October 31, 2022
WRITTEN BY: JOSEPH
Horror stories have existed throughout history in a variety of forms. Oftentimes, horror is used as a cautionary tale to reflect on the ills of our own society. Children are warned to not venture too far lest the boogeyman will snatch them up, creatures like the Wendigo reinforce cultural taboos towards cannibalism during famine, and Frankenstein’s monster shows the fear of humanity wielding the power of God irresponsibly. While many horror stories certainly have greater meaning behind the terror, I think to most fans, horror has mostly been about gaining an adrenaline rush in a safe environment. We just want the scares! However, modern horror seems to offer much less in actual fear-generating. It makes me wonder…. “Is horror dead?”
Growing up, I remember every other horror film being marketed as “the scariest film since The Exorcist” (or the even more bold, “scarier than The Exorcist”). While younger generations, myself included, may not find The Exorcist as scary as audiences did upon its release in 1973, it still holds up in many ways. It has yet to truly be challenged by any other film. Horror films of the late 90s and early 2000s may have been billed as the next The Exorcist, but many failed to leave a cultural imprint, only being remembered by the most devoted horror fans. With very few exceptions, horror films haven’t really made an impact since the turn of the millennium. I’d also argue that virtually none have come close to being as scary to their audiences as The Exorcist was nearly 50 years ago. Some may make a case for Hereditary, Paranormal Activity, or Sinister, but I say they did not have the same effect on their audiences that classic horror films did. Why is that? There is a lot of blame to go around, but I mostly blame the use of CGI over practical effects.
The Universal Classic Monsters may have come out too far back to gauge how much they truly scared their audiences, but their cultural significance cannot be denied. They’re instantly recognizable and referenced in all forms of media, serving as a blueprint for much of the horror genre even today. The B-movies of the 50s and 60s continued the trend of using monsters on screen. While the costumes have become laughable because they were so cheesy, they still serve as a main influence in subcultures such as psychobilly and horror punk. They also paved the way for the exploitation films of the 70s. Still, it seems that the majority of what are generally considered to be the “scariest” movies of all time come from the 70s and 80s.
As I mentioned before, The Exorcist is often touted as the scariest film ever, but it's not the only iconic piece of horror cinema from that era. We saw plenty of growth in the genre as it diverged to slashers and other forms of religious horror. Iconic creatures like Alien‘s Xenomorph were spawned in sci-fi horror, and we saw increased reliance on practical effects as the slasher subgenre emerged. With Halloween’s Michael Myers, the featureless white mask was extremely effective, while Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger used make-up and still iconic costume designs to highlight their more grotesque features. There were grisly creatures and disgustingly fun deaths put on screen. Along with those iconic slashers, other great movie monsters graced the silver screen, like Predator, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, and, of course, the werewolf from An American Werewolf in London, which features an astounding transformation scene that has yet to be beaten. Furthermore, these practical effects gave way to bizarre body horror, allowing for potentially forgotten films from decades before, such as The Fly and The Thing, to be revisited and improved upon.
In my opinion, the hey-day of horror was driven by practical effects, but as computers improved and became more accessible, film studios did their best to utilize the technology in all their films. As a result, many 90s films are filled with ugly polygonal creatures and special effects that weren’t convincing even then (and have only grown to be worse now). Just like director David Cronenberg thought he could use improved physical effects to make a better version of The Fly in 1986, some filmmakers thought they could use new computer technology to reinvent the films of the past to inspire terror in new generations. Sadly, it didn’t happen.
The incredibly self-indulgent Van Helsing (2004) may have had some cool ideas, but the tone removed all the scary elements of the creatures they were reinventing. The Fog (2005) replaced leprous, ethereal zombies with wispy, transparent spirits. CGI quality may have improved, but there were no real scares to be had. There are some outliers from that era, like The Others and The Descent, but they used practical effects and large sets to deliver their thrills. There aren’t many, if any, CGI-driven horror movies that will keep you up at night. Nothing that kids will dare each other to watch at sleepovers for years to come. It’d be easy to say horror is just a genre of tired clichés, trying to constantly reinvent the wheel while staying formulaic. As a horror fan, I resent that notion because a lot of great, if not scary, horror comes out every year. However, one film embodies nearly all the flaws I see in modern horror: A Quiet Place.
Don’t get me wrong, A Quiet Place has a fantastic premise and is overall well executed, but like many horror films, the film gets less scary once we finally see the monster. The Death Angels in A Quiet Place are fully CGI, and though they are imposing, they’re clearly not actually there. Death Angels share similar characteristics with the Xenomorph, yet they are incredibly forgettable. Can you remember what they even look like? Probably not. On top of that, they never physically interact with our protagonists, which only fuels the lack of believability. Meanwhile, the Alien franchise has historically done things the opposite way. For the most part, each film has used primarily practical effects for each stage of the Xenomorph’s life cycle, eliciting a myriad of emotions from disgusted by the slimy, fleshy eggs to horrified by the large Alien Queen. Eventually, though, even that franchise took the lazy CGI path in its latest and probably final entry, Alien: Covenant.
Aside from having some of the dumbest movie characters ever, Alien: Covenant almost exclusively used CGI for its creature designs. While this did assist with the newer Neomorphs, it only hurt the Xenomorph. A creature that almost always had been shown with practical effects and under the cover of darkness was now a fully CGI rendering in broad daylight. The result is disappointing, distracting, and odd. But, more importantly, it’s no longer scary.
While Alien: Covenant may have put the nail in the coffin on any future Alien sequels, Universal also had some problems with horror and CGI. 2017’s The Mummy tried to spearhead the launch of the Dark Universe, a reimagining and modernization of the classic Universal Monsters in a shared universe akin to the MCU. However, in trying to bring this giant spectacle to the big screen so quickly, even going as far as to publicly release an ill-fated cast photo, the Dark Universe was quickly shelved after The Mummy’s poor critical and commercial performance. If a CGI-driven horror movie starring Tom Cruise was a failure, the lesson should be that horror as a CGI spectacle just doesn’t work. Truthfully, it’s a lesson that should have been learned after the previous soft attempts at reinventing the Universal Monsters with Dracula: Untold and 2010’s The Wolfman. Neither of those films resonated with audiences or critics, but one good thing did eventually come out of it: the course correction that is Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man offers a full reimagining of the original H.G. Wells tale by turning it into a social commentary on domestic violence and gaslighting. It may not keep you up at night, but it touches on the fears that someone is always watching you, as well as the horrifying concept of someone actively trying to drive you crazy (even more so for women). Blumhouse, the company behind that 2020 hit, has fueled some of the more successful horror films in recent years, from the Purge franchise to the “scariest” film according to science, Sinister. Still, a fast heart rate doesn’t quite replicate the same cultural effect as The Exorcist, and while Sinister may be the scariest film ever according to “data,” that seems more attributable to the famous lawnmower scene causing a significant rise in heart rates than it being an overall scary movie. The best thing The Invisible Man did was highlight one of the horror genre’s biggest strengths, which is the unseen. The unseen, especially before a jump scare, is precisely why jump scares often work. It’s also why ghost stories remain so effective. The Conjuring and Insidious are other modern examples of effectively scary films, even if they don’t inspire the same widespread fear as The Exorcist; however, I do think The Conjuring has created another issue permeating modern horror: branding.
The Conjuring has ultimately become its own cinematic universe, taking the loosest bit of “true stories” and weaving them into a film that somehow ties into the real-life paranormal investigators/charlatan couple, the Warrens. Annabelle and the Nun have both become leaders of their own spin-off franchises, but like with movie monsters, the more that is shown, the less scary these characters are. The greatest example of this is Annabelle Comes Home, the third film featuring the demonic doll. It serves as a fun romp through the Warrens’ occult museum, but it’s more focused on setting up new spinoffs and serving as a litmus test to see what the studios can turn into a film later than it is delivering scares. The first two The Conjuring films focused more on ghosts and the unseen, but the spinoffs have turned into a whole ‘nother thing. Same thing can be said about what The Walking Dead has done to the zombie. Though the show uses practical makeup and effects, and is technically a horror show, it’s more of a brand than anything else at this point. People do not watch it to get scared. Anecdotally, it feels like a show for people who dislike horror, as the only fans of the show that I know aren’t typically horror people. It’s a post-apocalyptic survival show that uses zombies as a selling point. The zombies are almost irrelevant at this point, and they certainly aren’t scaring anyone.
So, is there anything that can be done to revitalize the horror in horror? The answer is I’m unsure. The ghost story still seems effective, building upon the notion of the unseen, and a lot of fear can be generated from items moving around inexplicably. As for any creature features, there is an uphill climb to get away from the recent norm of computer-generated spectacle. CGI monsters don’t inspire fear, zombies have been overdone, and practical effects are becoming rarer and rarer. Lovecraftian tales are a little more effective as they typically deal with unknown and unseen forces, while also blending them with bizarre and horrific practical effects (two notable examples being Annihilation’s bear and the fused bodies in The Color Out of Space). There’s also the fact that I think the indifference and nihilism within Lovecraftian stories represents the current cultural landscape really well, as the state of the world has left many feeling hopeless. These types of stories may prove to be more effective in horrifying and inspiring dread, especially among younger generations who dread every day life. And in the prior statement lies my final point: the world is scary. There is so much instability and anxiety in every factor of real life that horror can barely compare. There is hardly a singular monster we can channel all our insecurities into like in days past. For Cold War insecurities, we had pod people and The Thing. For a youth culture interested in breaking the taboos of premarital sex and recreational drug use, the slasher entered the scene. Wartime scandals like Abu Ghraib were mirrored by torture porn like Hostel and Saw. Now, we have all that and more, and it’s everywhere…television, news, social media, a crowded street, the dinner table. We can’t escape it, and the only truly scary thing is the feeling of “oh, god, what’s next?” Hardly anything can compare to “not knowing” and the unexplainable, which is why I feel ghost stories still manage to maintain a hold on audiences most consistently. It’s also why I feel that Lovecraftian horror is maybe the only chance we have at making films truly scary again. The unknown is terrifying, especially when one considers all of the known horrors in the world.
At the end of the day, though, horror is in the eye of the beholder. There is no one thing that scares everyone anymore. Horror has expanded to a plethora of subgenres and niches. Still, it has managed to stay relevant, and is beginning to reemerge as a more popular genre following films like Get Out and Hereditary. Recent films like Barbarian and Terrifier 2 are showing film studios that there is a market for good horror, and more importantly, that these films don’t need a huge budget or an over-reliance on CGI to be successful. Hell, Terrifier 2 has had some of the best viral marketing I’ve seen thanks to the leaked clip that so many found too gruesome (personally, I thought it was hilarious, but different strokes for different folks). Ultimately, the future of horror as a genre seems to be in good hands, but it remains to be seen what that means in terms of actual scares.
Photo Credits: Photo 1, 4, 7, 8 - Universal Pictures; Photo 2, 3, 6 - 20th Century Studios; Photo 5, 10 - Paramount Pictures; Photo 9 - Warner Bros.; Photo 11 - Bloody Disgusting