What is Horror?


These days, far too many films are categorised as horror when they are in actual fact, something completely different. Gone are the days of suspenseful scenes that have you hanging on every eerie second of silence, in are the countless takes, depicting graphic mutilation and needless gore. Take hostel for example, the only thing that it succeeded in, was making a handful of people scared to go on holiday to Eastern Europe. If the fear of the unknown is the base of all fear, what good is it to see all of the terror, up-close and personal?

I am not one to follow the current trend of shock tactics and needless to say, I am not a huge fan of Hostel. That is not to say that I hate it, I actually believe that it has a place in cinema – just not a place in the horror category. The same opinion applies to many other films that make their way on to Netflix on a regular basis; there is no longer any rigid guidelines for what horror should be. Years ago, you would know where to look for the film that you wanted to watch, now you have to do some digging, especially when it comes to foreign horror films.

Genuine horror films are stuck in the ‘World Cinema’ section where they are destined only to be found by people who actively seek them and this is not just contained to the current horror trend or just to film; music falls in to the same trap too. Taking a look at a ‘World Cinema’ section is excruciating stuff nowadays and I don’t think it will change in the foreseeable future. Romantic comedies sit side by side with sadistic torture films and apparently thats okay. There is a point to all of this rant, and it is the question that it raises; Does anybody really know what horror is? More importantly, Did anyone ever actually know?

Somewhere along the way, i was led astray. No, not the lyrics to a little known Bright Eyes song, my genuine feeling to the shift in everything cinematic. Taking a look at the thriller section on Netflix was rather interesting and very insightful in regards to my current ramblings; it seems as though nobody knows what a thriller is either. Films that should clearly be categorised as drama litter the selection, and horror films make their way in to the fold too; it all creates a mess of titles that send me in to and endless spiral of tile flicking.

It seems like the title of horror is just a broad description of everything remotely disturbing now and this is where we can actually measure the change in categorisation – Sharknado 2, according to Netflix, is a horror.

I am fully aware what the official description of horror is and technically it would be right to group everything disturbing together if we went by the actual definition:

  • an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.

The problem that I have is that in a world of sub-genres, we no longer have to bunch everything under a generic category. If we were to carry on in this tradition then I would be well within my rights to suggest that Bambi is in actual fact a horror film – there is a disturbing scene, but it DOES NOT make it a horror film. How about another genre? Action films are packed full of gore and death; how long is it before we start to see them slip in to the same category as classics like The Exorcist?

The cinematic definition of horror is a lot more complex than that of the dictionary definition. Academics all have their own theory over the ‘World Cinema’ situation; is it a genre or not? People study these films in depth and break them down to their raw structure but there is no answer to the question and the same goes for the one I raised on horror; nobody actually knows what horror is. This is because horror relies on the fear of the watcher and every participant varies when it comes to what scares them. Despite what I have laid out to you, horror is what we make it. I get frustrated at the categorisation of my beloved genre but at the same time, I accept that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. There are no archetypes in horror, just raw and primal fear brought on by whatever you fear the most.

So did anybody ever know what horror is?

Probably not. Well, not when it comes to the world of cinema. We started off with tales of Frankenstein, Dracula and Werewolves, but somewhere along the way, we wound up with serial killers and humanised antagonists that bear no resemblance to the supernatural elements that we once knew.

The part that really drives it home for me, that belief that nobody knows what horror is, is a recent interview I read with William Friedkin about The Exorcist. In it, he states that he “thought it was a film about the mystery of faith”, and that he,”didn’t set out to make a horror film”. He believed that it was essentially a film about two servants of God battling the Devil and he could be right. Like I said, it’s all a matter of opinion.

It is absolutely incredible that, arguably, the greatest horror film of all time was not created with the intention of being a horror. Did we all just follow it’s categorisation like sheep? Never questioning what it really was and just accepting that this was horror.

Probably. But clearly it is..


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