Part I - The Varieties of Horror

Three ages of Horror by JIM MOON

Illustration - Three Ages of Horror by JIM MOON

The shadows are lengthening, and as another year begins to draw to a close, the nights come to call increasingly early. Yes, Autumn has come, shaking leaves from her golden crown, and green gives way to ochre and red. Mists haunt the skies and there always seems to be a hint of smoke in the air, the ghosts of lost bonfires and split candle wax. The season’s wheel is slowly turning and the veil between worlds grows thin...

And for the fans of horror and scholars of the weird, other strange metaphysical barriers are weakening also; with Halloween promising that for a brief time the rest of the populace will seem to share our love for the eerie and strange. This is the time of the year when for once our outré interests do not look out of place with the accepted standards of normality and the usual question of “why do you watch this stuff?” is replaced with another, more welcome enquiry – “So what’s a really good horror movie to watch?”

Now this is a somewhat dicey question as the label ‘horror’ covers a multitude of sins, and in order to give a useful answer you have to be able to identify what kind of horror the questioner is seeking. A common complaint/dismissal of horror films is the old chestnut “well they just are'nt scary” – and in all fairness many aren’t. However there is a reason for this other than just shoddy film making, for as paradoxical as it may seem, a great proportion of horror movies aren’t actually aiming to push the fear button and give you sleepless nights.

Now having been immersed in the genre all my life, it strikes me that all horror flicks could be classified into four different categories. And rather grouping films by common tropes and subgenres, this system concentrates on intent and effect. For example Lesbian Vampire Killers and Let The Right One In are both vampire movies but are so radically different it makes little sense to lump them together.

So then, first up is the Ghoulish Delights where comedy meets horror, and where action takes a macabre turn: these are films that may be filled with monsters, murder and mayhem but the focus is on plain old having fun. In this category you may find horror comedies, like Shaun of the Dead and American Werewolf in London, and so-bad-it’s-good schlock fests. But you’ll find also gothic adventures and spooky swashbucklers like Hammer’s Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. Also in this territory you’ll find thrillers and romance with a touch of the macabre or supernatural. There may be moments of suspense, splashes of gross-out gore and the odd frisson of fear but in the main flicks in this parish are seeking just to entertain us.

My second category would be the Ghost Train movie – films that are out to inspire fear but only the kind of cartoonish funhouse variety. These movies operate on the same level as a fairground ride in that you willingly go along with the clichés in order to experience the fun of being afraid. Here every castle is old and crumbling, every crypt swathed in cobwebs, thunder storms abound and the score shrieks with strings, groans with organs and generally screams like an uprooted mandrake “this is a horror film! Boo!”. It is the land of jump scares and gore that either inspires laughter or amazes with its invention and over the top execution. Here we happily go along for the ride; these films do not try to engender the willing suspension of disbelief, but more rely on the audience willingly suspending their valour just for the fun of seeing the vampire rise from the grave, the monster wreck the metropolis or the slasher lunge from the shadows.

Furthermore I’d say that the large majority of horror films fit into this category – they wheel out all the props and trimmings that scream horror and ask us to buy into the experience just for fun. They are happy to give a shock or two, show you scenes of splatter and even creep you out a bit – but they are doing it with your permission. Now this is not to say that Ghost Train movies may not be very effective; if they are particularly well crafted or are tapping into some of your own personal fears then they may indeed be terrifying. However like the childhood game of Murder in the Dark, they are a way to enjoy being afraid within agreed boundaries. However it is only in the last two of my proposed categories that the gloves come off...

Now our third category doesn’t inspire absolute fear necessarily either, but does pack a powerful emotional wallop, for this is the home of the Disturbing Visions. Here you will find material that may shock, stun and even sicken you with an all out visceral blitzkrieg. They may inspire terror and dread but their defining feature is that they disturb; forcible smashing the viewers’ preconceptions, shattering their peace of mind, and generally razing the boundaries of what is acceptable into the dust.

Here’s where the horror movie meets extreme cinema, and while films in this category may sink into bad taste and pure gore, they also can merge into art house cinema. This is the realm where films as diverse as Martyrs, Salo, Eraserhead and Cannibal Holocaust dwell – films that challenge the viewer on a variety of different levels. But also here’s where you find horror classics like Freaks, Night of the Living Dead, and Hellraiser; films that pushed the boundaries of the genre by tearing up the Ghost Train rulebook of the day.

Now if the Disturbing Visions are looking to smack you over the head and punch you right in the guts, my fourth and final group are aiming to seize your very soul, for this is the category is Pure Terrors. Here we have movies that are seeking to have you jumping at every creak and every looming shadow long after the film has finished and murder any hope of sleep. Now these are the films that really are scary, movies that aim to reduce you to a gibbering wreck. These films aren’t looking to deliver the fleeting thrills of jump scares but to elicit a phobic reaction to what’s occurring on screen, seeking to drench you in dread and inspire the purest fear.

Naturally as fear is such an individual thing, this last category is the most sparsely populated as its membership much more determined by personal taste than the other three – after all what frightens me is not necessarily the same as what frightens you. For example, The Exorcist is certainly still a Disturbing Vision even today, but for those of you for whom the satanic is particularly terrifying, it could well be in your own catalogue of Pure Terror films.

Study the tropes of horror closely enough and you can craft a Ghost Train or a Ghoulish Delight without too much trouble, throw enough blood, offal and depravity at the screen and you can easily waltz into the land of Disturbing Visions, but crafting a Pure Terror film takes a degree of skill, talent and flair that many directors just cannot muster. And indeed there’s many a Ghost Train that was aiming to join the hallowed ranks of Pure Terrors but failed to carefully build the creeping atmosphere of dread effectively enough. In the world of horror, there are always a few people who even the most ham fisted director can really frighten if they are hitting the common phobic buttons such as spiders, snakes or creepy dolls. But orchestrating your movie so it will absolutely frighten the pants off the majority of movie-goers is a rare achievement.

Now obviously all the categories are somewhat fluid; any given horror movie may step over the dividing lines in certain scenes. The better Ghost Trains may achieve scenes that reach Pure Terror, while the worst ones descend into the kind of silliness that is more in keeping with the spoofs in the kingdom of Ghoulish Delights. However a really gifted director may deliberately slide his movie through the different categories - for example, the original Dawn of the Dead artfully presents Disturbing Visions alongside more typical Ghost Train action sequences and even has moments of Ghoulish Delight with an outbreak of custard pies. And if the walking dead and/or cannibalism automatically raise the hairs on the back of your neck then Dawn of the Dead may qualify for Pure Terror too.

Equally as the years go by and cinematic tastes evolve, films that were down with the hardcore in Pure Terrors and Disturbing Visions will mellow into Ghost Trains and even end up as harmless Ghoulish Delights that you wouldn’t mind your kids watching in the slightest. For example, the classic Hammer versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, that originally were quite shocking with their pioneering use of gore, now seem well mannered, cosy and quaint today.

But as a working taxonomy for the horror film, these categories work well enough. Certainly it’s a good deal less messy than opening the Pandora’s box of subgenres to classify any given movie. And with regards to that common Halloween query to recommend a horror film for the uninitiated, I hope this quartet of classifications will help you narrow down the field in order to find something suitable...

COMING SOON - IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS Part II – we’ll have a look at the art of watching horror movies.

JIM MOON, 17th October 2010