Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What is a Horror Movie?

Ok  kiddos, hate to go on a rant here, but let me make this perfectly clear...


(phew... glad to finally get that off my chest)

It is psychological thriller that examines a young woman's descent into madness.

Is it scary?  Yes.
Is it disturbing?  Yes
Is it a horror movie?  No.

Just because a film is scary, suspenseful, disturbing, even terrifying, that does NOT make it a horror movie.

Let me tell you a little secret...   Are you ready?  Ok, here goes...

Jaws is not a horror movie either.  (uh oh, I can hear the masses grumbling)
Neither is Psycho. (ducks head, awaiting flying cookingware)
Silence of the Lambs? ...forget about it - it's a straight up thriller (hey, put that pitchfork down willya? lemme explain!)
Stop looking at me like that, Lecter, lemme explain
I tend to be protective of the term "horror".  To me, it represents a very specific type of movie, and in this age of inclusiveness, I feel people have tagged many films as "horror" in order to justify the genre.  They want to say, "Hey look!  Look at all the "horror" films that have won Oscars!  We're legit!  We're not the grade-B low-budget degenerate shlockfest that people think we are.  Please like us..."

Well EFF THAT!  Horror does not need justification or legitimacy.  It's just fine as it is, thank you very much - in all its bloody, subversive, thought-provoking glory.

Therefore, I think a little clarification is in order.  A comprehensive definition of what a horror film is, so these constant mis-classifications can stop.  If a term like "horror film" is used incorrectly, eventually it loses its meaning and has no value anymore.

Once we have a solid definition we can use that as a filter to pass a bunch of movies through it and see how it stands up under scrutiny.

I'll take the first stab - here's my definition.  A horror movie has to have the following elements:

- it has to have an element of the supernatural (witches, ghosts, demons, alternate realities, etc)
- it has to have a monster (some creature that does not actually exist)
- its primary aim has to be to elicit fear, horror, disgust or suspense.

This means that many of the most famous movies that you see on those best horror films lists, ARE NOT EVEN HORROR FILMS!

Ok, let's go back to the films already mentioned and pass them through my filter.

-Black Swan has nothing to do with the supernatural and has no monsters.  It teases the audience with weird things going on - dopplegangers and a young woman sprouting feathers, etc. - but it is evident from the beginning of the movie that the lead character (whose point of view the film is seen) is by every piece of evidence, BATSHIT CRAZY!  Let's see,we got bulemia, cutting, boundry issues with ma, a little OCD perhaps, some good ol' sexual repression and a huge whopping dose of psychosis and schizophrenia.

Sorry Bruce, you're outta here!
- Jaws is a tremendous example of an action thriller and created the summer blockbuster, but I hate to break the news to you, GREAT WHITE SHARKS ACTUALLY EXIST.  And they actually kill people. 

- Psycho, Silence of The Lambs and yes... even Texas Chainsaw Massacre are all based ON A REAL-LIFE PSYCHOTIC PERSON NAMED ED GEIN.  These are all incredibly great, monumentally important films, but none of them are true horror films, my friends.

I think people want to classify these films as horror in order to make themselves feel safer - "Oh, those chainsaw wielding, lunatic cannibals are just monsters!  Thank goodness they don't exist in real life."  Well I've got news for you folks, human beings are capable of unimaginable acts of cruelty and depravity.  Just ask the Jews or the Chinese what they went through during WWII. This stuff actually happens.  This is no boogeyman tale to keep kids in line.  Ed Gein actually existed, created a lamp shade out of a face, wore a woman's "suit" from real flesh.  And he's not the only one.

Look, when I worked at a bookstore back in the 90's, I knew all about Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.  I loved those books and recommended them to customers constantly. You wanna know under what section they were kept?  Take a guess...

In the MYSTERY section, with all the other detective stories about murderers and child molesters and serial killers.  Wanna know why?  Because THEY AREN'T HORROR BOOKS!  And neither was American Psycho for that matter - that was in the general fiction section.

Its all your fault!
 Psycho started this whole line of suspense/thriller movies that eventually morphed into slasher films and then into... well, I'll discuss that a little later.  Here's some more of these films that aren't horror movies:

- Last House on the Left - a disturbing thriller based on an Ingmar Bergman classic, The Virgin Spring.  You wouldn't call The Virgin Spring a horror film, would you?

- Friday the 13th - a classic slasher film. This movie and all the carbon copy slashers that came after it almost killed true horror films with their lack of imagination, cliched stories and endless teenage body counts.

- Seven -  a psychological thriller/detective film.  One of my favorite movies of all-time.

- Scream - a self-referential slasher/thriller.  Two kids, Billy and Stu are the killer.  Nothing supernatural here folks.

And then we have the subgenre of torture porn films that started with Saw and Hostel and all their nasty offspring.  NONE OF THESE ARE HORROR MOVIES EITHER!  They are the bastard spawn of slasher movies.  They are at best, clever psychological thrillers, and at worst, cynical, dehumanizing snuff wannabies.

Now let's take a look at some actual horror movies so we can get a clear sense of what I'm talking about:

Blair Witch Project - supernatural
Poltergeist - supernatural
Halloween - although set up like a slasher film, Halloween in my eyes blurs the line with supernatural with Michael Myers being described as "Pure evil" - he is clearly more than human.
The Entity - supernatural
Evil Dead II - supernatural/comedy, still horror in my eyes
Drag me to Hell - supernatural/comedy, still horror in my eyes
The Shining - supernatural
In the Mouth of Madness - supernatural
The Exorcist - supernatural
The Last Exorcism - supernatural
Paranormal Activity - supernatural
Hellraiser - supernatural
The Ring - supernatural
Devil's Backbone  - supernatural but Pan's Labyrinth is not, it is more Fantasy/Magical Realism

 Night of the Living Dead - monsters
28 Days Later - monsters
Splice - sci-fi/monster
Descent - monsters
Pumpkinhead - supernatural/monster
Sixth Sense - supernatural
Signs - sci-fi/alien monsters 
Nightmare on Elm Street - monster/supernatural
Rosemary's Baby - supernatural
Angel Heart - supernatural noir/horror
Suspiria - supernatural (but Deep Red, and Argento's other Giallo films are not)
Jacob's Ladder - borderline, but ultimately, supernatural
Shivers - monsters (but Dead Ringers, NO - psychological thriller - What the heck is Videodrome ??)
The Thing - alien monster
Alien - alien monster

Aliens - well, now look what James Cameron did to one of my favorite movies ofall time.  He took a classic horror movie and turned it into an action/sci-fi/combat movie.  It's really not a horror movie at all.  He took all the mystery and menace out of the original Alien Monster and instead gave us a bunch of scurrying cockroaches to be exterminated.  Gee, thanks Cameron.
10:30... time for my union coffee break...
Aliens fails the test, because to me it fails the second level of screening:
- its primary aim has to be to elicit fear, horror, disgust or suspense.

One could make the argument that Aliens has monsters in it and its primary aim is to elicit horror or at least suspense, so therefore it is a horror movie.  And I agree that this is a borderline case, but for me, the setup of Aliens is a pure action/combat film.  This could easily have been set in the tunnels of Iwo Jima.  The emotions Cameron seems interested in are not horror, terror, or even suspense, but to elicit the catharsis of defeating an enemy.

Predator and Predators - same as Aliens

Let's take a look at some more movies that don't make the cut because although they may have monsters, or elements of the supernatural, the tone of the film is all wrong:
Ghostbusters - action/comedy 

Shawn of the Dead - another great film, but this one to me is a comedy - a parody of zombie movies.

Gremlins -fantasy/comedy

Jurassic Park - scifi/action - borderline.    It feels a lot like Jaws (thanks to Spielberg) and it definitely is set up to elicit suspense and terror, and dinosaurs no longer exist... But not quite.

Altered States - Scifi/action with horror elements

Lord of the Rings - fantasy/drama/action with horror elements

Cloverfield - disaster/giant monster movie

Grab your camera quick!  There's a really stupid-looking monster coming!
Many giant monster movies are really simply disaster or armageddon films with monsters as stand-ins for earthquakes or hurricanes or meteors.  So, Cloverfield, while it does have a monster in it, is actually closer to The Towering Inferno in its tone, than it is to Frankenstein.  Same as all the Godzilla movies (except perhaps, for the original) and these others:

Independence Day - disaster/scifi/action film

War of the Worldsdisaster/scifi/action film

Monsters - drama/disaster/giant monster movie  Yeah, the title of the film is called "Monsters", and there are actual alien giant-squid monsters in it, but the movie really isn't interested in them.  It's kinda like Before Sunrise with occasional tentacles here and there.

And then, we have the movies that are right on the border:

American Werewolf in London - monster/action/comedy   Is it a comedy with horror elements?  Or a horror film with comedic touches?  I'd say this is a horror movie first, with comedic touches, it gets in.

Let the Right One in - supernatural/drama, but is its primary aim to elicit horror or suspense?  I love the movie, but its borderline.  Ah heck... let it in!

Eraserhead - experimental/horror  All of Lynch's movies are hard to classify.  Although it really never sets up suspense or terror, it is disturbing as hell and the "baby" is monstrous enough for me, so bring it on!

Cabin Fever - no supernatural, but you could argue that the virulent plague is a "monster".  Its tone however is straight horror - going for gore, and terror, so it gets in too.

The Human Centipede - Wow, this one's tough.  It's got your classic psycho-doc element straight out of a thriller, but it plays like a modern-day Frankenstein.  There's nothing supernatural, but does the completed human centipede represent a "monster" per se?  I'd say no, this movie belongs in the slasher/torture porn genre - Get it outta here!

Now, out of all the movies I eliminated, there is really one one that falls through the cracks that I'd like to have back.  I'm fine with Jaws not being a horror film, fine with Psycho and Silence of the Lambs and Black Swan being left out too.

Welcome back, Leatherface -we missed ya big buddy!
But for me, I want Texas Chainsaw Massacre back!  I'm giving it a special pardon, because although technically everything in it has happened, or could happen, it is just so damned shockingly EXTREME and beautifully horrific that I cannot keep it out.  Welcome back Chainsaw - you are an honorary HORROR MOVIE!!

Now it's your turn.  Prove me wrong.  Explain why Black Swan is a horror movie - or not.  Create a specific definition of what a horror movie is and pass a bunch of movies through it. See what is included and what is left out.  Does it still have merit?

As with all things, the interesting discussions will arise at the edges.  Is Gremlins a horror film?  What about Shawn of the DeadAltered StatesVideodromeEraserhead?

Bring in on!


  1. Your nuancing of definitions sounds similar to Thomas A. Sipos in his book Horror Film Aesthetics discussed in two installments on my blog TheoFantastique with the first installment here, if I may: http://www.theofantastique.com/2010/11/07/thomas-m-sipos-horror-film-aesthetics-the-visual-language-of-fear-part-1/

  2. John,

    Great link to a discussion that adds lots to what I had to say. I particularly like this exchange:

    "A horror film should evoke fear. That’s generally accepted. So then, if a film evokes fear, it is always a horror film?

    No, because Saving Private Ryan and Death Wish and Titanic evoke fear, yet those are not regarded as horror films. So then, a horror film must have something else in addition to fear. What?

    The fear must be evoked by a threat that’s unnatural. An unnatural threat."

    Good stuff!

  3. Love this!

    I almost stood up and cheered when I saw Psycho on your list, because usually I tell people I am not a big fan of horror movies, and they look around my room/house with posters of Hitchcock (and books by and about Hitchcock, and my collection of Hitchcock movies, etc) and say "well then how can you like Hitchcock!?"

    Because, exactly like you said, his movies are *thrillers* (some psychological, some not, with a smattering of mysteries and dramas).

    (SciFi is very hit or miss for me, but Alien is the center of the Venn diagram of 'horror' 'scifi' and 'pure awesome.')

  4. Very well done.

    Let's see...

    I agree with one point most of all. The genre that you have defined as "horror" is unique from other genres most people would like to group together with it. I think your criteria were well considered and definitely serve to draw a relatively respectable line through the example movies.

    That having been said, while I have no problem with the thought you've presented here or with the idea of a specific genre defined as you have defined it, being an English major rather than a film guy, I actually get picky about the use of the word 'horror' as the preferred label for the genre thus defined. To me, horror is something very unique from either fear or disgust, both of which I would probably, for the purpose of this topic, classify together as an instinctive reaction.

    The difference that I perceive between horror and fear/disgust is that horror requires a certain psychological event to occur or state to be achieved, that is, it requires not only comprehension of the object of in question but also a certain degree of empathy with that object. Fear and disgust are reactions of the psyche that reject or suppress the object perceived, but horror is defined by a mode of perception that requires a certain psychological openness. Rather than the object in question being forced away, it is actually embraced, even though the very act of embracing it is contrary to every instinct. Thus, horror is a state that is only possible in the case that the will to experience it exists. So then how do we define horror movies? Well I think the main idea is to find a definition of movies that are successful in inducing a state of horror in their audience. For this to be accomplished, a horror film will probably not only present some object that is disturbing to the psyche of the perceiving individual, but also attempt to use this object to seduce the perceiver. In one way or another, the viewer is encouraged by the film, or whatever other media is under consideration, not only to experience that thing that would regularly invoke fear/disgust, but also to come to appreciate it, to perceive certain merits of this objectionable object, and to establish a rapport with it.

    Anyway, when I have more time perhaps I shall put together my own list of films and discuss actual, specific criteria. But great post though. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. I get what you are arguing here but it is truly a mystery to me why you have decided that horror MUST contain an element of supernatural and then go on to say it has to have a monster (some creature that does not actually exist). The most horrific things in this world are what humans think up to do to other humans. It shouldn’t matter what is causing the feeling of horror in the viewer – just that the feeling exists, be it due to a monster or cruel parent.

  6. Alien isn't supernatural. Why is it a horror movie?

    Be consistent, will you?

  7. From my point of view, the term "horror" is specific to elements that are other than human. So, those elements can either be supernatural, or simply something that does not actually exist - a monster. Alien is a horror film because the alien monster represents true "otherness" - a being that one cannot plead with or negotiate with or ever hope to understand. To me, this "otherness" is essential for true horror to exist. Things that humans do to other humans may be nasty, terrifying and disgusting, but they are not "horror". This of course is simply my own peculiar definition.

  8. Black Swan is American Warewolf in tights. I don't have a problem with that; indeed i prefer that people take an intersting film that hasn't been done to death and make it new again. I disagree with the "monster" definition partly, as body mutilation takes the human element, our most recognizable element, and starts to turn it into the "other", whether supernatural or imagined. I see no difference in the lycanthropic scenes in American and the final leg breaking scene in Black Swan. Both involve body horror on a very human scale. By your definition, agreed, Black Swan is not horror, but I think that that definition is a bit too narrow for my tastes.

  9. We'll have to agree to disagree. I do agree with you however that I have a narrow view of horror. I like it that way.

  10. Todd,

    Nice article. I can see that is a bit controversial, but I enjoyed it...even if I don't completely agree with you. Hope you don't mind, but I chose this article as one of my favorites from April, and included a link to it in the latest "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

    Check it out!


  11. I've been questioning how to define horror movies myself lately, and I think your blog post has really helped me crystallize my position(even though it disagrees with yours).

    When you said that it had to be either supernatural OR a monster, that really got me thinking. What do these two things have in common? What makes them so special as to deserve special mention over real-life horrors. What connect's a plague, A ghost, A vampire, and Jason Vorhees?

    1:They are a threat that doesn't, as presented, exist in the real world.

    2: They are all beyond us. They are greater than humans in some way.

    I subtly disagree with both of these points.

    Insisting that a film has to have some literal disconnect with the material world seems arbitrary. I've always thought of Silence of the Lambs (the film) as being based off the classic Faustian Bargain, where our protagonist trade's her deepest fears and secret's (her "soul") with Hannibal Lecter (The Devil) in order to get what she wants. She is told how dangerous it is to let him inside her head but she does it anyway, giving him power over her. In the sequel, we see her completely in his power as a direct result of this.If the exact same movie replaced the character of Hannibal Lecter with an identical character, except he is in some way supernatural, would that really change the movie to such a degree? Hannibal Lecter and Jaws aren't literally supernatural forces, but I believe the film can still treat them as such.

    I don't think it is important that the evil in horror movies is beyond us. I think it is more important that the evil is beyond the main character of the story. Thus, a frail or mentally ill character could percieve normal people as being supernaturally monstrous in the same way a film with normal character's can be frightened of something supernatural. They are both equally beyond the main character.

    I think the only difference between your views and mine is that I view the movie from within it's own logic, whereas you view the movie from the logic of an audience. I'm not completely convinced that my definition is definitive, but it is the closest I've ever seen to including all of the movies I consider horror.

    Once again, Thank you for the great post!

  12. T-Mobile - I like your definition. It makes sense and it allows you to include movies you feel should be part of the horror genre.

    That being said, for me, Silence of the Lambs and Jaws are thrillers - great movies, certainly scary, but not true horror.

    I still like to reserve that term for a more specifically supernatural type of story. But that's just me - I know I'm in the minority.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I like last house on the left, psycho and black swan. they are simply amazing. top 10 horror movie characters

  15. i watch horror movies mostly it is so adventurous and i always do that this article boosted me a lot thanks for sharing also check Top Ten Spooktastic Horror Movie Characters - funklist

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    Best Horror Movies

  18. wow, thanks for the list. I really love horror movies, your list gave me an idea what should i watch next time

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