Spooktober 2021 is thrust upon us: ‘tis the season for fun costumes, pumpkin-carving and for some, scary films. It has been a year of continued epidemiological catastrophe, a worsening climate crisis, unprecedented civil unrest and the continuing development of populist political movements both in the United States and at home in Canada. I personally find each of these things quite scary as individual occurrences, yet here we are in the spooky circumstance of experiencing all four at the same time. So one could not be faulted for wondering what on earth the appeal could be of taking a break from the slings and arrows of the continuing dumpster fire that is the year 2021 by...watching some people get tortured? I have been trying to answer a question along these lines since the summer, and am here to share what I have found so far. In short, I watched some horror films, so you don’t have to.
This is a discussion that may be of particular interest to relative novices in the genre who might want to know what these films are all about before dipping a toe in (and of whom there seem to be a sizeable number), though I dare say that more experienced horror veterans might learn a thing or two themselves from an outsider’s perspective. I will be sharing some examples of the tasks that horror can accomplish and the heights that it can reach, hoping that some readers might find fresh entries in the genre to try out for themselves, or perhaps gain a new perspective on their old favourites. For readers who may be (understandably) uncomfortable with media designed to dissect their deepest fears, I hope that we can at least find some catharsis here together by dissecting such media. In any case, we all owe considerable thanks to my friend Khira McFadden of the Ontario College of Arts and Design creative writing degree program for her compelling recommendations that have guided my excursions into this topic.
I will not beat around the bush any longer. Having taken a sample of the horror genre, including some frightening features and some... less sophisticated works, I am prepared to provide four examples of tools that make it tick. The first horror film that fully impressed me was Oculus, and it serves as a brilliant case study in the competent, yet disempowered protagonist. The Babadook is an equally brilliant ‘monster-as-metaphor’ story. The Green Knight is, in my view, a somewhat ugly duckling among the examples here, yet maintains a firm grip on the fundamentals of narrative tension. Finally, Cabin in the Woods uses a deep mastery of the ‘slasher’ sub-genre to build upon it with commentary and critique. I am convinced that the four traits exemplified by these films are neither the only traits of good horror, nor even the most important ones, but they are associated with the particularly clear exemplary works listed above and are thus well-suited to introductory discussion. Without further ado, then, let us don our critic’s costumes, grab our spooky snacks and begin our eldritch elocution.
Published in the ancient days of 2013 and starring the big name of Karen Gillan, Oculus holds up eight years later with remarkable effectiveness. This may admittedly say more about our continued societal failure to effectively address the worsening pervasiveness of mental illness over those years than it does about anything else, but hey, let’s take the wins where we can get them. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Oculus is essentially about two young adults in a scrappy fight against one very spooky mirror. Now, as any young adult who is being honest with themselves will attest, that conflict is anyone’s game at the best of times - especially if either of the young adults involved is a woman (thank you, cosmetics industry). In the case of Oculus, though, it doesn’t help that the mirror (probably?) killed both of their parents as well. As far as horror goes, this is all fine and dandy on its own already.
However, as I said before, what really sets Oculus apart is the line it walks between insufferably stupid protagonists and underwhelming villains. It is hard to be scared along with the protagonists if one can’t identify with them, and it is hard to identify with them if they seem like morons. On the other hand, a villain that does not feel like a genuine threat to the protagonists will struggle to foster the narrative tension upon which horror relies as a genre in order to impress itself upon invested viewers. Ms. Gillan’s character, in particular, exemplifies the balance required in this arena with a delicious mixture of dedicated, meticulous scheming and barely-suppressed psychological anguish. The result is a villain that proves itself against the best standards of competence to which most viewers could reasonably hold the heroes of this tale, and thus convincingly demonstrates the potent threat that it poses. Oculus consequently sidesteps a pitfall of many of its peers in the horror genre by focusing on audience investment generated through believable character details, rather than the mere single-use gimmicks enabled by a detailed setting.
Those readers that wish for a break at this point are welcome to take one. The article will still be here when your next lecture is over, or you’ve finished making your ramen for dinner, or you’ve had your latest hookup, or whatever.
Now moving on for those still interested, we find a mainstay of thrilling films in what might be called the ‘monster as a metaphor’, exemplified by the story of The Babadook. Featuring a mother-son relationship fraught with wonderful human ugliness, the conflict concerns a spooky man in a top hat who – okay, I’ll just cut to the chase: the mom is depressed and mad at herself, and has been for seven years. She might reasonably count herself lucky that the result was just a psychopathic edgelord stalker and not, say, murder by the magic police (see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for more on this topic).
But I digress. The strength of The Babadook comes from the clarity of its thematic interests: all entirely consistent (based on my limited psychological expertise) with the available textual evidence, being thus both impossible to miss and heavily informative. To name but a few examples of such consistency: the protagonist’s son serves as both a source and a victim of her anxiety, and similarly as both a source and a victim of the monster itself; she is unable/unwilling to get the help she needs in relation to both her trauma and the monster due to myriad social factors; and finally both the monster and her grief become more threatening the more she ignores them. The result is a clear and succinct perspective demonstrating several nuances of mental illness in a manner only accessible through the medium of film. The Babadook thus succeeds in terrifying its audience for an ultimately constructive educational purpose, making for a satisfying watch – even ignoring the happy ending it selects in some defiance of genre norms.
The Green Knight
A third feature of quality horror cinema can be found in the film adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, released just this year (the adaptation, not the original text) and starring Dev Patel. This film is many things – including confusing – but within the confusion is a bold example of the power to be found in pure suspense; meaning for our purposes here, the anticipation of some future dramatic event. Suspense is the gnawing sense of a threat that may jump out at any moment, enabling the kick of a jumpscare or of its adoptive sibling, the fakeout. It is the question of what will occur when the Death Star fires its primary weapon, or of what will become of the dread pirate Roberts as he goes toe-to-toe with a Sicilian when death is on the line. It is also the wonder at what might become of a young aspirant to the knighthood who fulfills a king-witnessed covenant within the confines of England’s Green Chapel. Most notably, suspense requires nearly blatant information about things liable to happen in the future of a narrative. It lives on the thin line between monotonous predictability and incoherent chaos.
In this regard, The Green Knight leverages the meta-narrative understanding common to general audiences that once the protagonist dies, it is often quite difficult for the show to go on. The question, ‘what will happen at the Green Chapel?’ thus remains an engaging question even as we are made aware that in all practical likelihood, the answer is, ‘Gawain will be decapitated.’ It is a specific case of the general question, ‘what will this story become?’ around whose answer the audience of any good film will orbit more and more closely right up until the very end, allowing for the rise and fall of narrative tension upon which horror in particular relies, and additionally fostering the wonderful urge to keep watching just to see what might happen next.
Cabin in the Woods
We complete our overview of my current insights into the horror film genre with Cabin in the Woods, both as an exemplary film on its own and as a window into the horror sub-genre known as the slasher film. Cabin in the Woods is in many respects a ‘film-about-films,’ and herein lies its lesson for the horror genre: that each of the new entries therein necessarily enters into a dialogue with all of the preceding works, and filmmakers ignore this at their peril. This is not a new observation, or even at all specific to horror, yet it is an important one. Cabin in the Woods repeatedly acknowledges the absurdity of slasher films, in which young adults of ostensibly sound mind and body often find themselves at the mercy of the debilitating terminal condition known as ‘plotitis’.
It then asks the same question that got me invested in this genre in the first place: to what end? Where is the appeal of such engineered depravity? As a symbolic stand-in for the creators and audiences of such works, the characters orchestrating the gruesome deaths of the protagonists take a sadistic satisfaction in the bloodshed they design. And yet, we see a compelling account of their motivations, admittedly dialled up to 11 in accordance with genre standards. Cabin in the Woods discusses the medium of horror cinema in its role as a borderland between the social order that we all work to maintain, and the depths of spite and fear we are prone to inflict upon each other given just the wrong circumstances and insufficient care. It is as concise a distillation of the horror genre’s appeal that I could have hoped to find in a few months of investigation, and impressively, a grand old laugh to boot.
As soul-wrenching as horror films might be, their ultimate limitation is inevitable: the camera cuts, the credits roll and whatever gruesome details a given work might house are entirely contained in a single CD, or perhaps more often nowadays, in a server farm on lease to Netflix somewhere in the USA. In any case, there is a definite cap on the potential reach of fictional maleficence into our lives. It would seem to be just as well, for there is surely more than enough real maleficence to go around as it stands. Yet, maleficence has an instructional power whose exploitation is the central accomplishment of any good horror film. The competition of fiction with the tangible tribulations of people everywhere is a daunting task, yet Oculus demonstrates that with the right thought and care, even a mundane mirror can reflect back to us the potent dangers of our human condition. The Babadook uses a similarly well-crafted villain to render the ethereal and elusive threats of mental illness tangible, thus manifesting a novel and instructional perspective on an otherwise daunting social challenge. The Green Knight creates an exercise in anxiety, building narrative tension around a single worrisome future possibility and emphasizing the value of focusing on what one can practically control in the moment. Finally, in a capstone summary of the entire slasher genre, Cabin in the Woods allows us a few laughs at our ridiculous - yet useful - interest in unpleasant and/or gruesome themes. The horror genre presents the world as a threatening and scary place. Horror film viewers are given lessons in winning the moral victory by having fun anyways.