The Problem with Modern Horror Strories

I love horror literature and movies. Despite that many critics believe it to be a minor genre, I highly enjoy well-crafted horror stories. To be honest, I dislike the contemporary trend of “meaningful” literature; endless stories raising complicated problems, father-and-son relationships, psychological abysses of neurotic minds, and so on. I believe nothing new can be written about these
subjects—everything that could be possibly said about these topics has already been expressed by the previous generations of writers. If you want depth, read Haldor Laxness, Kenzaburo Oe, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky—I guarantee that none of the modern authors can write better.

On the other hand, I also feel suspicious about the trend of “popcorn movies,” and, as I believe, horrors falls into this category, along with science-fiction, unfortunately. Speaking of which—besides Ted Chiang and some others, I have not seen any good science-fiction stories for a long while; nowadays, science-fiction stories are about laser beams in space, countless teenage dystopias (“My mom won’t let me go out after 9 pm—dictatorship!”), or poorly-written books about aliens—and none of these stories are even close to Asimov’s “Foundation” or Herbert’s “Dune.”

Anyways, what I am really discussing is how horror stories, either on screen or in books, are demanded, but few in quantity—or poorly executed. If we take a look at Hollywood movie productions of the recent decades, we will see a vast number of films that could be easily said to be horrors: all of these zombie movies, and films about vampires or serial killers, have been so numerous that the demand for this kind of entertainment is hard to deny. But how many of these products are truly scary? Unfortunately, I can remember just one movie that impressed me—I will delve into it later. Otherwise, contemporary horror stories emphasize gore and disgust rather than fear—and to me, it is fear that a horror movie should evoke primarily.

I remember trying to watch “The American Horror Story” show. Some of my friends who had watched it before claimed it to be no less than the revival of the horror genre. To me, it was a rather cliched show, with sometimes an intriguing plot, but nothing more than that. I have watched several seasons, with my favorite being the one about a psychiatric asylum, only because it was such a crazy mess of aliens, demons, Nazi scientists, mutants, and psychos—but I cannot say that it is a revival. In my opinion, it was rather a clever exploitation of cliches, a talented potpourri, but not a horror story I would return to.

I think the problem of modern horror as a genre is that we—I mean people—know too much. In this regard, I agree with H. P. Lovecraft, one of my favorite writers, who believed that it is the unknown that makes us fear—something we cannot see or comprehend, something perceived only on the most primitive, instinctive level. For example, what are children afraid of when entering dark basements of their houses? Of the dark itself? Probably not; I think they are scared of all the tiny noises, weird smells, and blurry silhouettes their minds draw on their retinas. Children are afraid because they do not know what awaits them in the basement, and their imagination inhabits peaceful darkness with all kinds of unspeakable dangers.

This is where the main problem of modern horror genre lies: it explains too much. If we see a monster, an egg-head scientist (or a shaman, or a voodoo sorcerer, or a soothsayer, or a crazy homeless person on the street) will explain where it came from: “This is because of radiation,” or “This is because his mother did not love him,” or “This is because parallel dimensions.” Hollywood shows us monsters in details, it relishes in blood and disgusting details—and thus destroys “the effect of the dark basement.”

Do you remember “The Ring?” The Japanese version, not the American remake. It was so frightening not because people all over the world are afraid of little girls in white robes; it was scary because no one expected a girl to be an incarnation of evil (this is, by the way, one of the reasons why “The Exorcist” filmed in 1973 is so scary as well); no one expected a “monster” to have a tragic background story; few have seen horror movies so pumped up with tension and the atmosphere of expecting trouble. How many of those who had watched “The Ring” could not sleep at night, afraid to hear a phone call with a creepy voice saying “Seven days?” I bet a lot. All the numerous remakes and parodies have turned Sadako into a cliche, but when she appeared on screens for the first time, it was like a bomb exploding.

Or, analyzing my personal Japanese favorite, “The Grudge” (“Ju-On” in its original Japanese version), why is it so disturbing? Well, in American horror movies, you can always tell—sometimes from the start—who of the characters will survive; in American horror movies, you can almost always expect the main character to figure out how to fight evil—and to fight back. In “The Grudge,” characters die. Not just secondary characters, but all the characters. They die in the most peculiar ways, and even if they do not, they lose their minds, or lose contact with the rest of the world, crushed by the absurdity and unreality of what they faced. This is why “The Grudge” is scary; its characters act like real people facing an unknown terror, and having no safe place to hide—for in “The Grudge,” evil is omnipresent.

This is why I like Lovecraft’s stories, this is why I like Japanese horror movies: they show, but do not tell, just as the golden rule states. They let you imagine the details yourself, fill in the blanks with your own subconscious fears and insecurities. Specificity and consistency are the main enemies of fear and anxiety—and American movies do just that: they add as much concreteness as possible so that the audience does not have to guess who, why, and what for.

There are exceptions, of course. One of them being “It,” the movie filmed in 2017 after Stephen King’s novel of the same name. As much as I disliked the screen version of 1990, I enjoyed the remake—to the extent that I watched it three times. “It” is still a classic American horror movie, but it has so many excellent nuances and contrasts that the movie has, in my opinion, all chances to become the new classic of American horror cinematography. The clever exploitation of childish fears, shocking scenes, and a beautiful and somewhat tragic atmosphere of childhood passing away, make “It” stand out in the row of faceless popcorn horrors of recent years. As for my taste, there are a bit too many jump-scares, but overall, the movie is definitely a new page for American horrors.

I believe there is a demand for horror stories in modern society—this claim can be proved by a vast amount of more-or-less scary movies released on screens throughout the recent decade. The problem is that horror stories nowadays “talk” to the audience too much—they explain everything, they leave no place for mystery and surrealism. A well-crafted horror story scares with understatements and absurdity, and this is exactly what modern horror cinematography is lacking, in my opinion.

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