The (Changing) Horror Formula
The summer horror film is a permanent fixture on the annual American movie timeline. Every June or July, it arrives: the moderately anticipated, modest-budget story of an unwitting family that moves into a house with a dark past. Or the story of a young child possessed by something unthinkable. Or the story of a vacation interrupted by unnatural events.
The summer horror film comes equipped with a familiar set of bells and whistles. There are jump scares and scenes in complete darkness. There are exorcists hired, evil objects burned, religious imagery utilized. Someone shows an unanticipated level of bravery and grit when their family and friends most need it. Someone’s ignorance or carelessness angers a creature capable of immense destruction.
And you would think: doesn’t this get old? Horror tropes have become instantly recognizable to anyone who has been to a theater. They have been used and reused since scary movies first hit the big screen so many decades ago. We all know those teenagers shouldn’t go outside when they hear that noise. We all know they shouldn’t publicly admit that they don’t believe in ghosts. We can even predict who’s going to die first and who might outlast them all. So aren’t these cliches starting to get worn out?
According to box office numbers, the answer is absolutely not. Studios love to put out horror movies for a reason. While they don’t require big budgets or big names, these films always turn a profit — Insidious earned $100 million, The Grudge brought in nearly $200 million, and The Conjuring surpassed the $300 million mark. Paranormal Activity even managed to rack up $193 million on a budget of $15,000. For better or for worse, there is a demand for horror even as it continues to rely on common, predictable tropes.
One would presume, then, that there is no need for a horror Renaissance. The numbers certainly don’t demonstrate an urgent need to reinvent the metaphorical wheel when it comes to horror films; if the classic tropes are still raking in cash, what would motivate studios, directors, and writers to change up their tried-and-true formula? Every summer a “new” scary movie with the same general plotline and characters hits the theaters, and every summer people flock to see it, so there’s no immediate reason for creators to be trying anything risky.
And yet, they are. Critics and viewers alike were shocked when Get Out was released in 2017, turning the Horror/Thriller genre on its head. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut didn’t have vengeful spirits or haunted homes. It had…casual racism, microaggressions by a white family toward their daughter’s black boyfriend, and a powerful allegory for America’s long-ignored racial power divide. None of these ingredients were native to the horror environment, but the movie was terrifying. It was unsettling. It provided the sort of substance, the sort of meatiness that cheap summer horror could never hope to achieve.
A year later, audiences’ notions about the genre were inverted once again with the release of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Granted, this film still incorporated the cults, the untimely deaths, and the possessions of its contemporaries. But the way it deftly executed family dynamics — the disconnect between a mother and son, the burden of a younger sister on an older brother, the isolation caused by grief and the lack of an outlet to express it — gave Hereditary that much more of an impact. And when Aster followed up his 2018 masterpiece with a truly disturbing, rattling story filmed entirely against the backdrop of daylight and Swedish countryside, well, the traditional definition of horror had all but dissolved.
So the question remains: is there a place for both formulas in American theaters? Or did the release of movies like Get Out, Hereditary and Midsommar signify a shift in the horror genre a whole, moving from old tropes to more nuanced and complex thrills? We now know what scary movies have the potential to be; we know the level of creativity and social commentary they can aspire to. So with that knowledge, do the Annabelle’s and SAW’s still offer something meaningful and valuable in the cinematic landscape, even as they feed us recycled content and cheap gimmicks?
Well, consider what we as an audience want out of a horror film. We want our hearts to race. We want to grip the armrests and hide our eyes behind our fingers. We want our jaws to drop at some parts, our fists to clench at others. We want to feel an adrenaline rush that doesn’t leave until we’re walking to our parked car outside the AMC. We may even want to stay up late into the night with the covers up to our chins, surveying the shadowy corners of our room for any sign of movement. In this sense, then, horror is a means to an end. It’s the path we take to reach that high, to achieve that rush — in which case, I’d argue that horror can take a nearly infinite number of forms. If the jump scares and bloody clowns make us bite our nails, they’re accomplishing a similar outcome as the politically-charged thrillers or the arthouse shockers. Sure, the latter makes for a much more interesting conversation with your friends on the ride home than the former, but if horror is based on reaction and feeling, then both have done their job.
So even as the genre takes on different aesthetics, themes, effects, directors, and styles, one simple fact remains: we want to be scared. And if we’re scared, horror (in any form) has once again prevailed.
by Hannah Wong