“Aaron Boone... the Tribes of the Moon embrace you!” – Lylesberg, Nightbreed
“We accept you, one of us, one of us! Gooble Gobble!” - The Freaks, Freaks
I love horror. After all, this is the genre where mistakes and imperfections not only have a widely embraced role, but can be some of the best aspects of the work. Like the Metal, Hip Hop, or Punk genres of music, it's in your face, experimental, primal, and surprisingly sophisticated. It is also a wonderful template for a seemingly endless stream of variation, remix, or revelation. The one thing horror is not—or at least, it should not be—is simply scary or frightening.
From Wikipedia, the generally accepted definition of horror is: “. . . a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.” While that definition helps, it overlooks a lot of horror’s finer traits, often to the detriment of the genre. Below I will list some of the most crucial aspects of the genre that this definition leaves out, as well as great examples of each.
- It is, by far, the most subversive of the big genres.
Exquisite Corpse is a shocking work of fiction that is, by most accounts, more of a test of how much shocking subject matter you can stomach. In fact, I am torn about this piece in particular, because it deals with gay characters who have a genuinely tragic love story— and it was actually published in the mid 90’s!—but the depths of darkness that Brite asks a user to peer into includes cannibalism, disease, and necrophilia. It ultimately proved to be too heavy for me, but remains forever etched into my memory, for good or ill. If you think that American Psycho is a light read, then Poppy Z. Brite’s New Orleans’ duo of serial killers will have you turning green in disgust in no time at all.
- It deals the most exclusively in the concept of “the other” and othering in general.
Nightbreed is a movie that was made in 1990 and deals overtly in the realm of what it’s like to be separate from “normal” society. What seems obvious with modern eyes is that the monsters and outcasts are stand ins for people whose sexuality doesn’t fit in with the much more strictly enforced norms of society. The heroes of the piece are actually monsters who try to hide from the surface world, taking safety in the underground city of Midian. The torch-wielding posse that comes to kill them are seen as villains. It echoes the work of Mary Shelley and predates Guillermo del Toro’s entire obsession with the themes of monsters as heroes. As Alejandro Jodorowsky put it, the film is “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic”.
- Its frameworks are pliable and exploitable for creators who can use it to tell profound allegories.
The late-great George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead either purposefully or inadvertently (depending on what interview by the director that you choose to read) became one of the most compelling pieces of work dealing with race relations when he chose the gentlemanly Duane Jones to play as the hero, Ben. It is a casting choice that would not have been near as remarkable, if not for the fact that the movie came out in the late sixties and Jones happened to be a black man. Suddenly, the ending of the movie (which I will not spoil, in case you haven’t seen it yet) feels even more painful and poignant.
- At its best, it deals in a metaphorical framework that is its own deeply rooted symbols and meaning.
Mulholland Dr. is a haunting and disconcerting nightmare that both builds off of a sense of unease and alienation as well as subverting—corrupting—expected tropes. Many of the events, dialogue, and images defy easy explanation and provoke a deep sense of the uncanny. Things that would be considered normal are often replaced with fascinating and unnerving stand-ins or juxtapositions, the characters use off-putting dialogue and their inflections are purposefully bizarre, feeling patently false, almost as though they’re embodiments of something plastic that has something pulsating and dark just beneath the surface.
- It can be the template through which some of the most inventive and gonzo ideas can be expressed.
Pontypool is a great example of a low budget paired with a fantastic premise, a winning concept that I see especially in the Horror genre. It’s a story that takes place entirely in a radio station’s studio and while its use of zombies might initially make you wonder just how interesting it could be, the movie turns out to be a fascinating take on the whole trope where what infects people with a disease that turns them into violent shells of their former selves is language. The one thing that the survivors in the station could use to warn people—or to even save themselves—transforms into a huge game of Russian Roulette as the fear that continual talking, especially over the airwaves, could actually infect listeners, creates a tense nightmare.
- It expresses primal emotions and pain in truly vivid manner
It cannot be stressed enough that westernized remakes of an original horror film will only, at best, dilute the creativity and the intention of the original piece—at least, from what I’ve seen, numerous times. And the remake of Let the Right One In is the case I point out. The original is primal, cruel, and at times strangely sweet, baring the inner darkness within childhood as much as in the behavior of a monster. The remake is like a defacement of the original in every way possible.
- It speaks on an instinctual level to the young and the young at heart.
Over the Garden Wall is a pure delight that brings to mind many aspects of the spectacular Spirited Away, albeit a purely Americana version. A tale of two (step) brothers lost in a strange world that’s equal measures delightful and odd as well as terrifying and alienating, this miniseries does right what most work made for adults, forget solely children, does wrong. And don’t take the story lightly, for it still contains the ability to terrify or unnerve, and it does so all the more powerfully because you're not expecting it while being completely enchanted by the beautiful stories it tells.
- It is among the hardest of genre frameworks to master, in terms of restraint and showing/telling.
Stephen King gets a lot of accolades and a lot of derision heaped on him in almost equal measure, both by people who are fans of the horror genre, as well as people who scoff at the genre in whole. I wish that people who don’t like the author for his more mainstream fare would take the time to dive into the work that deals with strong female characters, which contains some of his most meaningful work. Primary for me, when it comes to his film adaptations, is Misery, a story where a lonesome and disturbed fan is left to care for the injured focus of her obsession. Although the original story came from King, what cannot be overstated is the hard work and creativity of the filmmakers and actors who made one of the most startling and disturbing of King’s work a true masterpiece of drama and subtlety, where an embittered creator is forced to adapt to the whims and emotions of someone who’s willing to do whatever she needs to do to get what she wants from him.
Kayla loves all things weird, wonderful, and macabre. Her soul’s in writing, and her hobbies include gaming, watching movies and television shows, reading anything and everything. Her black cat’s TOTALLY, 100%, not evil.