Out of every genre of film, I can’t think of a single one where the audience has been as consistently divided as the horror genre. The most common thing you’ll hear about horror movies is that they suck now, and that they USED to be good. I’ve never heard anyone say “Man, comedies just ran out of ideas, there hasn’t been anything actually good since the 70’s and 80’s,” when comedy could easily be scrutinized as horror. So why is it that horror gets singled out? What makes people so critical of this genre over any other?
I think the best place to start when wanting to figure out what makes the horror genre unique over others is to take a look at where it started. The world’s first known horror movie (also technically the first vampire movie) was a four-minute French film called The House of the Devil made in 1896. The House of the Devil isn’t complicated, but a lot happens in four minutes. A bat turns into Satan, Satan creates a cauldron, an assistant, and some lady. Then some soldiers walk in, a skeleton joins the party, the lady turns into a witch, and then Satan gets killed by a crucifix. It was the 1890’s; full-length movies back then were essentially music videos without the music.
What’s interesting, however, is that this wasn’t meant to be a horror movie. It was supposed to be an adventure comedy. Hard to believe with a title like House of the Devil, I know, but it’s true. And while audiences did have that sense of wonder and curiosity that was intended, the terror it invoked, and the imagery it incorporated unintentionally made it the first known horror film. That frightening tension the movie created has been the only real constant in the genre for the last 120 years, audiences have loved it ever since, and it will likely remain that way forever. And it was all an accident.
A movie like Paranormal Activity fails because while it may make you jump every now and then, it’s still a boring story that never makes an effort to really invest you in the concept. You’re not feeling fear when watching it, you’re just constantly anticipating the next jump scare. Meanwhile, a movie like Jaws succeeds because it creates a familiar setting, interesting characters, and real, terrifying tension created through a combination of the score, cinematography, and acting. Sure, Jaws has a few jump scares here and there, but jump scares by themselves aren’t an issue. It only becomes a problem when that’s all a movie relies on. A sudden, loud jump scare isn’t memorable. But something as subtle as the opening of the Jaws theme will stick forever.
So what can be learned from this? Well, horror movies have always stood out dramatically from other genres. People went out of their way to make comedies, romances, and dramas. Nobody went out of their way to make The House of the Devil a horror, it just happened. And if anything, the feeling of wonder the movie also invoked in its audience is what really got the genre rolling. It’s not enough to just scare people, that’s not what makes a good horror movie. It’s about making people WANT to be scared. This is why movies that rely on jump scares are most often the ones that fail, and why you always hear people talking about atmosphere when it comes to horror. There are many other factors that go into making a good horror movie, but in my opinion, the most important will always be the suspense before the surprise.
Of course, this article isn’t about how jump scares have supposedly lowered the quality of horror movies over the last three decades. This article is about the state of the genre, and why I think it may be going back to it’s roots. It’s starting slowly, and if you ask me we’re nowhere near a point where you can safely say that the genre is just as good as it was thirty years ago, but the beginnings of a new golden age of horror may be showing themselves. Horror movies are finally starting to prioritize atmosphere over jump scares again. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which movies reignited this trend, but if I had to guess, I would say it could be as early as 2008’s Let The Right One In, or as late as 2015’s The Witch.
Both movies do excellent jobs with what they want to do. Let The Right One In puts you in the perspective of a young boy who slowly realizes his friend is a vampire. The fear here is never abrupt, it’s slow, subtle, and quiet, because that’s what makes sense for the characters and story. The buildup of tension is brilliant because you’re learning all of this at the same time he is. You feel the terror and sadness that he feels. The pacing is perfect and whether or not you think it’s a truly scary movie, there’s no denying how well it executes the tone and mood that is missing so sorely from the genre these days.
Then, fast forward to seven years later and surprisingly, amidst the sea of remakes and handheld ghost movies, a movie called The Witch pops up out of nowhere. I remember even before the movie came out, people were sharing the trailer all over social media saying it’s one of the most ominous and creepy looking movies in years. And that’s exactly what it ended up being. I didn’t find The Witch to be particularly scary, more unsettling or anything. But that’s what we need right now. We need horror movies that really get to you, movies that you don’t want to watch, yet you can’t keep yourself from looking away from.
We’re seeing more of these types of movies show up now, movies like Get Out, They Look Like People, It Comes At Night, and It Follows. They’re not as prevalent as they should be, however. The big headliners right now are still movies like Annabelle, Ouija, and The Purge. But these movies are showing up much more than they used to, and that’s a good sign. We’re still not at a point where the horror genre is being flooded with originality yet. And I’m not saying that bad horror movies are going anywhere, they’re not. There have always been bad, cheesy horror movies, and there always will be. Hell, I love a lot of them. Jump scares have been around for a very long time too, and they’re probably not going anywhere either.
All I’m saying here is that from what I can tell, things are getting better. And if we keep going out to the good movies that are coming out, and stay home for the bad ones, maybe the horror genre will once again hold itself to the same standard we all hold it to.