Horror films make up the most overrated genre of cinema. They are not only not scary, but also poorly written.
Before you start bashing me for condemning an entire genre based on my personal experience, I should confess that there are, indeed, a handful of horror movies which I actually enjoyed. Off the top of my head, I can name Cabin in the Woods, It Follows, and The Babadook.
The Babadook (2011): fleshed-out characters, an engaging story, and unexplained horror. Now, this is what I call a good horror film!
So, yeah, saying that it’s always bad would be a bit harsh, but horror is certainly the genre where you find the most trash.
Ask yourselves: what happens in any successful horror movie? There’s a hair-raising dramatic score playing in the background which keeps you on edge, then when you’re least expecting it, there is a jump scare which makes you scream, along with a gory scene every now and then to make you squeamish.
But, where is the story?
Horror films are usually too busy trying to scare people to actually focus on things which make up a good script – things like character development, and a strong plot.
Poor horror, Exhibit A: Samara’s trick or treat scene from The Ring.
Of course, the main objective of horror movies is to scare people. But, making your characters strong and relatable will only add to the viewers’ experience of fear, so I fail to see why movie writers don’t work on that.
The first act in horror films is usually focused on setting up the situation or the monster / supernatural thing, and less focused on the characters and their problems. This makes the characters flat. The filmmakers focus on building tension and fitting in scares at the expense of character development.
This jump-scare from Insidious was way too cheap – not unlike the rest of the movie.
Tone also plays an important role here. I think that the key to good horror is to maintain a constant feeling of fear, suspense, or dread, even in scenes where nothing scary happens. Most modern horror films focus on jump scares or aggressive moments at the expense of overall tone.
A lot of modern horror films fall apart in the third act – which should be a synthesis of how the character has grown and changed as they finally come face-to-face with their internal struggles; if your protagonist has no depth, then your finale will be unsatisfying.
It doesn’t help that they spend most of the third act explaining the supernatural presence. The fear of the unknown is something that I think is of utmost importance in horror films. It’s extremely hard to keep the feeling of fear going once the monster has been revealed.
Clip from Saw (2004): Yet another example of a poor jump-scare!
The best kind of horror is when there’s a sense of inevitable catastrophe. A lot of horror movies fail on that by trying to explain the supernatural, making it less scary than it could be by giving the protagonists some hope. Not knowing if you’re going to survive something is scary and seeing how the characters cope with an extremely hopeless situation leaves the spectator on the edge.
A lot of times, it feels like a “bad” horror movie is actually deliberately made that way by the studio. Since it’s difficult to sell a good horror movie at the box office, it’s just convenient to give people stuff that’s easy. Why try too hard if you can make money for minimal effort?
In a way, horror films are a lot like porn, there’s a built-in hook that sells: ghosts, gore, torture, whatever. They’ll probably never devolve to the degree that porn has – zero writing – because the response is fundamentally different. But, they’re getting pretty close.
Better thought-out horror (like the movies I mentioned above) which treats its audiences like they are adults is what I hope the genre will start moving towards. When done right, horror has the potential to be one of the most engaging and elevating genres. The feeling of fear is so visceral to human beings that a well-crafted horror film can move and affect audiences in a way no other genre can.
And yet, people love paying to see a movie which is nothing more than an hour and a half of jump scares, bloodbaths, and spilled guts.
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