A week ago I was going to write an article to bounce off of Mattias’ horror game article about SCP Containment Breach. A week ago I was going to use Hostel by Eli Roth as a sort of whipping boy/strawman example of what makes a bad horror movie. But in my haze of sickness, working nights, and sleeping for multiple days straight I realized that my perspective on what “horror” is was flawed. I searched for definitions to support my claim that Hostel was not a horror movie because it offered no scares and no suspense, but I was met with definitions that incorporated discomfort and sickened responses. Being horrified is not just being scared, but also being disgusted. In this way Hostel can still be called a horror film (but still not a good one). But this broadness of definition offers up a problem, one that I ran into a lot when I used to work in a video rental store (yes, those still exist), and the problem is: When someone asks you to recommend a horror movie, how do you respond?
As most people would do I always end up recommending my favorites, but I’ve noticed that my favorites never really include movies from the genre of horror that Hostel was aiming for. I’m a big fan of suspenseful films like The Shining where the focus of the film is to make the characters feel uncomfortable as opposed to films like The Girl Next Door (Jack Ketchum’s version) where the goal is to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Now, you may argue that the goal of The Shining was to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and you would be correct, but it does so by making the characters feel paranoid and unsafe, and the audience then empathizes with them also feels paranoid for the characters. The Girl Next Door on the other hand makes the audience uncomfortable via the brutal treatment of the characters. The audience isn’t paranoid about whether or not they will be safe, but is instead disgusted by just how unsafe they are, and rather than paranoia of the future the audience is more hopeful that the present situation will end.
Because of this distinction I would prefer to break “horror” down into two primary subgenres: Paranoia and Hope. To match these titles with the movies listed above I would call The Shining a Paranoia film since for the majority of the movie the audience is concerned for the safety of Wendy and Danny, but they are never really in any immediate danger until much later. Hope is then where I would place The Girl Next Door as the audience hopes Meg will be freed from her abysmal situation. You may argue that the audience also feels hope in The Shining, so my primary use of these defining terms will be the fact that there is little-to-no paranoia in The Girl Next Door. You aren’t worried that awful things will happen to Meg because they already are happening.
Truthfully the titles Paranoia and Hope are kind of weak in defining and separating the films I want separated. It could be cleaner to instead use titles like Setup and Spectacle (they even start with the same letter!), but I honestly prefer Paranoia and Hope. It really just comes to how the genre of horror utilizes audience empathy to elicit reactions, and then how these two kinds of horror utilize audience empathy in different ways. This then allows us to rule out certain films from fitting under the horror umbrella. For example, the tradition of slasher flicks with unlikeable teens getting picked off by an assailant are films that honestly don’t fit into either Paranoia or Hope due to a lack of empathy, but could still be classified as Spectacle due to structure. But I don’t want those films in my horror because I have never found them horrifying. I never find myself scared and I never even find myself disgusted. Because the characters are unlikeable (sometimes hateable) I instead revel in their demises as I no longer have to deal with them being on screen. That is not horror by any definition. It may still be bloody, violent, and filled with gruesome death, but those features instead become delights or even comical. I don’t watch Hellraiser 8: Hellworld to get scared or feel uncomfortable. I watch it to see annoying teenagers killed with the hopes of Pinhead making an appearance. I view it as a goretastic action/drama/thriller instead.
While there are people who are disgusted purely because of blood and guts, I don’t believe those alone can classify a movie as horror, even if they are the focus. If that were the case, then Deadly Kicks would be a horror film because it features a scene where a man kills another man with the intestines of a man whom he had just killed (this is by the way one of the best kung fu movies ever made), but it’s not. Deadly Kicks is very much an action movie. But of course gore wasn’t the focus of the movie, so it shouldn’t count anyway. I then move to present Hobo with a Shotgun as an even better example. It is not classified as a horror, but instead as an action-thriller, and I don’t see any feasible way to argue that gore is not the focus of the movie.
So again, I choose to stick with Paranoia vs Hope as my titles for the two primary forms of horror films since they are built on horror’s defining feature of empathy rather than physical structure; and I am forced to admit Hostel is a horror movie by classifying it as… ummmm… wait. I actually didn’t empathize with any of the movie’s characters. Does that mean… does it mean that my initial goal has actually been fulfilled? Hostel isn’t a horror movie!? Happy day!