary part of our being. We can’t help but stare at the abyss as we reconcile the horrors of the world around us. Horror can have downbeat endings. Characters can have a pyrrhic victory or perhaps no victory at all. Our own lives are complicated and horror embraces this truth.

Jennifer Kent, Bong Joon-hoPanos Cosmatos, Karyn Kusama, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, Guillermo del Toro, Julia Ducournau, Mike Flanagan, Ari Aster, and Yeon Sang-ho are just a small selection of the filmmakers doing amazing things in the genre today.

It’s been a hell of a journey so far with horror, and the exciting thing is that I still have plenty of movies to watch—both old and new. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Adores storytelling and raccoons. Fought the void but the void won.