The Horror Genre

Folks, we really need to start talking about the horror genre.

That is, if it even is a genre anymore.

Horror is sort of the forgotten middle child of the speculative fiction supergenre these days. Fantasy is going stronger than ever, especially now that special effects have developed enough that we can see more fantasy on screens both big and little without modern audiences failing to suspend disbelief at the streamers-and-cardboard special effects (something something perception of special effects over time goes in another blog post – it’s a longer topic than I have time for here). Science fiction is also going strong, with a lot of blockbuster movies (even the ones that don’t involve superhero origin stories) using sci-fi elements as plot points. In particular, the near-future, one-invention-changes-everything sci-fi plot of, say, In Time (2011).

But what’s the horror genre doing, at least in the mainstream?

Let me put it this way – in many stories that show a character travelling to the future, they will make a joke about a long-running franchise being up to some ridiculous number of movies. Usually, at least in the media I consume, those references are either to Rocky or a horror movie.

A lot of people these days think of horror as one really good movie (or a few really good movies, in the case of properties like Dracula werewolves), followed by a string of increasingly desperate sequels watering down the original premise until the monster has either undergone so much power creep, or has been beaten so many times that it’s no longer threatening.

The horror genre is possibly the least forgiving genre for sequels. Once the first installation comes out, the audience already knows what the monster looks like and what the “rules” are, but for horror, concealing those rules (and often, though not always, concealing the monster itself) is the bread and butter of the genre. Hence, something needs to change. He’s back but now he’s invisible. It’s not dead, but now it’s angry and doesn’t behave like it used to. Unfortunately, there are only so many changes you can make before you break suspension of disbelief. Add that to the problems already plaguing sequels – needing to untie the nice, neat bows the ending of the first wrapped everything up with, having to do something new with the premise without deviating too far from the original, and just plain running out of things to say on the topic – and horror sequels have a terrible, but not unearned, reputation.

Then, the rest of what comes out in the horror genre is either actual or borderline self-parody (think Cabin in the Woods, the Whedonest horror movie I think it was possible for even Joss Whedon himself to make)

But it’s not like we just up and stopped making horror fiction. We very rarely just up and stop writing a particular kind of story, much less an entire genre. But somewhere along the line we sort of ran out of new material for the genre as it was.

Nowadays, horror is sort of relegated to a series of elements present in urban fantasy and soft science fiction. When was the last time you saw a Horror section in a bookstore? It’s held out more in movies and TV shows, but really the last bastion of the horror genre is in video games, though there it’s diluted as well. For every Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there’s a Silent Hill sequel (remember, we talked about sequels). The sin of horror games is a different one, though – it’s the FPS mindset that gives the character too many guns for the horror to feel threatening. I’m reminded of Bioshock – at first, when your entire arsenal is a heavy wrench, a sharp shock of electricity (which only really buys you time), and a pistol and a tommy gun (that keep running out of bullets), encountering a Splicer is a terrifying thing, because you don’t have enough resources to waste them without cause, but you also don’t want to get within hitting range. Leave aside entirely encountering a Big Daddy, which can deplete most of your resources in the space of a fairly short battle, and can prove very deadly if you happen to accidentally anger one unprepared. But by the end of the game, you have about twelve weapons to choose from, you’ve stocked up enough ammo to take down most things, and enough money to replenish your ammo whenever you start running low, and you’ve been constantly boosting your health and mana bars until you can take a Big Daddy to the face and usually come out on top. Sure, the game is still compelling, but it’s not really scary or threatening anymore.

I think it’s a bit of a shame that it’s becoming so difficult to find pure horror in the mainstream anymore, if only because horror is such an interesting genre for looking at what makes people most uncomfortable, and it’s always very tied to the context it was made in. Speculative fiction has always seemed to me to be something like society’s dipstick – science fiction tells us what we think of progress and the future, fantasy tells us what we think of society’s unspoken rules and restrictions, and horror tells us what makes us uncomfortable. There’s overlap, of course, and they mix together very, very well. Horror, in fact, mixes so well into both that it’s a great support for both sides. Horror in fantasy shows the dark side of the rules and restrictions that the fantasy novel explores. Horror in science fiction shows the places where progress either can’t or shouldn’t go. Horror is the foil to both of those genres at once. But the uncomfortable is worth exploring on its own, for its own benefit, not just as a counterpoint to another argument.

But then again, I’m never one to say that a genre trend is permanent. Who knows – maybe the horror genre is up for resurrection next (and no, I don’t count vampire romance as horror). We’re going to need to find some new monsters to do it, or at the very least a different angle. We’re going to need to make some new clichés, definitely. My money is on video games innovating first, because we’re finally learning how to play with the different medium, and video games do really lend themselves to intensifying horror. But however we do it, horror is due for a revival, and when it does happen, it’s going to be amazing.