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.

 

What Would You Do in a Horror Movie

So, term just came to an end over here, which means two things.
One, amazing amounts of writing time.
Two, going to the movies.

The second, I think, will become a tradition for me.  Going to the movies has always been a bit of a special treat for my family.  I was at the movies last week, however, and there were a couple of guys talking a couple rows back and to my right.  Not obnoxious – they didn’t talk at all during the movie, nor were they talking loud enough to grate on the nerves.

But one of them said one thing, and that just made me want to turn around and explain why he was wrong.  I needed a little moment to calm down.
No, this is not a logical hatred.  It’s not even a pet peeve, per se – a pet peeve still implies a little too much rational thought and attempted justification.  This is just a thing that hurts me inside.  It really, really shouldn’t.  But it does.

“If I were in a horror movie,” this probably quite lovely person said, “I’d just run out of there as soon as I realised.  Just get out.  Movie over.”

My answer to this is: No.  No, you wouldn’t.  THAT’S THE ENTIRE POINT OF A HORROR MOVIE.

Now, let me preface this with a quick disclaimer: I am not really a horror fan.  I’ve not seen very much of it.  I’ve read a couple of books in the genre, I’ve certainly read some dark fantasy.  I’ve played games that could count.  But for a lot of the true horror classics?  Not my area of expertise.  I’ve heard a lot of people talk about them, though.  And here’s what I’ve started to piece together.

Horror is about feeling small and trapped.  A lot of the advice I see given to horror writers in any medium is based around making the monster feel insurmountable, inevitable.  A monster is not scary if the audience is not convinced that it is a legitimate threat.  This goes for horror where the antagonist is a person, too.

Conversely, this bleeds into the characterisation of the protagonist.  It is very difficult to make a horror film whose protagonist is, say, a soldier with full weapons training and access to an arsenal.  If you have a protagonist like that, you need a monster against whom these methods will not work.  Maybe it’s ethereal and immune to bullets.  Maybe it’s Cthulhu, and lives in disgusting mockery of your puny mortal weapons.  Either way, you’re disempowering the protagonist.

The guy who says he’d “just run away”?  If the horror writer has done their job well, and usually even if they do it badly, there is a reason why that will not work.  Very prominent in sealed-can-of-evil stories.  You popped the lid on that can, the monster has earmarked you for death.  And it follows you.  Everywhere.  Maybe it really is that the monster is tied to a specific place (like a haunted house), but it’s physically keeping you from leaving.  Corridors that don’t lead where you thought they do, doors locked shut from whichever side you’re not on.

Yes, there is a great expanse of mockery of horror tropes where the protagonists are clearly idiots for the choice they’re making (Let’s split up!  Let’s go back into the house we were specifically warned not to enter again!).  If your horror author is relying on stupidity to cause the plot to happen, you’re not consuming good horror media.  The reader should never be able to say “Why didn’t they just…?”  No.  Bad author.  No biscuit.  
Let’s just address the actually good examples of the genre.  You know, what all those bad examples were aspiring to be.

The point is, by the time you realise you’re in a horror movie, IT SHOULD ALREADY BE TOO LATE.

So, to conclude, dear person at the movie theater:
I have examined your statement, and present to you two options.
First, actually think about the genre you’re mocking, rather than just allowing yourself to feel superior to characters because you’ve got the distance to rules-lawyer your way out of the situation.  Wouldn’t have walked into a creepy house?  Well, first off, I bet you would, because normal people don’t automatically assume they’re in horror movies.  But even if you wouldn’t have, don’t pretend like the characters now have an option of escaping.  If your plan for escaping a horror situation involves leaving before being given evidence that it’s a horror situation, then no.  You aren’t smarter than any of the characters.  You’re just on the other side of the screen.
Two, damn well read better books.  Watch better movies.  Consume something that requires you to actually use your brain.  Don’t just paint the whole horror genre with the brush of Chucky XXXVI or whatever number.  That just makes you look more stupid.

Sincerely,
A random person whose opinion

The Christmas Window

OK, yet another post … apparently I’m on a roll this week or something.  Or maybe this is just preferable to doing my essays.  WE MAY NEVER KNOW.

So I decided to go shopping today, because there were Things I Needed to Buy.  And me being me, it was after dark before I headed out to the shop.  This is Ireland – “after dark” here means 4pm.  So it’s not quite as deserving of judgement as it might otherwise have been.

However, this means I got an amazing view of all the Christmas lights up around O’Connell street and Henry Street.  And all the Christmas decorations.  And most of them were gorgeous.  Most.

Melbournites and those who have visited Melbourne around Christmas time will know about the Myers Christmas Windows.  On Bourke Street, every year, Myers has an animatronic Christmas display, depicting a Christmas story like a living four-panel cartoon.  I used to love going to them.  My Mum still does.  They’re usually cute.  Small children are gleeful at them.

This is not one of those displays.  I just wish I’d had my camera with me so I could have photographic evidence of what I’m about to tell you.

If I start from either direction (going to the Jarvis Centre, or coming back from it), I’m going to do it injustice.  So this description is not in chronological order, but in some vague order somewhere between random and how much these things disturb me.  All you need to know to begin is that all the mannequins had cold, dead, unfeeling eyes.  I don’t know whether this was made more evident by the whimsical, colourful, sparkly decorations surrounding them or not, but I’m just going to keep repeating it otherwise.  So that’s your preparation.

A double-spread of windows was done up like a circus.  I would like to say that the male mannequin in the giant hula-hoop-come-monstrous-hamster-wheel was languishing.  I like the word languishing.  It implies comfort and a certain level of safety.  However, you cannot make a mannequin languish.  It is not in their nature.  What it did instead was jut.  It jutted, at a 45-degree angle, suspended like an acrobat with rigor mortis inside this circle of unfeeling whimsy.  He was watched by a female mannequin, who cared nothing for his plight.
I say watched.  I’m still not sure if she was watching him, or us, the poor fools outside the glass cage.
A little to the right of them was a lion tamer, scarier than the lion.  The lion, at least, was furry and looked sleepy.  Almost cuddly.  And then there was the lion tamer with the whip.
Of course, being a female mannequin in a clothing store, she was not allowed to wear sensible clothes.  No, she apparently tamed lions in a white evening gown.  I did not doubt for a moment that she was far, far too successful at this.  Her pose said “I care not for the ability to run away from this dangerous creature”.  It said “This whip?  Oh, this isn’t for the lion.”
I began to wonder if the lion was sleepy at all … maybe it was half-drugged, and thus more malleable.  Or maybe its soul was just crushed beneath the sequinned stilettos of the woman who controlled it with a pristine evening gown, and didn’t need her whip.

One thing I will say in favour of this display.  They got their merry-go-round horses right.  They were certainly merry-go-round horses, stylised and merry.  Unfortunately, the female child mannequin riding it was clearly under the wrong impression.  You cannot bend a mannequin’s legs, so what the poor thing ended up doing was lean back, legs rigid, face mercifully obscured, suggesting she was doing things with that merry-go-round horse that 6-year-old children should not know how to do.  Rituals of the damned.  Something.  Next to her was a wall of lollies, all sorted and alphabetically arranged in true UK lolly shop bottles on what might once have been a shelf before it was consumed by tinsel.  Next to it, a group of child-mannequins played, phasers set to ‘frolic’.

But perhaps the crowning jewel in the display window was in the window next to these unwitting children.  To the left were a perfectly unassuming male and female mannequin, enjoying their time together among the strewn Christmas decorations.  To the right was a ball pit, created and guarded by the lovespawn of Satan and Jack the Ripper.
The mannequin was female.  It wore a white knitted jumper, with Christmas trees on, and had a multicoloured beehive ‘do made of charming balloons.  Its makeup was glitter.  I don’t remember what it was wearing apart from that, though.  I was too worried about its face.
I said before that all the mannequins had cold, dead eyes, but believe me when I say this was worse.  Its eyes were half lidded, its face tilted down.  It looked out from between homey jumper and whimsical balloon hair with an expression that suggested the crossroads of serial murderer and Stephen King villain.  It was clearly looking out at the passers-by, sizing them up for a meat suit which it would fashion from their flesh and skeleton, leaving their entrails for the happiest of woodland animals to puzzle over, to sniff, and when the compulsion became too much, to gorge upon and submit to the vile darkness.
Don’t believe me?  From the ball pit, six pairs of legs, stocking-and-stiletto-clad, stuck vertically up, arranged in identical poses.  Occasionally, one of them rotated, jerkily and half-heartedly, either by the whims of its murderess, or to music that was not audible to we mortals outside the glass.  In other words, she displayed the remains of other mannequins she had already harvested, and found inadequate for her bloodthirsty needs.

And then, almost as an afterthought, the final window, skinny and mostly neglected by decorations, housed five mannequins of varying gender, dressed in the best of Winter Woolens – jumpers, tracksuit pants, fuzzy slippers.  Mittens.
But of course, you can’t have a winter outfit without a beanie.  These mannequins were the headless variety.  So what’s a store clerk to do?  Why, just jam the beanie on the neck stump, of course!
Did they run out of regularly-headed mannequins?  Do the heads now form the gory underlay of the Hellspawn’s ball pit, the beanies there, not to disguise the bare neck-stump, but to serve as a humourless mockery of a face?  Did the lion tamer use them as bait for her latest lion trick?

I came home mildly puzzled.  I think I’m safe though.  I’m fairly sure their corporate overlords keep them leashed to their glass case.
At least … that’s what I’m telling myself.

EDIT:  I have obtained photographs of this.
Here you go.

He just ... juts.

He just … juts.

It's the face that says it all.

It’s the face that says it all.

Just in case you didn't have a good enough look at that face.

Just in case you didn’t have a good enough look at that face.

With her victims.

With her victims.

Guillermo Del Toro on the Brain

So, I only kind of knew who Guillermo del Toro was until a few weeks ago.  I had seen Pan’s Labyinth, and both the Hellboy movies (which I still enjoy and usually watch while studying.  Yes, I acknowledge they’re not great cinema.  No, I don’t really care.  Even about the second one).

And you should also know that Monster, by Naoki Urasawa is one of my favourite manga and anime of all time.  Tied for favourite, with one or two other series depending on my mood at the time.

Now, it’s really difficult to find a copy of Monster on DVD, mainly because a DVD version was only ever released for the first 15 episodes (this may be only in English, I’m not sure about Japanese).  And then Siren Visual bought it, and will be distributing it in Australia at the end of the year.  When I discovered this, the noises I made cannot be described either with letters or with most parts of the human vocal range.  I bounced around my friend’s lounge room squeaking for a full ten minutes.  I’m not proud.  I’m also not particularly ashamed.

With that news (which I found here: http://www.sirenvisual.com.au/News/201305/345.php#comments) , came the link to the fact that there will be an HBO series released.  And it will be directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

Great, I thought.  I liked his work.  But reading more, he seems like the kind of person I should watch more of.  Let’s check what else he’s done.

And then I found ‘Don’t be Afraid of the Dark’ for hire on iTunes.  I watched it quite late at night.  People who know the movie (or the movie it is a remake of) will probably be laughing at me right now, because that was possibly the silliest thing a girl who’s not particularly well-versed in horror films could do.

But what else can you do in this day and age but blog about it (apart from freak out on Facebook, which I assure you I did).

Let me begin by saying that I really loved the movie.  In actuality, it wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be.  I can actually sleep in a dark room, for one thing.

So, into the overanalysis.  The structure really intrigued me. As I said, I’m not that much of a horror fan, but still, I could pick out every cliché in it (the child who believes she’s unloved, so falls prey to the creatures, the groundskeeper who knows all about it, but refuses to tell the family more than ‘it’s dangerous’, the fact that anyone in a bath in a horror film is about to have their shit ruined).  But the movie still kept me in.  I attribute this to the characters.  Sure, I was kind of left wondering how many darkened rooms a kid can walk into before she realises it’s a really awful idea to walk into another one, but she was still believable.  Her father, at the beginning, was slightly neglectful and clueless while never really being unsympathetic, because you could see why he thinks the things he does.  You can tell he’s trying to do the best he can, but the girl is just not having any of it.  He’s under a lot of pressure from his job because he’s in an unstable financial situation, so you can see why he’s distracted by that.  Later on, he gets a little more towards the unthinking idiot side of the equation, but for the most part, well done.  The girl, too, had an amazing actor (Bailee Madison), who I’m seriously hoping goes far in her career, because she’s got so much talent for it.  She sold the little girl better than many adult actors.  So, even when I could see what was coming, I still cared about the characters enough to not be completely thrown out of the story.

It’s not really surprising that I could see a lot of del Toro in the cinematography, either.  Part of what I adore about his films is the rich mythology in them, and you can certainly see it here, from the history of the homunculi to the description of the koi fish, to the ring of fairy mushrooms the groundskeeper kicks away.  For a while, I admit, I played spot-the-film – the Tooth Fairies also make an appearance in Hellboy II, in an early scene where they’ve devoured everyone at an auction.  Same thing – small, many of them, they eat teeth.  There are some differences (like DBAotD’s tooth fairies being confined to one place, having more explanation, and eating exclusively teeth), but the concept is the same.  Also, the hedge maze with a water feature in the middle, which appears again in Pan’s Labyrinth.  I find this actually quite cool, because it gives me a better idea of how he uses each of these motifs to flesh out a story, by seeing the role they play in different narratives.  Plus, it’s fun.

However, I did find that, once the homunculi were revealed, they suddenly became far less scary to me.  They were still threatening, but no longer terrifying like they had been at the beginning.  There is something about not being able to see the monster that is far more awful than not being able to see it.  So, once they were visible, the fear had to come from elsewhere.  Del Toro pulled this off excellently (oh god, why do they have access to sharp objects??), because this was quite close to the final scene, so the movie’s tension carried the fear the rest of the way.
On the topic of things not being as scary as they should have been, I must admit being very ambivalent over the deep-voiced homunculus.  Most of them spoke in a very high-pitched, breathy voice that just made me want to mute the television because nope, nope, all the no. But one of them (implied to be the old man from the first scene) spoke with a far deeper voice.  And this really threw me.  It wasn’t comical coming from the small creature, but it wasn’t intimidating like the breathy whisper on the edge of hearing was.  It was just kind of a voice.

Other than that, the first and final scenes were just marvellously done, and there was a lot to love in the middle.  These are just the things that really stood out for me.

Currently waiting with glee for the live action Monster series, because it’s going to be absolutely marvellous.