The Beat’s Greg-Gory Pall Thrillber is a connoisseur of the Dark Arts who has been accused of… several crimes against God and nature. Each week in Silber Bullets, he takes a terrifying look at the spookiest, scariest, and most blood-curdling bits of suspense and horror that he refuses to let out of his head.
As I’m sure is the case for many other fans of the genre, I can’t help but approach horror fandom with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Horror historically has been considered a low form of entertainment by those within the establishment and intelligentsia, and while genres like sci-fi and fantasy that had long been considered low-brow are today arguably more accepted by the mainstream than ever, horror, from where I’m standing, only seems to have made marginal progress in the eyes of the normies. I get the sense that horror is still considered little more than cheap thrills for sickos and edgelords.
As a contrast, comedy still isn’t generally seen as a particularly high-brow form of entertainment either, but at least everyone knows laughter is a good and normal thing to strive for. If we can’t even agree that “everyone’s entitled to one good scare,” how is horror ever supposed to get a fair shake?
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think a large part of the problem is that horror is a genre inextricably tied to one emotion: fear. And hey, it makes sense. You’re not wrong for assuming that horror is all about the audience being, well, horrified. Here, too, we can compare it to comedy: you’d go to a comedy club expecting to laugh, and you’d go to your local pop-up haunted house for Halloween expecting to scream.
But as most of us know, some of the best comedy is about more than pure humor, and elicits audience reactions that go beyond laughs. Good comedy could break your heart, or even make you reconsider your political beliefs. Sure, there’s a shallow contingent of comedy audiences which demand that comedy should be about jokes, jokes, and nothing but jokes, but I think the vast majority of people agree the genre has potential for much more.
I don’t fully understand why so many people seem to struggle with the notion that horror can be just as ambitious. Every time a prestigious, critically-acclaimed horror film comes out, everyone seems to jump at the opportunity to explain why it’s too smart or too good to be a true horror film.
Take erstwhile comedian Jordan Peele‘s 2017 instant-classic Get Out for example. I love Get Out. Almost all the hyperbolic praise that’s been handed to it is true, and it deserved every accolade it received and then some. I’m overjoyed that it’s quite possibly the single most iconic horror film of the past decade, because it might be the best horror film of the past decade (2018’s Hereditary remains my favorite for personal reasons, but I can recognize that Get Out may be more immaculately constructed).
And yet every time Get Out comes up in conversation with a non-horror fan, they can’t wait to clarify why Get Out doesn’t deserve to be classified as a horror film. Unlike most horror movies, they say, Get Out is a “real movie” with compelling characters, a great script, and a vital sociopolitical message. Even writer/director Peele himself, while not necessarily shying away from accepting the “horror” label, took to calling Get Out a “social thriller,” in interviews and continued to use this phrase for his next directorial effort, the also-excellent Us.
Get Out is indeed exceptional, but not because its sublime brilliance makes it an exception to the genre. It’s great because it magnificently uses all the tools horror has always made available to storytellers for engrossing fiction and stern pleas for societal change – in this case, a fierce indictment of the anti-Black racism that lies behind the performatively liberal facade of many white Americans. There’s no way Peele could have achieved that nearly as powerfully with anything but a horror story. Sometimes, the only way to get your point across is to scare people. And that’s exactly what horror was built for.
Get Out is hardly the only culprit for this phenomenon. I recently rewatched another 2017 horror film, the far more under-the-radar The Ritual, with my father who’d never seen it before. He’s not anti-horror, but he’s never been nearly as into horror as I am. The Ritual is about a group of 30-something British men who go on an ill-fated hiking trip through the Swedish wilderness following the murder of their mutual friend, Rob (Paul Reid), in an armed robbery that might have been prevented if not for the cowardice of survivor Luke (Rafe Spall). My dad made several comments throughout our viewing about Luke’s guilty conscience, and how it affected his friendships with the other men, at one point clarifying “but I’m sure that’s not the point.”
“No, that’s completely the point!” I said. Besides being an effectively scary movie about guys getting lost in the woods, it does a great job telling an allegorical tale about relationships, trauma, and redemption.
My father’s response was hardly unique, so if you’re a horror-skeptic, I want to challenge you to consider that when a horror story makes you feel something other than horror – be it a horror movie, television show, novel, comic, whatever – that these non-horror emotions are actually exactly what the storyteller intended.
Again, we can talk about comedy. Read the user reviews for any horror film of even the most modest renown (DISCLAIMER: this is a terrible idea; never read the comments), and you’ll find a bunch of comments along these lines: “I can’t believe anyone thinks this is scary. I was LAUGHING!” As if that’s somehow disqualifying.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: most horror movies are not-so-secretly comedies, even the ones that aren’t classified as horror-comedies. I don’t know if we’re all getting too irony-poisoned by “so bad it’s good” analyses of pop culture to recognize this or what, but chances are, if a horror movie – or any piece of media, for that matter – makes you laugh, that’s probably what the creators intended.
Are there unintentionally hilarious horror films? Of course. But it’s hard to become a big enough horror fan to create it yourself without getting a sense of humor about it. Horror is about placing people in the most extreme and distressing situations possible, often with outlandish supernatural elements, and that’s always ripe comedic potential. Horror is inherently funny. Are you going to tell me you’ve never snuck up behind a friend and laughed when they screamed? Grow up.
But it’s not just about the laughs. I find that people also get uncomfortable when horror makes them sad. But heartbreak and tragedy naturally follow terror and violence. I don’t blame people for not always wanting their entertainment to be a bummer, but it’s all flows from the same emotional journey as fear.
I’ve heard some people complain that my favorite horror film, Ari Aster‘s Hereditary, is “more sad than scary.” To those people I say: yes, you’re probably right. I don’t want to spoil Hereditary for anyone who hasn’t seen it (although let this be a massive content warning, as Hereditary is deeply emotionally distressing and definitely not for everyone), but it’s the story of a family faced with unspeakable tragedy, and explores all the expected and unexpected ways that grief changes us on an individual and familial level. Those aren’t easy topics to confront, as an artist or even as a consumer, and I wouldn’t fault anyone who avoids Hereditary for that reason.
But it’s the intensity of those emotions that makes Hereditary such a stunning work of art. Most horror is about the fear that something terrible is about to happen to us, whereas Hereditary is about the horrifying realization that our worst fears have already come true. It’s hardly the first horror story to confront such themes – 1973’s Don’t Look Now comes to mind, as does 1980’s The Changeling – but for a bunch of reasons that I’ll save for another essay, or perhaps just my therapist, Hereditary hit me hardest.
Recognition of horror’s inherent subjectivity may be the most important part of what I’ve been talking about here. People are scared of different things, just as not everyone’s going to laugh at the same jokes or cry at the same movies. Perhaps more than any other genre, your mileage varies in terms of how a scary movie will effect you. But whether you laugh, cry, or scream, I hope you’ll all try to remember that just as horror is as valid as any other genre, your emotional reactions to it are as valid as anyone else’s.