We as a society are enjoying a very rare time in history where many fantastic, groundbreaking films are being made every year, but sadly, very few are from the horror genre. Like a good horror movie, the evil is unexpected, it’s the one no one would think of until the very end, which is true for the problems with the production of these films. There are many critics that say the only issue with the films are that producers do not want to take risks and put money into a project that they aren’t sure of, which is true, many slasher movies are made because they are cheap and bring in a large profit, but the much bigger problem that has hid behind the guise of money is the laziness of the horror writers.
Throughout horror writing, our definition of “true horror” has shifted from terrifying stories that originate from strange people and places to whatever the most gruesome, disgusting, vomit-inducing things that writers can put on a screen. This change in what people think is scary has caused a dramatic change in the quality of stories that people are writing. What this has really caused is a transition away from story driven movies to plot driven movies. The difference between story and plot is fairly simple, story driven films tend to flesh out characters and their motivations more, and rely on the conflict that originates from that while plot driven relies more on what the events of the stories are and the conflict that originates from that. Story drive creates fantastic characters, and people are always attracted to well-written characters, fictional people that explore a part of us that we had never thought about, or in a good horror movie’s case, a part of us that we don’t want to explore. The struggle in writing a good horror movie shouldn’t be trying to think of the biggest jump scare to land during the film, it should be trying to write the most unsettling characters that create the most fear in people possible.
If someone was asked to name a famous horror character, they would immediately refer to Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, and they are the main villains for two of the most celebrated horror films ever, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. I seriously doubt anyone would be able to name any of the murderers in the Scream movies. The most unforgettably terrifying part of Psycho’s legend is the twisted relationship between Norman and Norma, which was the product of a story driven movie. While there are still relationships and it’s not just people being murdered, the relationships are not the main focus of movies like Scream. With story driven films, it has a greater chance to explore something that is much more horrifying that grisly murders and disgusting sequences: the horror of human nature, the twisted evils that can lie dormant inside us for years or the evil that is constantly attempting to be let out. This is most easily seen and analyzed with characters that embody these fears. Aside from the shift from story to plot driven movies, there is also another problem that stems from writer laziness.
Horror writers have slowly been drifting away from the three things that make people scared, having no control, having no knowledge and the unfamiliar. The common thing between all of these is their foreign nature, none of these three involve relying on something that people are comfortable with. Because these tools force the viewer out of their comfort zone, it makes scary movies so much more powerful. Only one of the tools is still majorly used, and that is lack of control. In many films, the viewer is left helpless while they watch the half-naked, screeching girl get stabbed to death by the deranged killer. The issue with this is that horror filmmakers are using this the same way, in the same situation every time. They need to find a new way to sever control from the viewer, or else they will become desensitized to feeling no control during a movie. This should not be hard to achieve with some more effortful writing that would let the audience feel control at some point in the film, let them become comfortable with where they are, and then yank the rug out from under them and take away all of their control.
Lack of knowledge has seriously taken a hit in the horror industry, and while there is a rational reason behind it, it is not enough to discourage writers from using it. Many writers fear that if their audience does not completely understand their movies at all time, and if it leaves them with any lingering questions, they will not like the movie. They fear that when an audience member doesn’t have every single scrap of information, then they will become disinterested, then they’ll leave and start to tell their friends not to go and see the film, and then this motion will spread and destroy the movie at the box office. This fear makes sense, but there is something that the writers are not seeing: moviegoers may not like having all the information at once, or they may be tired of it. Almost every other film in every other genre gives the audience all of the information by the end of the film, except horror. Alfred Hitchcock is often referred to as “The Master of Suspense” and he has also created some of the best horror movies in history. For some reason, horror has been moving backwards, instead of learning from removing information and keeping the audience in suspense, we’ve thrown that lesson away and regressed into forcing every detail down the audience’s throats until they are bored with the film.
The most important of the three, and the most under-used in today’s horror films is the unfamiliar. Many horror movies deal with a home invasion of a serial killer, or a haunting, and the reason many of these films fail is because everyone knows about these things. They have seen these situations play out, in fiction and in the news, and they have solid, concrete opinions on these things. They know what will happen, all possible endings are already mapped out in their heads. A good horror film needs to maintain a degree of plausibility in the audience member’s mind while still being far enough away that they don’t already know what could happen. As an example, I refer to movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is technically a slasher movie, it does something much different than most and creates a terrifying portrait of something that the audience had probably never thought about. The antagonists in this film are a decrepit, inbred southern family that had made their living off of a slaughterhouse and have not been able to function normally since it closed, forcing them to cannibalize anyone who comes near their property. This gives them much more depth, and it shakes the audience to see how low people can sink while not turning the family into one-dimensional killers. This image of a murderous family in the south had never been explored in film until this point. Murder is something that people can understand, they know it, but they could not expect the horrors that they would witness when they watched that movie. Psycho, the movie that is often called Hitchcock’s masterpiece, also uses the unfamiliar to its advantage. It deals with a little motel near a small town, and its terrifying owners. Again, this film uses the anchor of murder for the audience to understand, but it also uses the unknown to its advantage by taking the stereotype of the idyllic, small town business and perverts it with the horrors of mental health and strange relationships between mother and son. Both of these films deal with things that people can understand, but never expect.
Horror is a large genre, and for being so large it has a surprisingly small amount of masterpieces. If writers put in more effort and recognize what truly inspires fear in their audience, then it will begin to thrive like it used to.