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Horror Movies Shouldn't Need To Scare You

Horror films don't scare you? Who cares? The genre has a lot more to offer than shocks.

Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

A quick search on twitter will tell you a lot of cinema-goers are angry about The Witch, which opened in the US this past weekend. The reason for most of the resentment seems to stem from audience members failing to find it scary, whatever that actually means anymore. I suspect for most, when they moan about the lack of scares, they're really unhappy at the lack of shocks. There's a big difference between scares and shocks, but thanks largely to the films of the Blumhouse stable (Insidious, Sinister, Ouija) audiences have been fooled into confusing the two. If you walk out into a busy road while distracted and almost get hit by a car, that's a scare. If a friend sneaks up behind you and shouts in your ear without warning, that's a shock. Most mainstream horror movies opt for the latter, simply because it's easier to manufacture - you just need to add a joltingly loud bang to the soundtrack.
The Witch isn't interested in shocking its audience; if it were, it could achieve such a result by simply having its characters bumping into each other while car horns blast on the soundtrack. It may or may not actually be interested in scaring you either. I can't tell anymore, as horror films in general no longer scare me. That's not a boast about how 'hard' I am - believe me, there are plenty of things that scare me in real life - it's just a fact that at some point in my early teens, after spending my childhood consuming horror movies, I grew numb to scares. But that's okay you see, because horror has a lot more to offer than just being scary, and the scare-factor is no way to judge a horror film.
The same goes for comedy. The Apartment is a comic masterpiece, but it's not very funny. It's witty, charming, melancholy and insightful, but it doesn't make me laugh. That's okay too, because comedy is about a lot more than jokes. Stand-up audiences discovered this decades ago - how many stand-up comedians actually crack jokes anymore? - but cinema-goers still oddly want their movies to pass a gag test.
For some bizarre reason, horror and comedy are the two cinematic genres that get the least respect, but they're the hardest to get right, which is reason enough in itself to garner respect. It's largely because people reduce them to a series of scares and giggles, as though provoking a visceral response is some sort of cinematic taboo. But maybe it's just jealousy. Those who make great horrors and comedies are among the finest filmmakers, because they can find a way to discuss a range of issues while keeping the audience from falling asleep. I know I'd rather watch a horror movie that dealt with a current issue through allegory than some piece of plodding Oscar bait on the same subject.
The truly great horror movies get under your skin and remain there long after leaving the cinema. The Final Destination series is the high point of modern horror because it manages to offer up a non-stop barrage of scares and suspense during the movie, while also getting into our heads and keeping us worried for days after viewing. I recall leaving an afternoon screening of Final Destination 2, walking out onto a busy Dublin street and spending my entire walk home in a state of paranoia that a sheet of glass was about to fall from the next construction site I passed, dismembering me like David Warner in The Omen. Many horror movies fail to stir you while you watch them, but instead rattle around your brain afterwards, haunting you for days on end. Last year's It Follows (voted the year's best movie by TMW readers) falls into this category; I wasn't remotely scared while watching it, but for subsequent weeks I became somewhat more unnerved than usual whenever I'd see a stranger approaching in the distance.
Of course, many horror movies fail to scare and leave no legacy of apprehension, but they're still a lot of fun. No modern viewer could be remotely moved to a state of anxiety by the classic Universal monster movies of the '30s and '40s, but I feel sorry for anyone who passes over them because they find Boris Karloff's makeup unconvincing. These movies are a blast in terms of entertainment, and if you have the slightest interest in the art of filmmaking, they make for spellbinding studies, so beautifully crafted are they by some of the greatest technical geniuses to ever work in the Hollywood studio system. Many young people - chiefly those who consider themselves societal outsiders - fall in love with these movies because they identify with the monsters; nobody ever really recalls the heroes of these films, but everyone remembers the monsters.
There are of course some cinema-goers who find every last detail of a horror movie terrifying, and they're the lucky ones. But for the rest of us there's enough beyond a provocation to hide behind the sofa to keep us fascinated by a genre that constantly develops and adapts like no other. If a horror movie scares you, that's a bonus, but if that's all you're after, maybe it's not the genre for you.

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