James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) is the scariest movie of the year. It’s the scariest movie since Wan’s last effort Insidious (2010), which was the scariest movie since Ti West’s House of the Devil, which was the scariest movie since Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), which was easily the scariest movie since Orin Peli’ Paranormal Activity (2007).
While all of these are not necessarily my personal Top 5 Horror Films of the past decade, they do stand out as perhaps the five major entries in the recent development of modern horror culture. You have seen most of these, the guy with no taste at work has probably seen a couple of them, and even your parents may have seen one of them. With that in mind, here’s my take on what the success and popularity of these movies might mean for the horror genre both in terms of business and theory.
A few things jump out about these recent entries in the popular horror canon. For one, they’re auteurist pictures. With the exception of Insidious, the same person that wrote the screenplay directed all of these films. Ti West, Orin Peli, and James Wan even edit their own stuff. This is a great thing to note, considering the same characteristic is associated with 20th Century horror legends like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero, and Clive Barker.
Second, these are not large studio numbers. Rather, they are relatively frugal projects that produce consistently remarkable returns. The numbers don’t lie:
- The Conjuring cost $13 million and has made almost $128 million.
- Insidious cost $1.5 million and made almost $54 million.
- Paranormal Activity cost $15,000 and made nearly $108 million.
- The Strangers cost $10 million and made back over $52 million.
- House of the Devil was by all accounts virtually no-budget, and made $100,000.
Removing House from the calculation (since budget data is unavailable), that’s an average cost of around $6 million with an average return of over $85 million. Saying this for sure is beyond the scope of this particular post, but I’m willing to bet that this makes the aueterist horror film one of the most reliable investments in all of Hollywood, if not the most reliable.
Third, they’re very, very scary. I grew up (luckily) immersed in horror culture, and even as a child I can’t remember having scarier experiences than I had as a 26 year old man watching House of the Devil or The Conjuring. Viewing the latter, I literally screamed out loud in a public theater. That’s pretty scary.
But the thing is –and here’s what’s really interesting –that these films are tremendously scary is about all one can say for them. I remember my heart pounding, my stomach dropping, and the adrenaline pumping. But I don’t remember all that much about the characters or their motivations. I don’t remember all that much about the ethical paradigm of the film’s diegesis, or any memorable one-liners from the script, or any stand-out performances from the cast. All I remember is the raw fear and anxiety.
These movies provide legitimate experiences of terror, but they are terrifying in the same way that a carnival haunted house ride is terrifying. These are visceral, kinetic experiences that leave the mind reeling –but not thinking.
To be fair, some of these movies certainly have some interesting things going for them; for instance, West’s positively Hitchcockian grasp of suspense and retro film grammar, or Bertino’s bleak sense of irony and nihilism. These movies are by no means trivial or tasteless. Smart, talented, and passionate people put these projects together. But that still doesn’t make them thoughtful or intellectual. That’s because the primary goal is not to shock, to comment, to transgress, or to challenge societal norms. The goal is simply to scare.
Is this good for the horror genre? I’m not so sure. As lame as it sounds, I find it hard to avoid the notion that “horror just isn’t what it used to be.” I’ve always believed that horror meant something in pop culture, and that it played a role in my life on an intellectual level.
Comic book legend Warren Ellis recently spoke out about the unique social value violent fiction has. Ellis bravely argued that the subjectivity of fiction is essential to reaching an understanding about the darker parts of the world, whereas objective journalism is woefully deficient in this respect. As Ellis put it, “difficult topics must be engaged with, and in the way that fiction invites us to engage but numbing news-porn deliberately does not, because news wants us only to witness and have our buttons pushed, and denies greater emotional and intellectual immersion.” He’s spot-on.
Horror movies used to play this role in a major way. George Romero once commented that while he was working on the early Dead movies, he himself had no real clue what he was trying to say. But in in retrospect, he was amazed by how much the films had to say about society. For instance, the idea that dead Americans’ first instinct as zombies was to go not to a church or a school but to a shopping mall spoke volumes about where consumerism was headed.
In fact, it’s easy to see in retrospect what so many major horror films of the 20th Century stood for.
Halloween was about the modern deterioration of family identity and the bold physical relentlessness of some of the world’s evils.
The Friday the 13th franchise attacked, quite literally, the growing hedonism among American youth in the 70’s and 80’s, and depicted the social ramifications of such crude excess in a way that Animal House and Porky’s never could (or would).
Nightmare on Elm Street was about parents’ inability to protect their children from the continuing psychological pain of early childhood trauma. After all, Freddy was a murdered child molester that harassed young adults’ dreaming psyches.
The Hellraiser movies took a brave look at the taboo yet undeniable duality between pain and pleasure. It introduced mainstream audiences to alluringly shocking images of kink and fetish, preempting Madonna’s Erotica period by five years.
One can go on and on.
Nonetheless, horror-cum-commentary was not always the sine qua non of quality horror fiction. To a significant extent, the alternative conception of horror –a pure terror experience that is divorced from normative judgment- is fundamental to the genre and arguably more representative of its historical roots.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” he famously wrote, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Lovecraft argued that this essential condition was what provided horror with its literary dignity. Lovecraft argued,
No amount of rationalization, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind.
So for Lovecraft, horror was not significant because it had an intellectual relationship with society, but rather because it had a psychological connection with the self. In fact, Lovecraft indicated that bald social commentary is perhaps inimical to the purposes of the genre. He went on,
We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfill every condition of true supernatural horrorliterature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.
Thus, the modern tendency toward providing audiences with a visceral terror experience in place of a transgressive discourse may be thought of as a return to the genre’s original, essential ambition: scaring the hell out of us.