Horror cliches

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Cracked. This article that came out yesterday has a lot of interesting things to say about horror. It’s comedy, but Fortey actually got me thinking about what makes horror horrible.

“Every movie featuring a haunting implicitly admits to life after death, which is a pretty big deal,” Fortey writes. And I agree–this is a point I tried to make in my little rant about horror. He goes on to challenge the idea that a ghost would necessarily be evil (though he admits that horror needs to be horrible to be, uh, horror).

Regrettably, genre fiction has conventions, and those conventions make it identifiable as a particular genre. Without malevolence, horror isn’t really horror anymore. You can of course have ghosts in benevolent roles, but if that’s all you have, there’s not necessarily anything frightening about your story, regardless of its implied commentary on the existence of the soul, life after death, etc. The trick is to employ established ideas in fresh ways. I suspect this is why J-Horror made such a big mark on American audiences: we all knew vengeful ghosts, but they had never been presented in such a simultaneously subtle and yet visceral way. In 1998, Ringu was fresh. It may be a terrible cliche now, but it was stunning to audiences of Western horror that such a staple of scary stories could be presented in such an innovative, disturbing way, without excessive violence (or even, in the case of the original, actually seeing a full-frame shot of the ghost until the very end).

There’s a great discussion of all of this in Joyce Carol Oates’ introduction to a Lovecraft collection–I don’t have the exact reference at the moment, but she does a great job arguing that genre fiction manipulates its audience in the way the audience wants to be manipulated.

With some of his items on that list, Fortey seems to be arguing that horror should no longer be horror. And his comedy isn’t really that funny here, which makes me more inclined to argue with it, instead of just laughing. He wants giant monsters to do things besides eat people: he wants them to create infrastructure problems. Instead of monster hunters, he’s calling for civil engineers and exterminators to fix a giant-rodents-eating-our-crops situation.

Actually, I see his point. That could be a whole new genre. “When town planning goes horribly wrong.” We could start with a film about being stuck at a red light for ten minutes and then finding out you lost your job at the meatpacking plant because an invasive species of marsupial has eaten all the cows in the world. Somebody film that.

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