I love horror films…. And yet im continually frustrated by them. Horror is a genre capable of both the highest art and the lowest banality. It can embody our deepest social fears or simply club us with gore. And this simple observation prompts us to ask What is it that separates the Sublime from the Splatter?
If we start at the macro-level of the Horror film Concept it’s possible to discern an important separation between the Horrific Idea and the Horrific Circumstance; a distinction that serves as a highly useful way to see what elevates a horror film from simple shocks, jumps and freights, to a more complex and metaphoric instrument of terror and anxiety.
Circumstances are, by literal definition, the given events and parameters of a scenario; thus the Horrific Circumstances of a Horror film are those given events and parameters that are innately dangerous and scary. A monster from the deep attacking a city, a giant snake hunting human prey in the jungle, a ghost killing off the crew of a ship, a serial killer stalking a victim in the city. These are circumstances that have innately high stakes, a level of direct threat that induces Fear. Horrific Circumstances are where most horror film’s begin, originating with the ‘monster’ the force of evil at the heart of every horror narrative - be it ghost, demon, killer or creature.
The Horrific Idea of a Horror film however is something different altogether; a terror inducing concept that goes beyond the monster, a fearful notion that is delivered by the presence of the ‘monster’ but which transcends it and invokes something deeper - something more human. Take Jaws for example; the Horrific Circumstance is a huge man-eating shark terrorizing a seaside summer resort town. Certainly sharks hunting hapless swimmers is a scary proposition but the massive success of Jaws, both critically and commercially, is not owed to this two-dimensional circumstance. The Horrific Idea at the heart of Jaws is not the Shark but the greed, ignorance and arrogance of the town in placing the ‘summer dollars’ of tourism above the safety of people. This central Idea is the essence that elevates Jaws above just fear of sharks and into a greater metaphoric fear of greed, pride and arrogance - all made manifest in shark-form.
In an entirely different mode of horror altogether - Danny Boyle’s 28days Later - we see a zombie apocalypse deliver a Horrific Idea above and beyond the Horrific Circumstance. Certainly a virus that turns people into maniacal raging zombies is a very scary circumstance but the Scary Idea at the heart of 28 Days Later is much worse. The film positions the hero and his companions to flee Zombie ravaged London and seek refuge with a ragtag group of soldiers, only to be at the mercy of desperate soldiers who’ve lost their grip on morality and concept of right or wrong. In very real terms the characters become more afraid of the soldiers than the Zombies. This is the Horrific Idea at the heart of 28 Days Later; not a fear of Zombies but rather a fear of losing our own humanity when faced with desperate circumstances.
What is arguably the most celebrated horror film of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, we see the same paradigm of the conceptual horror elevating the circumstantial horror to a more universal and more deeply effecting level. The circumstances of The Exorcist are horrific enough - the demonic possession of an innocent girl - but there is a much more complex array of Horrific Ideas beating through the veins of the film. More than half the film sees a mother exploring every medical, scientific and rational explanation for her daughter’s “illness” until ultimately she is faced with acknowledging a power beyond her comprehension and beyond her control. The Horrific Idea in The Exorcist revolves around our modern faith in science, logic and rationality being stripped away leaving us unarmed in facing and dealing with that which we cannot rationalise.
What these three case studies tell us - commensurate as examples with a vast range of great Horror films - is that whilst every Horror film must have a ‘monster’, Horror films are NOT about the ‘monster’. The monster of a good Horror film is simply a metaphor, allegory and catalyst for the truly scary bit; the Horrific Idea. The Monster is a way to manifest an Horrific concept in a specifically tangible form. When Horror films become About the monster, their focus falls to scary circumstances rather than much more deeply and broadly effecting scary Ideas.
This post is an extract from the latest issue of LUM:NA the Australian journal of Screen Arts and Business. You can get your copy of the journal from the online store of the Australian Film TV and Radio School.