Classifying films as “horror” is a more difficult task than one might think. There are films that leave no doubt about whether or not they fit within the genre. Typical slasher films like “Halloween” or jumpscare-filled haunted house fare like “The Conjuring” are plainly horror, with much of their value being derived from their indulgence in the genre. But there’s such a large spectrum of films that fit the broad definition of what could possibly be considered “horror” that the inclusion of some films is bound to draw some ire from those who proclaim themselves horror fans.
Horror films have the tendency to score low with audiences in a manner unlike any other genre. Beyond the classics, if you flip to any horror movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page and look at the audience score, it’s generally lower than one might expect. It’s a similar case with CinemaScore, a metric of gauging audience reactions through exit surveys. While most movies hover around the B+ to A+ range, horror films have a tendency to score much lower even if several other metrics have it doing well. The reason I mention this is to explain something about the horror fanbase in a general sense. Consider the typical horror fan theater-goer. This person will go see every movie that markets itself as a horror film. Their favorite movie is “The Ring,” but they went to go see “Hereditary,” “mother!,” “Get Out,” and “It” because these films were all marketed in quite similar ways. Will they like all of these films if they expect something close to their favorite movie? If you think about the average comedy fan, this isn’t really the case. They know exactly what they are getting themselves into when they watch the latest goofball comedy in theaters.
So the question is, who is wrong here? Is it the horror film itself for not being scary enough, or not having enough jumpscares? Is it the marketing behind the film that made it out to be what would be considered a “conventional” horror film? Is it the moviegoer who has too narrow a perception of horror and assumes that every good horror film will fall within that perception?
Horror is a genre that, for whatever reason, people tend to want to back into a corner and force to exist in its own bubble, untouchable by any other genre. This is a bizarre tendency considering how ubiquitous the elements of horror can be. There has been a semblance of a trend in calling certain films “social thrillers” or “elevated horror” to separate them from the broader category of horror. Jordan Peele referred to his film “Get Out” by the former, referencing the “societal monster” at the core of the film as opposed to a conventional villain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this characterization, and I’d say Peele is more than deserving of making that judgement. In fact, “social thriller” as a term and genre has been used to describe films from all over the thriller-horror spectrum. The issue lies more in a certain usage of the term, and the general usage of the term “elevated horror,” from which a vital question emerges. Is this separation of films from the horror genre fair to the films? Is it fair to horror as a genre? The assumption of creating new categories to describe films that adhere to many horror tropes but have social messages at their centers is that horror films are incapable of of having such messages or meaning beyond the explicit horror shown onscreen. The assumption is that horror is exclusively films that are for brainless consumption, for jumpscares rather than for provoking thought. This is particularly true of the term “elevated horror,” as this suggests that the film achieves something beyond what “normal” horror would be capable of. This assumption limits genre filmmaking when genre filmmaking has been used as a vessel for important messages since the beginning of its existence.
Why is “A Quiet Place” referred to by some as an “elevated horror” film? What does the film do that separates itself from the broader genre? Is it because of the narrative technique of limiting verbal communication? This suggests that horror films don’t usually employ unique narrative devices. Is it because it’s competently directed? This suggests that horror films are normally incapable of being well-directed. There’s no rhyme or reason behind it being called an “elevated horror” beyond the fact that it was well-received and widely talked about. And this is the problem with the term in general. There’s not really a reason to separate these films from the broader horror genre. All it does is establish the bias that exists against horror films and against genre films in general. Despite the success that genre has always had in delivering messages in palatable ways, people seem to think that films that position themselves as explicitly within a certain genre are schlock until proven otherwise.
So, what is a horror film? Well, is it really fair to limit the scope of what a horror film can be at all? The film “Hereditary” has been the subject of much controversy among horror fans, with many concluding that it’s stupid, confusing, or not scary enough. But the film is conclusively “horror,” as it firmly uses a variety of the tropes of the genre, from jumpscares to seances. Even more controversial is when a film exploits the genre to create something new, like the very underrated film “The Little Stranger,” which is less horror than quiet drama, but it sparsely uses certain tropes in order to convey a greater meaning within the story. In this case part of the blame regarding its reception can be placed on the marketing. The film’s trailer includes essentially every moment within the film that would frame it as a horror movie in order to market it as such. And frankly that’s because it’s the easiest way to convey what a movie is in the short span of a trailer. Every movie gets reduced to vague elements for the easiest consumption of its marketing. If it’s mostly a drama with comedy, action, or horror elements it’s generally going to be conveyed as a comedy, action, or horror film.
That said, I wouldn’t say a film requires a certain volume of horror elements in order to be considered a horror film. If it uses the tropes of a horror film, I feel it’s pretty fair to consider it one, even if those tropes are being used in new contexts. It’s hard to define a horror film in any other way, as you can’t objectively measure how scary a film is. I suppose the other major consideration is the director’s intent. If a director thinks their movie is a horror film, that’s exactly what it is. Some horror movies are more comedic, some more dramatic. Some have science fiction elements, some even have romance. Regardless, it’s unfair to deprive a movie of its right to be called a horror film if that’s clearly at least some fragment of the intent behind it.
Thanks for reading this rambling pre-Halloween piece! I also published a piece about the film “Coraline” and its success as an adaptation, so if you want to continue your spooky season reading, look no further than here: