Fear is intrinsic to humanity, so it is only natural that it is something people like to tease with horror films. Emotional beings like to periodically test themselves. We end up engaging in activities that elicit fear because the feeling that often accompanies it is relief. Nothing lasts forever though, and our adrenaline adventures end with a calm and stillness. These are the basic human emotions that horror films capitalize on to draw the biggest reaction from its viewers. This is why seeing a killer stalking around the corner puts you at the edge of your seat even if it is not real. The genre takes basic human fears and anxieties, and gives them physical form. But at this point, people know what to expect from the genre: the twists, jump-scares, who and what lives and dies. At this point viewers are already programmed to never believe the killer is dead as well, they know the possibility always exists they are alive and there might be sequels. For viewers to experience real “horror” instead of just thrills, they must venture out of typical horror films and into depictions of a fear that transcends the screen. This can be seen in films chronicling the events of our past that illustrate the depth of human wickedness, events that reveal our shame and toy with our fear of them repeating themselves. These are films like Schindler’s List (1993) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Additionally, films like Biutfiul (2010) and Oldboy (2003)—though they focus on fiction rather than the atrocities of our past like the two previous films mentioned—highlight terrifying situations more than instill fear in the viewer. Once the runtime of these films is through, the viewer is not left with any relief after their fears are assuaged, instead they are left with sick sinking feelings in their chest.
The Diverse Ways To Tell Horror Stories
The horror genre’s primary goals are frightening as well as disgusting readers and viewers, and as time has gone on it discovered a variety of vehicles for inducing this fear. There are traditional monsters such as vampires and werewolves, the occult which centers on witches and black magic, stories that are focused on ghosts and the paranormal, as well as those that have come to characterize the genre in the last 50 years: serial killers. These diverse set of stories and monsters have their own share of idiosyncrasies that distinguish themselves from each other, but the shared core element between them that has people coming back for more the delight in the horrific. This genre filters the fear and anxiety that humans experience in their day-to-day through a fictional lens, making it easily digestible and cinematic. This fear and anxiety today comes from—though it is not the same for everyone—the horrors of disease, war, insecurity, oppression, and the foreboding climate collapse. These films are not a perfect mirror to our reality’s woes, particularly in that they have clear boundaries; each film has a distinct beginning and ending, and the root of the terror in the film is generally uncovered. There are a lot of films that choose not to reveal too much to the viewer, but the archetypal horror film goes into the beginning of the killers’ history so that they can be unraveled and stopped. It is this truth that makes these films less about the fear the viewer’s experience, but instead about the comfort they find when the evil is vanquished.
Horror stories end, whereas the real horrors we experience that the films attempt to reflect do not. Additionally, our reality is exponentially more convoluted and hard to understand. Traditional films in the genre cannot accurately capture or reflect the terror and malaise that have come to define our world, but it is because of this that we keep coming back to them. There is a great catharsis in films exploring the obscene and horrible, making our reality seem acceptable. By exploring the traumatic, viewers can express a whole range of emotions, stimulate all parts of their brain, and then find closure. The hypothetical scenario of being trapped and powerless in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or The Descent (2005) is ostensibly terrifying, but this hypothetical plays out on the screen and has satisfying closure, greatly contrasting the haunting ambiguity that characterizes our lives. Real, true horror can only come close to being represented on the screen through unflinchingly vivid portrayals of humanity’s hideous past. We understand how we got where we are today, but seeing the grim reality of our blood history behind the curtain unsettles us to the point where we are left questioning the world we call home.
The Horrors of The Real World
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a film that is unflinching in its graphic reproduction of Oskar Schindler’s heroic actions during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, these actions are still framed within the genocide, and even with the film lingering on the acts of rescue, viewers and Schindler alike cannot ignore the many others who were not saved. The persistent images of the atrocity leave no room for viewers to find respite. The only glimpse of color in the film further reinforces to both the viewer and Schindler that people’s lives, their past and their futures, are being taken away from them. For some, the terror came from the belief that the film was capitalizing on the atrocity and dramatizing aspects, ultimately exploiting it. Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), criticized the film and depictions of the Holocaust as a whole, saying that they are deformations of historical truths and that fiction is a transgression. Whether you agree with him in that this stain on history should not be portrayed in this way, you are continually in a state of dread with no real moment of catharsis to leave you satisfied like traditional horror. Whether it be dread from viewing these people and their hurt commercialized, or dread from seeing human’s capacity for evil, you leave the film tormented.
Another film that undertakes the challenge of re-presenting historical tragedies on the big screen in 12 Years a Slave. Director Steve McQueen’s film follows the story of a free African-American man Solomon Northrup who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It’s a haunting reality that we as a people desire to forget, that people were stripped of their dignity and humanity and reduced to goods that are traded, used, and discarded. By placing this dynamic front and center, we are immediately confronted with the history of the world. The film is not afraid to linger on horrific brutality continuously inflicted on its main characters while the abusers face no repercussions. The drama is intensified and reaches out beyond the screen with the score from Hans Zimmer, lending more gravitas to an already heavy subject matter. The film takes hold of the soul of the viewer and never lets go as we see Northrup try again and again to find freedom before he eventually resigns himself to the nightmare world that has reduced him to a commodity. We can easily sympathize with Northrup, and it is through this sympathy that we can catch a glimpse of the horror that has been inflicted on him and the millions of others like him.
Other films have the viewer experiencing real undiluted horror by reproducing the uncertainty and unforgiving nature of our world. A filmmaker that continually focuses on the macabre in our world is Alejandro González Iñárritu; his film Biutiful does not shy away from the trauma that people are forced to endure. The film follows Ubal who, having been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, tries to leave his family with some semblance of safety and unity when he is gone. His children’s mother is distant and suffers from alcoholism, forcing him to turn to others who inevitably break this trust. Every beat of Biutiful is punctuated by tragedy, death, and uncertainty, leaving us with no clear conclusion. The intimate cinematography transplants the viewer into the situation with Uxbal, leaving us just as lost as he is. Seeing what Uxbal sees and goes through gives no satisfaction, but only terror in what lies next in his heartbreaking life.
Similar to Biutiful is Park Chan-wook’s intensely violent Oldboy, a story that relishes in depriving the viewer and characters of information. Both films delight in leaving the viewer grasping for answers in a world where there are none. The main character Oh Dae-su spends 15 years imprisoned in a sealed hotel room with no understanding as to why. When he is eventually released, he undergoes a journey for revenge as well as answers. We ride along with Dae-su as he uncovers why he was incarcerated, feeling some sort of relief, but it is accompanied by a shocking and disgusting revelation that causes Dae-su to both cut out his tongue and seek to have his memories erased, reverting to blissful ignorance. We do not want to live in darkness, we want to be in the know, and have satisfaction in knowing something when others do not. Oldboy asks the question: what if the truth is too much to handle? Mystery and murder films beg the audience to play the role of detective and uncover the truth of what is going on, who is the killer, as not knowing can be its own kind of horror. There is catharsis in answers and having stories come to an end. In this instance, a page was turned and the viewer was unable to go back. We had to live in the terror of what we uncovered and the only solace that one could find would be to—like Dae-su—have their memories erased.
Traditional horror films are effective in transporting audiences into fearful situations and the best horror is able to unnerve you while still maintaining your belief that their stories could be real. It is this aspect of horror that films outside of the genre excel at because they are either diving into the real, or thoroughly grounded in the world of the real. Viewers can suspend their disbelief when watching Paranormal Activity (2007), but this can be tested and reneged, while the thought of losing your family as in Biutiful appears inescapable and question it occurring in your own life. Viewers can come away from a horror film feeling catharsis, that they were on the edge of death but at the end of it they were saved and the story concluded; coming away from Oldboy you feel disgusting and helpless as if you were on a rollercoaster but instead of a slow stop at the end the track was unfinished and your cart crashed. This is the kind of effect these films can have. You can be brutalized over and over with no moment of repose, and no sense of comfort in the abstract. That is real horror, and what we get out of it is unadulterated human connection. The real horror of Schindler’s List and Oldboy and films like them strips the characters bare, putting them in vulnerable positions where their primal human emotions shine through. It is in these performances that viewers can experience fundamental feelings like doubt, abandonment, dependency, and especially vulnerability. Real horror taps into the viewer’s psyche unlike anything else, and instead of providing answers you can at least not feel alone in the vagueness of the world.