Queen's Policy Engagement

Why true horror movies are about more than things going bump in the night

Aislinn Clarke takes a look at her latest film release "The Devil's Doorway" and asks what exactly is a horror film.

Why true horror movies are about more than things going bump in the night

Critics seem to have been shocked by horror films in the past few years. Of all people, they shouldn’t be, as shock is one of the cheap tricks for which they have always denigrated horror movies. Shock is easy and effective, but it’s vulgar. And scary movies are an amusement ride that rack up tension towards a peak, then drop us into a trough with a scream. It’s the same ride every time and we loop back to where we began. They are that mechanical.

But films such as Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Robert Eggers’ The Witch have changed that. They have been praised in the mainstream press for their lofty ambitions, their social consciences, and their worthiness. The critical impulse, however, has been to file them away as categorical errors: they can’t possibly be horror films, because horror films are just thrill rides.

But horror stories have long grappled with deeper themes of human experience. Frankenstein is rich with questions about the meaning of nurture and of empathy. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores the duality of man. “Shock horror” films are different, feeling much closer to pornography than art – the story doesn’t matter, it’s about the extremity of what you see. Indeed, after pornography, horror is the highest-grossing genre of film. No wonder critics attempted to move the films they like out of such company and rehabilitate them, as has been done with classic horror literature.

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Article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Aislinn Clarke
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Aislinn Clarke is a Lecturer in Film Studies at Queen's University Belfast. She is an award-winning scriptwriter, film-maker and director, whose work has been professionally produced for film, stage, and radio internationally.

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