The problem with horror movies

Modern horror movies are consistently bad. A few make it through the critics, sure, but the majority of new horror films demonstrate extremely lackluster writing. At best, audiences can expect a sequence of meaningless jump scares and an ugly villain. At worst, audiences will watch a whole horror movie without being horrified.

This problem is no fault of the genre. Horror has long been an integral part of the cinema experience with plenty of successful films. But Hollywood’s financial nucleus has condensed into just a handful of media giants like 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Pictures. To these entertainment behemoths, horror films have become more of a humdrum cash dividend than a form of art.

To resurrect quality horror, directors have to understand the genre’s name literally. A sequence of jump scares does not produce real horror. This is especially problematic when jump scares are copiously shoehorned into non-suspenseful scenes. Even before the villain reveals itself, audiences may be subjected to the pinnacle of poorly-written scares: household occurrences.

Imagine the protagonist’s husband needlessly slamming groceries on the table or suddenly appearing in the reflection when she closes the mirror. These jump scares fail to produce horror because they are not contextualized with suspense. They are not used as a payoff to a tense buildup nor a surprise when you expected to discover something else. They exist solely to make you briefly squeal and choke on your popcorn.

Suspense is the most important ingredient for a quality horror movie. A plot has tension when the characters feel real and the stakes are high. Lazy directors forgo this principle. With most slasher films, the director has an incentive to create an ensemble of characters in order to have the villain pick them off one by one. However, this comes at the expense of character development.

The audience can easily predict who will die first and who may survive. They feel no remorse when the nameless character is butchered and, worse, no concern for them leading up to that demise. For example, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film “The Babadook” limited its primary characters to just two individuals, a mother and her son. This limited cast made the plot events exponentially meaningful because neither character was expendable. By actually developing good characters, horror directors can then place them into horrifying situations that distress audiences.

Another area in which horror movies struggle is producing an agreement between the protagonist and the plot. In cinema, the protagonist is typically understood as the main driver for the plot. He or she performs actions or makes decisions that move everything forward. Horror movies break this dynamic because the protagonist is often just bumbling through life until the plot comes to them. The burden for driving the plot falls on the villain, who attacks several times before a final showdown at the end. The problem here is that it effectively removes the agency of the protagonist. All of their decisions become reactions to the plot driving villain. This inevitably orients the audience’s attention on the villain instead of the protagonist. We wonder what the villain will do next more often than what the protagonist will do next.

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Horror movies are also plagued with overused tropes. The manipulative demon or the crazed murderer. The phone without cell reception. The noise from the dark corner in the room that needs not to be investigated but the character will anyway. These tropes make the plot extremely predictable, which is the antithesis of genuine horror. It is not the case that all novel ideas have been exhausted. People have made such claims about art in the past, but innovative creators always produce something new. The more a director can shock an audience with a unique subject or unexpected plot devices, the more horror will improve as a genre.

There is no reason to think that horror is irredeemable. It is still an excellent topic and one of the most affordable genres to film for small studios. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s powerful media conglomerates appear to be risk-averse. They opt for the rudimentary horror movie while choosing the best pieces for its trailer. In some ways, Hollywood has gotten better at filming movie trailers than filming movies. But with headstrong directors or an influx of small studios, the quality of horror movies can improve to a truly horrifying standard.