31 Shades of Fear
The weather, cooler. The days, shorter. The shadows, longer. Trees turn color, leaves scatter on the ground. Samhain—Halloween—draws near. My favorite time of year. And you know what that means? An excuse to indulge in my favorite movies—horror movies!
In this blog I will discuss a horror film every day in October. These aren’t necessarily my 31 favorite horror movies, but they do stand out in some way as particularly effective, well-crafted representatives of the genre.
As far back as I can remember liking movies and books, I remember liking horror over any other form. I don’t know why this is. Horror has gained increasing popularity, but throughout my life, I’ve encountered those who regard me with derision, repulsion, or condemnation because of my interest in horror. I still think many regard it as a genre of little, if any, artistic value. At best, it is a formulaic and vulgar form of popular art; at worst, it is an artless, immoral, if not outright dangerous, expression of humanity’s vilest impulses.
I don’t think that I can provide a sophisticated justification of horror at this time. (Well, I could, but that’s not what I want to get into here.) All I will say is that it is meaningful to me. Although there aren’t many fictional things that truly “scare” me anymore, there are things that make me uncomfortable. The best horror makes me uncomfortable. And perhaps disturbed, if not frightened.
That’s necessary but not sufficient. There are books and movies that may make me uncomfortable, or disturb me, but that I would not call horror. For example, Requiem for a Dream and Irreversible are very disturbing films for me, and I will probably never watch them again, but they are not horror. I’m not sure I can define horror easily. Instead, I will lay out my criteria for good horror, especially as regards film:
- The threat must be compelling and seem difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, and The Birdsare good examples.
- Atmosphere is key. Whether a fast-paced slasher flick, or gloomy ghost story, a tone of dread—built up by various elements—rather than constant outright violence or special effects separates great horror from lackluster horror. (And I am tempted to think of certain so-called horror that focuses more on violence as extreme action movies, rather than horror.)
- Shadows and what’s in them—shadows are good, because of what they hide, and also because of what you can see in them. Making a movie too dark or too brightly lit will, with a few notable exceptions, be less effective than a good interplay of light and shadow. Contrast in general serves to enliven the best horror. The James Whale Frankenstein is one of the best examples of this.
- Memorable or chilling music, and judicious use of sound—Never underestimate the significance of the pairing of sound with image. Great horror movies leave us with some of the most memorable music in film history (Psycho, Halloween, Jaws). Also, silence will be needed to draw out tension, illustrated well by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which doesn’t use any non-diegetic music.
- Identification and empathy – We should have some degree of investment in the success and/or survival of at least one character. Often this will be a victim/protagonist, but it may also be the “villain” (Frankenstein, Carrie), perhaps both. This is often done more effectively by making the empathized an outsider or different in some way. That the empathized struggled already in some way before the crisis of the film makes them all the better equipped (even if they do not always succeed) to deal with, or at least symbolically mediate, the crisis.
- Transgressive of norms – As implied above, if we identify with both victim and villain, there are some ethical/philosophical questions that should arise. The best horror will make me question assumptions and norms, and not provide neat and tidy answers (even if the villain is ultimately thwarted—at least until the sequel). Todd Browning’s Freaksis one of the most obvious examples.
Those are my thoughts on horror off the top of my head. Perhaps I could have said something more profound, had I deliberated on the subject longer. Tomorrow, it’s on to the first film, arguably the most important movie in modern horror cinema—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Feel free to comment or write me on Facebook or at andrewsydlik at yahoo dot com.