Matt Belinkie: Does anyone have a hot take on why It is breaking records? I’d say it’s the appeal of horror in a scary time, plus nostalgia. This movie being a period piece seems significant.
Matt Wrather: My hot take is going to be all, “WTF do you people like horror movies for?”
Belinkie: Why do people like sad dramas?
Wrather: I only like Gossip Girl, so I’m the wrong person to ask that question.
Belinkie: I’d make an argument that horror is the most inherently artistic genre. It requires every tool of filmmaking to come together – costume, lighting, editing, sound, visual FX, etc.
Richard Rosenbaum: It’s also inherently simple to judge its effectiveness: if it scares you, it succeeded. It’s the converse of comedy: if it made you laugh, it succeeded. These are spontaneous reactions.
But as Wrather points out, obviously we don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from a horror movie as we do from, say, a comedy. Fear is a negative physiological state (or at least a bad-feeling one) that we seem to have evolved to try to avoid.
So I think there are two main draws of the horror genre, and both of them are related to the fragility of human bodies. Horror serves as:
- Memento mori; and
- Vicarious triumph over pain and death.
The memento mori part is obvious; horror movies typically are about the destruction of human bodies and/or minds, in part or whole. A person or group of people are in mortal danger and at least one of the characters dies. The whole thrust of the narrative is dedicated to avoiding death, so it forces the audience to think about death in a much less abstract and more visceral way than most other genres. Most of us go around in denial of death because there’s no other way to live, really. But it’s also healthy to occasionally contemplate suffering and death, and instinctively most of us understand that. Horror allows us to contemplate suffering and death through an entertaining and familiar narrative structure and for a designated, finite period of time, in conditions we can control. Which frees us from having unscheduled existential crises that we might not be prepared for.
The other part of it is the vicarious triumph. Mirror neurons mean that we empathize with people who are having experiences, even fictional ones. Most horror movies bring to the fore the fact that our bodies are physical, subject to damage and decay, and eventual inevitable death. We will suffer and we will die. And we feel terrible for these characters who are experiencing senseless suffering before our eyes. They will all suffer and at least one of them will die.
But we will not die just from watching the movie. Our empathy does not extend to feeling exactly what the characters onscreen are “feeling.” We are realer than they are. This privileged position allows us to withstand a certain proportion of the characters’ distress — and transcend it. The horror fan is a more muted version of the masochist who consensually submits to being harmed in order to prove to herself that she is stronger than pain. (This is something I’ve heard from more than one self-described masochist of my acquaintance.)
So in this way, horror is a kind of Nietzschean crucible. We’ve gone through these tortures and transcended them. And subsequently we are that much more prepared, or… like, inoculated against fear and pain in the future.
Stokes: To play the devil’s advocate, Richard, would you say that a movie like San Andreas offers the same set of pleasures? (Or rather, non-pleasurable but still desirable psychological factors?)
Rosenbaum: I haven’t seen San Andreas, but I think that natural disaster movies do similar things, just on the civilizational level rather than the personal level. Reminding us that our whole society and way of life, which most of the time seem so stable, are actually precarious and, like every other one that’s gone before, will inevitably crumble. But we have lived through the destruction of civilization and even the entire planet so many times already.
I haven’t been interested in a disaster movie for a pretty long time, maybe because that degree of repression that’s necessary on a day-to-day basis to make them effective as an outlet isn’t there for me; i.e. the world around me, quite against my will, is doing a pretty aggressive job of making me hyperaware that The End Of Everything Good is upon us. So I’d rather dive into a videogame to pretend that the world is savable and that I personally can do anything even infinitesimally efficacious toward that goal.
Stokes: That’s interesting: so you’ve successfully repressed the fact that you will die, but you’re finding it hard to repress the fact that we all will die, and this is shaping your media consumption habits. I wonder if the difference between horror fans and non-fans has to do with what we find easy to repress.
I want to keep thinking about the boundaries of the horror genre, though. Wrather, or anyone else who has a big problem with horror: how far does that extend? Do you have the same problem with horror literature that you do with horror movies? How about really old horror movies, stuff like The Bride of Frankenstein, where the scares are so muted by modern standards as to hardly count as scares?
How about this:
Or how about this:
And also this:
Note that these art/religion examples fit pretty well with Richard’s “memento mori” and “triumph over pain” hypotheses. I’m not sure The Bride of Frankenstein would fit, though, and any definition of horror that leaves that out is one I’m not on board with.
Peter Fenzel: I think I might be a bit like Wrather in this. For me, horror produces sensations I do not want, like whiskey, tickling or bubble tea. But slightly different media give me no trouble at all, like tequila, massage or rice pudding. The example that sealed it for me was Blade. I was okay with Blade. Blade made me feel good. But I still wince and feel bad remembering Critters 2.
I do not like that carving of the woman pulling thorns through her tongue. It is not welcome.
But I locate my objection in the sensation. Richard has located his hypothesis in the morals. And of course in horror the two – sensation and morals – seem entwined.
So I guess I’m asking is horror a moral genre served by sensation, or a sensual genre served by morality?
Rosenbaum: Pete, I think it has to be the former. Horror is a moral genre served by sensation. If your primary concern is seeking what feels good and avoiding what feels bad, you’re not going to be interested in horror. The evolutionary function of fear is to make you run away from things that could be harmful. That’s why it feels bad. But if the moral concerns are primary, then we’re willing to endure the negative affect and thereby transcend it. If it were primarily sensual I don’t think the horror genre could even exist.
Stokes: There’s a philosopher, Noël Carroll, who has a whole book dedicated primarily to the question of why people should seek out scary experiences. His basic answer is that there’s a distinct emotion, “art-horror,” which is qualitatively different from actual horror. The first is pleasurable, the second, not.
There are some interesting shades to this analysis. Surely the difference is just that we know that horror monsters can’t really hurt us? But no: if you’re the kind of person that’s afraid of heights, you will be terrified by walking up to the edge of the Grand Canyon, even if there’s a chest-high fence. You rationally know that the drop can’t really hurt you — but that feeling is real horror, not art-horror.
I wonder, though, whether Pete and Matt just don’t feel that difference? (Obviously they know the difference, but as Carroll points out, knowledge isn’t the nature of the difference.)
Rosenbaum: Ooh, that is interesting. I wonder how plausible it is, though. Why would there be an emotion “art-horror” that has this particular relationship to real horror, without any analagous adjuncts for other emotions? ARE there emotions analagous to art-horror for other emotions? The only thing that comes to mind as a possibility is maybe “art-lust.” The sexual arousal you feel when watching something that you know you would not be remotely interested in experiencing in real life.
Stokes: It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure he floats the idea that we should expect to encounter art-sadness, art-boredom, etc.
Rosenbaum: “Art-sadness”? Certainly we sometimes like to experience sad art. But then, there are some songs and movies that make me feel SO sad that I can’t deal with them. For instance, Requiem For A Dream is the best movie I’ve ever watched that I never want to see again. So if there is some distinction between art-sadness and actual sadness, Requiem seems to have overrun it. Yet I wouldn’t be able to call that film a failure because it made me real sad rather than art-sad.
This is a very interesting concept. David Foster Wallace (pbuh) seems to have been working on trying to evoke something like what I guess Carroll would call art-boredom in his final, unfinished, novel, The Pale King. It’s about people working at the IRS.
Stokes: I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think it works as a counterargument. Yeah, Requiem For a Dream isn’t a failure — but if there was a whole genre of movies that reliably made you sad in that way, you wouldn’t watch them. Right? So it’s still plausible that sad movies in general are meant to create art-sadness (and that that’s what people seek them out for). If Requiem manages to push right through to actual sadness, we can give it a round of applause. But we should recognize it as an exceptional case. Maybe the better question is this: when a movie that makes you just a little bit sad, is that emotion just a weak version of regular sadness? Or is it something slightly different? If art-sadness makes sense as a concept, that’s where we’d find it.
But returning to horror specifically: I still want to know whether the horror-haters are as bothered by “The Tell Tale Heart” as they are by It. If “swimming in cortisol for an hour and a half” is the problem, are you also bothered by Die Hard? For that matter, are you fine with Tales from the Crypt? Because each of those was less than thirty minutes.
The reason I keep harping on this is that, on the podcast, Wrather said that he was fine with roller coasters. This fascinates me! I find roller coasters much more scary than horror movies. I mean, I like them both, but if I were cortisol-averse it’d be roller coasters that I’d shy away from.
Similarly, I wonder if maybe the sensation that Pete is so bothered by might be something other than actual fear. Or maybe the sensation is fear, but the aversion doesn’t arise from the sensation alone. Maybe it’s fear + (some other factor) that does the trick.
Rosenbaum: While you’re in slightly more real physical danger on a rollercoaster than at a horror movie, rollercoasters only give you like 1/60th the time to contemplate mortality.
Stokes: And this turns us back to the question of whether horror is a moral or a sensational genre. To my mind, morality and sensation in horror are put into a mutually reinforcing feedback loop.
The moral content of horror is itself often horrific. Take the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series, for instance, where so often the message is that the wages of sin (specifically sex) is death (specifically getting machete- and/or glove-murdered). This is a disquieting message. Even if you reduce it down to the bare bones moral, it still provokes a sensational twinge. That twinge I think is part of what makes it horror (as opposed to some other kind of morality play).
On the other hand, after school specials often have similar morals to this — often the exact same moral, in fact! And these don’t feel horrific, because the sensations that they traffic in are not apt for horror. (They live in more of a melodrama space, typically. Which is similar but not the same.)
And I don’t think that it’s pushing things at all to suggest that part of what makes horror-sensations horrific is their ideological freight. You ought to feel, when watching a horror film, like these are not things that you ought to feel. I suppose a true sadist might watch Friday the 13th and just crow with glee every time someone got stabbed. “Yeah! Eat arrow, Kevin Bacon!” But that response is utterly alien to me. I do thrill to the kills, sort of, but there’s a big part of me that doesn’t. “Horrified fascination” is a phrase that exists for a reason. This response gets bounced around and mediated between fan communities and different layers of the psyche. So if you’re watching with a fellow horror fan, you might well say something like, “Oh, Kevin Bacon’s about to get it! Woo!” But I don’t think anyone is actually THAT desensitized.
There’s a joy in sharing the transgressive space with another fan, and the kinds of things we say about horror are often celebrations of that joy — but the space remains transgressive.
Rosenbaum: Interesting. By that metric, Lolita might be classified as a horror novel. Because it’s so well-written it gets us to empathize with a complete monster, which undermines our own sense of the objectivity of our personal moral structure.
Stokes: Or at least it might be horror-adjacent, like the after-school specials. I’m also fine with saying that it can’t be horror without being notionally scary — having to do with violence and death and monsters and whatnot. It might well be that the feedback loop I’ve described applies to many other genres. I’m just trying to separate horror from other types of recreational fear, like thrillers, roller coasters, and so on.
Rosenbaum: Agreed. I still stand by the idea that the focus of that scariness tends to be calling attention to the physicality of the body. Even “spiritual” horror movies like The Exorcist, which are more about danger to souls, very heavily rely on bodies going wrong for its horror content.
Ben Adams: One element of horror film that I think we’ve left out of the conversation so far is the importance of mystery – the vast majority of horror movies have some form of puzzle to some it shocking backstory to reveal. (E.g. where did the little girl in the well come from? What is the Babadook? Why is Jason so angry?)
A lot off the elements discussed above – body horror, jump scares, etc. – don’t require this kind of mystery. You could in theory have a movie with those things where the motive and backstory of the monster is laid out right in the beginning.
But it just doesn’t work. Why is that?
Stokes: Does it not? I don’t think there’s much of a mystery to, say, Jaws. Maybe on a meta level: which of the characters will the shark eat next?
I see what you’re saying, though, and it’s true that horror without a mystery feels weirder than, say, comedy without mystery. And there are sometimes — often — these scenes of horrific unveiling…
… which seem to plug in to the same kind of impulse.
Part of it might be that ALL narratives are sort of laid out as mysteries. There’s always some kind of territory to explore, or puzzle to solve. And very often this is mapped onto the human body. Hey, a birthmark! You’re the Prince of Ruritania! Hey, a fleur-de-lis tattoo! You’re Athos’s wife! Hey, a sixth finger! My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, now prepare to die! (I’m getting this from Peter Brooks’s Body Work, by the way, which is a lot of fun if you’re in a lit crit kind of mood.)
Horror uses this narrative framework — but not always in an obvious way. In older horror films, and in glossy prestige productions today, there is typically a well-formed narrative in which characters take actions to uncover secrets and solve puzzles. These, I would say, play the game of narrative straight. But there’s another kind of horror movie — films on the order of Critters 2, the cheap, grotty, nasty stuff — where it seems to operate subliminally. On the most abstract level, there’s stuff like Hostel 2 where they eventually break the film down into a kind of haunted-house-tour-slash-powerpoint-presentation: here’s the nasty thing in this room, here’s the nasty thing in THIS room, etc. etc. ad-literal-nauseam.
I think Brooks would say that even the most refined kind of narrative is just a sublimation of the basic impulse to see the nasty thing in this next room. Making The Remembrance of Things Past the poppyseed bagel to Hostel 2’s brick of uncut heroin.
And to pull it back to Richard’s initial theory: well, yeah! Memento mori. We keep the nastiest thing in the nextest of rooms, and its name is called Death.