Thought-Bomb #1: What is a Horror Movie?

Posted: July 30, 2014 in Thought-Bombs
Tags: , , , , ,

Thought-Bomb #1: What is a Horror Movie? 

by: Pontifex Aureus

I remember, back in VHS times, cruising through the horror sections of local video stores in search of something tasty. Every now and then I’d see the movie Alien there, amongst all the horror movies and it would give me pause; Alien isn’t a horror movie…it’s in space, in the future, there’s an alien—all this screamed sci-fi to me. And indeed, in most video stores, Alien was in fact stocked in the sci-fi section.

I didn’t think much about it then, but this conundrum popped up again recently as I was trying to categorize my personal movie collection. I kept asking myself, “Is this a horror movie?” Is Jaws a horror movie? Is Eraserhead a horror movie? But I couldn’t really answer these questions without first asking myself “What IS a horror movie?” After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that a horror movie is a movie whose means of entertainment is primarily based on fear and/or revulsion.

Before I explain how I came to this conclusion, it is important to specify what exactly I mean by “entertainment”. The word “entertainment” is often used as a synonym for “enjoyment”, but that isn’t quite accurate, since enjoyment necessarily entails pleasure and entertainment is not always pleasurable. For example, think of a really sad, but good, movie that you’ve seen; you probably didn’t walk out of that theater smiling, in fact, you probably felt pretty bad. You could hardly say that such a movie is pleasurable, yet it is undeniably entertaining. So basically, when I say entertainment, I simply mean “that which entertains”, meaning something that engages your attention over a certain amount of time. By this meaning, entertainment need not necessarily be pleasant as long as it engages your attention enough such that you are occupied for a set amount of time. If I’ve strayed off topic a little too long here, it’s only because it is important for me to establish just how necessary entertainment is to movies. Above all, a movie entertains.

So, I’ve said that a horror movie is a movie whose means of entertainment is primarily based on fear and/or revulsion. I reached this conclusion by asking myself, “What element, if removed from a horror movie, would make it not be a horror movie anymore?” In other words, what is the most elementary characteristic of a horror movie? I think we can assume without risk of controversy that fear is an important element, so we’ll take that as our starting point.

Here I must say this: fear and suspense are not the same; this is why a thriller is not a horror movie. To be in suspense is to be in a state of tension where you want to know what happens next—you can’t wait to see how things turn out. On the other hand, to be afraid is to be in a state of tension, but you don’t want to see what happens next—you dread to see how things turn out. Simply put: Suspense is tension that yearns for resolution; fear is tension that dreads resolution. A horror film may have suspense, but if suspense supplants fear entirely, then it is not horror.

Of course, some horror movies don’t really focus much on fear as much as they do on gratuitous violence; this subset of gross horror is large enough that I decided to add the element “revulsion” to my definition. At this point, I was all ready to define horror movies as movies that involve an element of fear and/or revulsion, but then I remembered something; is Eraserhead a horror movie? This is one of the questions that first prompted me to write this essay and while Eraserhead certainly contains elements of fear and revulsion, I argued to myself that Eraserhead isn’t a horror movie because it isn’t just trying to scare you, it’s trying to make a statement on the themes of suicide, sex, and parenthood and that this, somehow, makes it not be a horror movie. But by that rationale, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t a horror movie either because it isn’t just trying to scare you; it’s also trying to make a statement on consumer culture. Does a movie’s theme matter in determining if it is horror or not?

No, because the essence of a horror movie isn’t in its theme; it’s in the way it makes you feel—the feeling of horror. I was thinking that the theme of a movie is important in determining whether its horror or not, but if that were true, there would hardly be any horror movies at all because fear and revulsion are rarely ever themes—themes are ideas, meant to be experienced on an intellectual level. Fear and revulsion are usually meant to be experienced viscerally, not intellectually—they’re something you feel, not something you think about. It is the feeling of fear and/or revulsion that dominates the horror movie, and dominates it so thoroughly that it is primary way by which the horror movie achieves entertainment. Therefore, the horror movie is determined by the way in which it entertains (fear/revulsion) in much the same way that a comedy movie is determined by its means of entertainment (laughter/mirth). These genres are defined not by what they’re about, but by what they’re designed to make you feel. Note: not every genre is defined by its means of entertainment, some are indeed defined by thematic content (like the western, but let’s not get into that).

Whew! That was a lot of explaining! But at the end of it all, we have a working definition of what a horror movie is, and here it is again in case you forgot: a horror movie is a movie whose means of entertainment is primarily based on fear and/or revulsion. So is Alien a horror movie? I would say yes; the means entertainment are based on the fear of hidden danger, the fear of being pursued, the fear of isolation—it would be essentially the same even if you replaced the alien with a psycho and outer space with deep woods. Is Eraserhead a horror movie? Most definitely, because even though it has a stronger thematic structure than most horror movies, that’s not what holds our attention while watching; it’s the oppressive ambience, it’s the creepy “lady in the radiator”, it’s the truly revolting “baby”.

Of course, opinions will differ on what exactly is and isn’t scary and/or revolting. For example, I don’t find the movie Leprechaun to be particularly scary or revolting. In cases like these, I believe that intent is important; and while intent can sometimes be a hard thing to establish, if you can convincingly make the argument that the filmmakers intended for a movie to be scary and/or revolting, then you can say that it’s a horror movie. Here’s a more serious problem with my definition: The Passion of the Christ is a horror movie. Yup, that’s right. According to my definition, The Passion is horror. This is because the primary means of entertainment is revulsion—revulsion to the violence being perpetrated on Christ, this is what holds your attention in much of the movie. This revulsion is arguably sublimated, however, by the religious theme, thereby subordinating the violence in service of the message. But according to my definition, the theme is immaterial in determining whether or not a movie is horror. Still, I think most people would not classify The Passion as horror—nor would I really. Yet, if we do say that the theme of The Passion of the Christ makes it not be horror, then we’re back to where we were a few paragraphs ago where Dawn of the Dead is not horror. So what do you think readers? Is my definition good enough? Is The Passion of the Christ really a horror movie? How would you define what makes a horror movie a horror movie?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s