Changing Minds, One Horror Film at a Time?

By: Jackson Montalbano

As a movie buff, I enjoy films from nearly every genre, ranging from old westerns to stoner comedies to tear-jerking dramas. I even enjoy the occasional chick-flick (e.g. Mean Girls). However, I’ve long held a sharp disdain for horror movies. By horror, I mean a genre that utilizes supernatural, verging on unrealistic elements to elicit fear from the audience. Like many movie-goers, I’ve considered horror to be a “low brow” genre filled with poorly written scripts and even worse direction. In my experience, the typical horror movie is comparable to a merry-go-round: a shallow protagonist runs around town from a static monster who occasionally pops out dark corners to deliver cheap scares. While I admit this is an overgeneralization, Hollywood has provided plenty of support for this belief. The duds that come to mind are Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw 1-6, The Hills Have Eyes, Pet Cemetery…the list goes on. My favorite movie critic, Roger Ebert, captured my feelings regarding these films and horror in general in his review of TCM, saying

“There is not a shred of a reason to see it. Those who defend it will have to dance through mental hoops of their own devising, defining its meanness and despair as ‘style’ or ‘vision’ or ‘a commentary on our world’. It is not a commentary on anything, except the marriage of slick technology with the materials of a geek show.”

Moreover, the majority of horror films seem more focused on making a quick buck with cheap production than providing a quality, thought-provoking experience.

In contrast, I thoroughly respect and enjoy horror’s neighboring genre, thriller. Although a broad classification, I consider thriller to be a genre that uses realistic elements to generate suspense and provoke excitement, anxiousness, or terror. Please note, however, that realism is not what attracts me to thriller and supernaturalism is not what repels me from horror. Rather, thrillers tend to actually contain some cinematic value. In an effort to generate suspense, thrillers contain complex plots and dynamic characters that draw the audience into their world. I’ve left many thrillers with my mind blown and my body shivering (Memento and Shutter Island come to mind), indicating just how engrossing thrillers really are.

Even though this classification sounds clear, there is, of course, a gray area between the genres. Many films trend on the line between horror and thriller, primarily because evaluating the realism of monsters is inherently subjective. For example, Silence of the Lambs walks the line between horror and thriller due to the nature of its antagonists, particularly Hannibal Lecter. Although Lecter is human, is he a realistic human? It’s tough to say, considering Lecter is both a terrifying cannibal and an ingenious psychiatrist. While both characteristics exist in our world, this combination seems to boarder on the impossible. To solve this dilemma in the past, I created a simple system of classification: I classified all good scary movies as thrillers and all bad scary movies as horror. I originally developed this philosophy to irritate my friends who like horror movies, but I honestly felt that it carried some truth.

This course, however, challenged my views through its presentation of Rosemary’s Baby. Like Roman Polanski’s other films (e.g. The Pianist), Rosemary’s Baby was right on cue. The plot was suspenseful, the characters were interesting, and the ending blew my mind. Accordingly, I initially classified it as thriller. Yet, this classification doesn’t hold considering the film stretches into supernatural territory with its inclusion of the devil. As a result, I reluctantly must make an admission: Rosemary’s Baby is a horror movie. More importantly, I actually enjoyed a horror movie. With this realization, it’s clear that this course has started swaying my opinion. While I’m not ready to embrace horror movies altogether, I’ll acknowledge that they can carry cinematic value. Maybe horror has been good all along and I just haven’t seen the right movies. Or maybe I’m just focusing too much on the duds and not enough on the classics. I’m not sure at this point, but I look forward to having my views challenged as the semester continues.

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12 thoughts on “Changing Minds, One Horror Film at a Time?

  1. The only two movies I’ve seen that you mentioned in this post are Rosemary’s Baby and Mean Girls, so obviously thrillers are not for me. But you make a really excellent point about the differences and similarities between movie genres. I myself hate “gross out” horror, but could watch a movie like Poltergeist all the time.

  2. I’ve never looked at movies with this perspective but now that you’ve introduced it to me I really agree with it. While I am strangely intrigued by the Saw movies and others that scare using solely gore and shocking elements, I have never looked back on those movies and thought about their plot – mostly because their plots are very nonexistent. Whereas in the movies Memento and Shutter Island I immediately wanted to watch them again after I finished them because their plot was so complex and the characters were so developed. The movies that you classify as “thrillers” are the ones where the horror sticks with you because their plot is not just in fantastic images, but rather it gets into your mind, and that makes it truly scary and that scariness sticks with you for much longer. Great blog post, I really enjoyed reading this one!

  3. I’m also the type of person who doesn’t watch horror movies. I’m a huge baby with an overactive imagination, so I tend to stay away from horrors and most thrillers (I really liked Seven, so I’m hoping to find more movies like that). But I completely agree that a lot of “horror” movies are low budget and poorly done. I remember when I was around 10 or 12 being scared to watch Scream, and I knew a scene was coming where a girl was going to get squished up into her garage door. I walked out of the room hoping to miss that part but came back in right as it happened. But I ended up not being scared because it looked so fake I just laughed. It also makes me think of movies like The Evil Dead series, especially Evil Dead 2 which is just campy and cheesy and impossible to be considered scary (but that might have been what Sam Raimi was going for). More recently horror has been bumping up the quality, but I still agree that thrillers are much more intelligently created. But I’m also the person who used to consider horror and thriller the same thing, and I thought all horror was supposed to be really scary, so for me, I don’t know what I’d personally classify Rosemary’s Baby because I didn’t find it that scary or suspenseful. To me it’s just a supernatural version of how crazy people can be in reality anyways. Although I don’t like scary movies, I think I’m going to try to force myself to watch some just to see what I find scary now as apposed to when I was younger, and figure out how I would classify movies myself.

    • I similarly always drew a divide between “thriller” and “horror” movies growing up, but not for quite the same reason. I actually genuinely enjoyed horror movies that didn’t have a great plot and weren’t masterfully directed. However, many of my friends hated these types of movies and after making a few movie recommendations that were met with some disdain, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I liked the typical horror movie. I started classifying movies as either “thriller” or “scary” because I realized that thrillers usually have a wider audience and people are more receptive and appreciative of them. From your post and the thrillers that you mentioned you like, I would recommended seeing Prisoners if you haven’t already (it’s still in theaters!).

  4. I would have to agree with on the main idea of his post, that horror movies are usually cheap productions eager to make a quick buck. And I would definitely agree that Mean Girls is a fantastic movie. However, I would disagree with the notion that thrillers and horrors are different. As a person who does not like horror or thriller movies, I think that there is seldom difference between the two, however, horror/thriller movies of late, such as the paranormal activities and movies of that nature are exploiting peoples fears and using cheap production tools to make a cheap and quick movie.

  5. Pingback: Add a Word, Ruin a Horror Movie! | The Course of Horror

  6. I agree that horrors and thrillers usually are different. However, I myself love horror and thriller movies alike. I feel that there are fantastic horror films which contain intriguing plots but I also recognize that there are tons of horror films in which the only existence of the film is bloody violence. Thrillers mostly do possess a more complicated plot, where one must put together the pieces. I love that if feels like a mind game. But for horror, at least good horror, I love the adrenaline rush of watching an extremely scary scene. Thrillers I can watch over and over again. But when it comes to horror, I have a few that deserve to be watched multiple times.

  7. I completely agree with you. Another point I might add is that horror films are becoming gorier and gorier. I have wondered often why this is, and the only conclusion I can come to is that we have grown so desensitized that what once would have left us sweating and terrified is now considered the norm for horror films. You mentioned Shutter Island – I don’t truly consider this horror, because of the lack of gore and the “BOO” factor. Which is an interesting point in and of itself – the very nature of horror is adapting to become a classification only given to movies with either a lot of blood or a lot of inhuman monsters. A long time ago, movies like Shutter Island and Silence of the Lambs could have definitely been considered horror. Our tastes and increasing exposure to real-life horror, however, have permanently altered the way we talk about horror in movies.

    • I totally agree! The goriness of recent horror movies reminds me of ‘bread and circuses’. Roman leaders controlled the people by feeding them and providing them entertainment. One of the downfalls of this, though, was that the population had become increasingly inured to violence (gladiators, staging sea battles by using slaves as soldiers and flooding amphitheaters, etc.) that leaders had to continually ‘up their game’ and make the shows more and more disgusting. I see this trend in the horror genre especially with movies like Saw and Human Centipede (which might be that actual downfall of the human race…) and it’s very concerning.

  8. I have the exact same opinion when it comes to horror and thriller movies but for a couple of different reasons. First, I do think that the plot lacks in horror movies where as thriller movies typically have a good story behind them. Secondly, I hate the goriness of horror movies. I am terrified of blood so when the movie is purely based on people getting their body parts cut off, I’m not interested. Lastly, thriller movies usually have more suspense which makes the movie as a whole more interesting to the audience. It keeps us guessing and waiting for what’s going to happen next, while horror movies are always so predictable.

  9. I totally agree with everything you had to say. It seems like these days horror is somewhat of a joke genre, using abrupt, loud sounds and figures jumping out of the shadows to squeeze scares out of people. I, however, still like to go out and see horror films. I get excited seeing trailers for the new horror films like “The Conjuring,” which really freaked me out actually. I’ve also seen Shutter Island and I thought it was a really good movie. It was creepy and made me think at the end. It wasn’t just a jump-out-at-you-and-make-you-scream movie, it was a thought-provoking film that had me wondering what had been going on the whole movie at the end. I’d also like to suggest watching “Cabin in the Woods.” It isn’t a thriller, more of a horror genre, yet still not being entirely horror. It really combines horror and comedy – playing on the clichés of horror films. There are a lot of popular horror figures in the movie, like Pinhead, the Merman, Werewolves, etc.

  10. I’ve never really thought about movies like this, and after reading what you said I do agree. Movies like the Silence of the Lambs, and Rosemary’s Baby, and even other movies that have some truth to the plot or have the possibility to have some truth to its plot and are “thought provoking” hold my interest better than movies like “The Hills Have Eyes”. I think the fact that horror films, or in your case thrillers, can be thought provoking is what makes them more scary, because they still have the possibility to have story lines in relation to its characters that mirror people that can actually be living in the same world that we live in.

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