Behind The Creaky Door: A Horror Movie Rebuttal
“These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.” –
Notes on Writing Weird Fiction
H. P. Lovecraft, 1933
What’s behind the creaky door?
When my daughter first asked me the question “Do horror movies have to be scary?”, my immediate and unthinking response was “Yes”. And then, after a few seconds of reflection, “Actually, No.” Now, that may seem strange. Accepting that different things make different people laugh, a comedy film that isn’t funny is a failure by any standards. A musical with unmemorable tunes is destined to be quickly forgotten. A bad Rom-Com is…No wait a minute, all Rom-Coms are essentially crap, so that doesn’t really count, does it? But never mind, the question of how a horror movie that doesn’t scare can still be satisfying is a valid one.
First of all: What is a horror movie? The most common definitions (and there are several) talk about films which are intended produce a negative emotional reaction. But, I don’t think that’s the whole story. True, some horror films elicit involuntary bowel movements by jump scares and the liberal use of giblets. But the best do more, playing as much on our curiosity and instinctive fears of the unknown as on trying directly to scare us. Wondering what’s causing the strange noises upstairs is a strong element in any good horror movie, even if the solution isn’t necessarily frightening. So, I’d suggest that a horror movie is one that prompts curiosity and dread of the unknown as much as overt fear or scares.
Personally, I don’t think that a film must include supernatural elements to qualify as horror. And excessive and exuberant violence isn’t enough on its own, though many good horror films contain both. But a horror film must contain or at least hint at some sort of strangeness. For example, Alien (1979) is a horror film, in my view. And it contains no supernatural elements at all. But it is scary.
That it’s set in space and in the future don’t really matter. Sci-fi and horror are genres which regularly cross-over, partly because neither are constrained by narrow conventions. In either genre, when the hero or heroine finally pushes open that creaky door at the top of the stairs/opens the rusty airlock, there could be anything behind it at all. From a time-travelling, shape-shifting zombie to a dear, sweet, little old lady (who may also turn out to be a time-travelling, shape-shifting zombie). Just like Mr Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction, these movies can explore strangeness without the “galling limitations” of most other genres.
And for me it’s that exploration of the unknown rather than the final solution that defines the horror film. Fear and the unknown are closely linked, which is one of the reasons horror films can be frightening. The first film ever to scare me rigid was The Innocents (1961). The film contains virtually no violence and no scenes that are overtly frightening. The fear comes from the unknown, principally from not knowing whether the ‘ghosts’ exist at all or are simply a product of the overheated imagination of the main character. It is, without doubt, a horror film. As is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). But Romero’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978) isn’t. Why? Because the zombies are no longer strange and unknown. They are a frightening but comprehensible external threat, a deus ex machina whose role and function is understood at the beginning of the movie. Not that Dawn of the Dead isn’t a cracking movie – it is. I just don’t believe it’s a horror film. But though it must deal with elements of the unknown, I don’t feel that a horror film has to be frightening to be effective. I believe that ultimate test of this comes from repeated viewing. There are a number of horror films which I have seen several times, and which I still enjoy. Most simply aren’t scary after the first viewing, but if they’re deftly made they can still be entertaining and satisfying more than once. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched An American Werewolf in London (1981), and I enjoy it every time. It’s certainly a horror film, but I don’t find it even faintly scary. Horror films deal with the broadest themes and those that find an echo in most people. Fear is often a part of the experience of watching the best horror films, but it isn’t essential and it’s lack doesn’t mean that a horror film can’t be engaging and effective. So, not all horror films have to be scary and not all scary films are horror. But to be a horror film, a movie must deal with the unfamiliar and the strange. And if it’s scary too, well, that’s probably because there is nothing we fear so much as the unknown. Ultimately, the nature of the thing behind the creaky door doesn’t really matter and doesn’t define a film as horror or not. It’s the journey to the door itself that makes and defines the genre.
Thanks to my Dad, Stephen MacGregor, horror buff, freelance writer, and owner of The Gun Place.