The Appeal of Horror

Horror may not be to everyone's taste but one of our farmers looks at his life-long love of the genre and examines the appeal of horror...

Horror may not be to everyone’s taste but one of our farmers looks at his life-long love of the genre and examines why horror appeals…

About a year ago, I had the privilege of meeting film critic Mark Kermode during his book tour for his then newest book: The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex. During the Q & A, I asked him what it was about horror that he loved above the likes of, say, science fiction or action. Had I known he was going to drag me out in front of the crowd and explain it myself, I probably wouldn’t have asked, but in doing so he gave a platform to express my love for horror. Now whilst my own explanation sounded more akin to a series of nervous grunts, Dr. Kermode was able to sum it up in a more professional and academic way.

The reason for this anecdote is that even someone as well known as Mark Kermode, a personal hero of mine, has a similar ideal as to why he enjoys horror. It’s the same with many of my closest friends as well as members of my family: it’s about the pure joy of being scared. This, of course, does not appeal to everyone in the same way that there are many who would never ride a roller coaster or go sky-diving, yet there are just as many, like myself, who are drawn to the possibility of being scared shitless, who revel in the ugly side of life through the medium of film.

Yet, as with all horror lovers, there are more personal reasons for loving this particular genre. In my case, when I was young, I was very easily frightened. I had nightmares about dinosaurs after seeing Jurassic Park (I was eight years old) and was even afraid to have a bath after seeing Jaws (this was when I was six). Yet, especially during my formative years, there was an element of forbidden mystique surrounding horror, knowing that an 18 rated movie would often contain material far worse than the likes of JP or Jaws.

One must also bear in mind that when I was a boy, we were heading from the 80’s to the 90’s a time where the video nasties scare was still fresh in the public mind. I remember the controversy surrounding Child’s Play 3 and the Jamie Bulger murder vividly, and knowing the likes of The Exorcist, The Shining and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre purely by reputation. Many of the most infamous horror films were still banned, begging the question or what kind of films were these to warrant total withdrawal from public circulation?

Of course, being young, the mind conjures up nightmares far more frightening than anything the cinema could put on screen, especially during the 90s. However, this is where my fascination with horror began. I remember hearing about Halloween and The Changeling from a neighbour who had seen both and began wondering if the these films were as bad as the images I’d concocted. For the most part, I discovered that many a horror failed to live up to my own morbid fascination but there were a number of milestones in my formative years.

I only overcame my fear of Freddy Kruger by seeing the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even then the man still gives me the creeps. I also remember watching Wishmaster at the age of thirteen and being so horrified by the levels of on-screen gore that it took me three sittings to get through it, despite knowing that, for all intents and purposes, the film was a piece of garbage.

For me, it has always been about finding the holy grail of horror films, the one fright-fest that truly lives up to those distressing images I had as a young boy, and whilst I have become more sedate with regards to what others would find extreme (for example: I felt Hostel lacked the conviction of its intriguing premise), there have been the odd pictures that, for better or worse, have met my “expectations”.

I certainly find supernatural horror to be more frightening compared to the likes of Saw and its ilk, as they prey on the human fear of the unknown. The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, The Haunting (the original, not the remake); all use a minimalist approach to elicit the maximum amount of terror. So what if we don’t see the Blair Witch. Would revealing the monster be wise? Lest we forget that in Jaws, we don’t see the shark for the first hour. It’s always the unknown that affects us, as an audience, more than anything explicit. It’s these films that provide the shivers.

Gore, on the other hand, is not frightening, it is just repulsive to look at. That’s not to say the more violent horrors are not without merit. To use a case study, let us look at the original Saw. I, for one, really dig this movie: it has an interesting set-up, seriously disturbing ideas, and a fairly original killer who, most importantly, spends 99% of the film off screen. Sure, there’s a hell of a lot of things wrong with it but it was, and still is, a show stopper to anyone watching it for the first time. There’s a remarkable amount of violence, yet, unlike its sequels, its there as a consequence of the set-up, the inevitable side effect of a murderer who gets his victims to kill themselves.

Horror also tends to be a spring board for making bold political or social statements, more so than any other genre. George A. Romero has always included subtext in his Living Dead series and the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left were very much statements/criticisms of 70’s America. Hell, even Hostel, for all its immaturity, is a critique of the ignorance of America (a message somewhat undercut by the childishness it handles the material with).

Despite my love for horror, though, it doesn’t always mean I will jump to its defense. For the most controversial of the genre, look no further than that of the exploitation film, the movies that are designed purely to insult, confront and agitate in the guise of entertainment. In this regard, look no further than two recent nasties: The Human Centipede 2 (HC2) and A Serbian Film.

Now I, personally, had no major beef with HC2. I felt it was no better or worse, in terms of its content, than the likes of Salo or The New York Ripper. It’s disgusting, yet through much of the second half, where the protagonist assembles his twelve person centipede, I found it the whole thing so laughably cheap that its extremities eventually became boring.

A Serbian Film, on the other hand, is a far more problematic beast. When reading one review (I can’t remember which publication, sorry), the critic likened his experience of watching A Serbian Film to having his soul raped. An interesting analogy, but depressingly accurate. It is a peculiar and vicious film that is clearly well acted and put together with an impressive degree of professionalism, and obviously has a grim political point it wants to make, of which you can only help but admire filmmakers’ intent. The problem, however, is the way it goes about it, by including scenes of incest, necrophilia and, in its most infamous scene, the raping to death of a new born baby.

In my view, it is hard to defend or recommend a film that delves into such extremes with little more than a shrug. I can, however, admit my admiration for the reasons detailed above for A Serbian Film – it is a movie that any hardened film fan can both love and loathe at the same time. For my money though, if you wish to see a successful piece of extreme horror that makes a profound statement, see Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs instead.

So what do you think? Are you as much of a horror fan as I and if so why? Or are you in the other camp and detest the genre’s very existence? Let me know in the comments section below, or alternatively, hit me up on twitter: @dukelukemsego.

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