Sunday, 26 April 2015

Dead or Alive? The Horror of the Horror Genre

What scares you? This is the question that the horror genre has been trying desperately to answer and exploit since the 20s (and many would argue before). In the last twenty years alone, the average horror grossed $19,048,963 which is around two and a half times the amount of the average drama - the genre with the most films produced each year.1 So, considering that on average horrors earn more than dramas, comedies, and rom-coms, why is the horror genre victim to constant sequels, spin offs, and re-makes?  Looking back over the last twenty years again,  of the top grossing horror films each year, eleven are sequels or prequels, two are spin offs, and two are English language remakes.  Apart from the Twilight franchise, the drama genre has none of the above. Is there no originality left in horror? Do people only want to see Freddy invade more dreams, or more paranormal activity? What makes a good horror film and is that different to a successful one?

The Paranormal Activity films held the top spot of the
 horror box office for four years from 2009 until 2012

A while ago I examined a similar question focusing on the comedy genre, begging the argument between comedy and quality. Like that debate, with horror, not only is there a question of quality and 'scariness', but also of box office success. Paranormal Activity 4, for example, topped the horror box office, just like its three predecessors,  but was a critical failure. And, unlike the third and first instalments of the franchise, was lacking in a scare factor.2 A quick Google search for 'Best Horror Films' will immediately treat you to the 'Best' horror films, the 'Scariest' horror films, and the 'Creepiest' horror films. What's the difference, if there is one? Is the best horror film the scariest, the one that does best at the box office, the one the critics love the most, or the creepiest? The answer seems to be none of them.

Like comedy, fear is subjective. George A. Romero, father of the zombie genre and all round horror genius, says: ‘I don’t know why we love these movies so much. It must be an involuntary response. Why does a joke make you laugh? It’s the same thing with a scare.’Returning to the original question of this article, horror aims to scare you. What scares you is different to what scares me; what scares this generation is different to what scared the last. Look at the trends in horror films over the decades: nuclear and cold war fears in the 50s and 60s, 'Hyperpostmodernism'4 in the current age. Horror tries to capture the current anxieties of the time, but without a single universal fear today - as Tyler Durden so brilliantly put it 'We have no great war. No great depression'5 - the horror genre has to try grab any zeitgeist it can get its hands on.

Saw's success saw its sequels top the
horror box office in 2005, 2006, and 2008.

Without a universal fear to capitalise on, the most successful horrors of the 21st century have been those that will still manage to scare the majority. The Paranormal Activity films show things going bump in the night, using unexpected jump scares to keep its audience on edge, whilst the Saw franchise simply made their sequels so bloody that most movie-goers would have to watch through their fingers. But are these just cheap thrills designed to appeal to the sofa-dwelling adrenaline junkie? As Ben Wheatley (director of the fantastic A Field in England) says 'With horror you want to feel afraid, because you can do it without consequences.' Do these films actually make us afraid, or do they just make us jump and feel squeamish? Is there no more building suspense to an exasperating climax, no more looming dread? Just think, how many jump scares did 'King of Horror' Alfred Hitchcock use per film?

Hitchcock describes it better than I can; tension causes the audience to engage emotionally whilst jump scares cause a brief rush of adrenaline. Often, and this is particularly evident in the Paranormal Activity sequels, the innovation of jump scares takes priority over creating a solid narrative for a film which leaves the audience little to connect with. Perhaps this is where horror has fallen down; it sacrifices structure for scares. Even in Ancient Greece, Aristotle's Poetics lists plot and character as the most important aspects of tragic storytelling, yet rates spectacle as the least important. In horror, isolated moments of fear followed by dialogue-heavy stretches with undeveloped characters may make us scream embarrassingly loudly in the cinema, but how often do we leave appreciating the whole film rather than the spectacular moment? Or is this the 'Post-Human Era' of film that Richard Corliss spoke about where the set pieces matter more than the script?7

Oculus entered the box-office at number 3 but
dropped out of the top 10 in under two weeks.

But this box-office topping era of Post-Humanist film making has not taken its toll on all films in the genre. Every year hosts of narrative and character driven horrors are released but are often independently funded, meaning they get a limited release. Without a star or gimmick (i.e. 'Based on a true story') to attach to their marketing, the films go undetected by the masses. See, for example, the recent films The Babadook or It Follows which have received critical acclaim and high recommendation. Of course, that recommendation is only good if you are lucky enough to find somewhere showing it. But even the mainstream suffers from lack of exposure. Look at 2013's Oculus, which managed to have Karen Gillan (pre-Guardians of the Galaxy) as the lead. But despite the film's strong psychological fear factor and positive reviews, the film was forgotten about almost instantly. Perhaps a Doctor Who star does not a Hollywood star make. With no star to advertise with, the film had trouble filling the seats of the cinema. Is a horror's success based on how marketable it is? In which case we come back to money.

Australian horror The Babadook took the critics by storm.

The Babadook grossed less than $5,000,0008 worldwide and yet has racked up a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a fantastic 86 on Metacritic. To compare, we can look at some of the better marketed films which turned into box office success. For example, James Wan's films Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, (both produced by Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity) and The Conjuring all use his success with Saw in their marketing. Insidious can even claim to be by the creators of Saw and Paranormal Activity while The Conjuring can use Insidious' success too. Not to mention that all of these films had star leads (like the Oscar nominated Vera Farmiga and Barbara Hershey, as well as Golden Globe nominee Patrick Wilson). The difference between Babadook and Conjuring? Somewhere in the region of $310,000,0009 in worldwide grossing.

Of course, The Conjuring was a genuinely good film (as was the first act of Insidious before it drifted into a strange limbo-type realm) and deserved its financial gain. Its success promoted its critically slammed spin-off, Annabelle to the top of 2014's horror box office. So if marketing can explain the box-office trends, we have finally gathered evidence to prove something. That you need to spend money to make money. And that is what these countless sequels have: money. Whilst The Babadook is a better film than both The Conjuring and Insidious, you probably just never got the chance to see it. So has the horror genre lost its variety and quality? Is it doomed to forever be subject to sequels, remakes, and spin-offs? No, that is just what makes money. The horror genre is still alive and well and as varied as ever. For every blockbuster horror hit that gains a list of sequels, there will be several original and excellent pieces of horror cinema out there to scare yourself with.

From Saw to The Conjuring, James Wan's
creations continue to dominate the horror box office.

If a successful horror is to do with subjective fear, then this ultimate question of 'What makes a good horror?' cannot be answered. But rather than despair at the state of the horror genre, film fans should become pro-active in finding films that scare them. To bring back what Wheatley said, horror allows us to be scared free of consequence. If it is blood and gore that scares you, perhaps try Martyrs over Saw V. If you like psychological horror or films that play with your mind, maybe A Field in England would suit you. Or do you like satire? If so, you have Cabin in the Woods, You're Next, or the hilarious Tucker and Dale vs Evil. Maybe you prefer an even more niche market and you want found-footage satire with genuine scares. Try Grave Encounters. All of these films are from the last five years and are a small selection of what is out there.

But what scares you? Are you still in despair over horror films? Or do you just want a recommendation that will suit your particular set of phobias and fears. Leave a comment below and, in the words of Mike Enslin, 'Stay scared!'10

Some references:

1: Statistics from:
2: Read what I thought here:
3: Quoted in:
4: Wee, V (2005) ‘The Scream Trilogy, "Hyperpostmodernism," and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film.’ Journal of Film and Video Volume 57 (Issue 3): Pages 44-61
5: Fight Club (1999) Directed by: David Fincher
6: Quoted in:
7: Corliss, R (2011)
8: Statistics from:
9: Statistics from:
10: 1408 (2007) Directed by: Mikael Håfström

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