Horror or Not Horror?

jmh314

The horror world is a funny thing because as a community we stand together to support the industry we love, but at the same time we often stand divided.  There are times where the question "is such and such a film considered horror" can really spark a great debate among us and leave us with split feelings on a film.  So it begs to questions, what exactly categorizes a film as horror?  There really is no definitive answer as it is going to range from person to person, but one can make an argument for films based on a number of ideas.  The best part of it all is no one is really wrong as everyones idea of horror differs.  

Wikipedia uses the following definition for horror films:

"A series of films that are designed to elicit fright, fear, terror, or horror from viewers. In horror film plots, evil forces, events, or characters, sometimes of supernatural origin, intrude into the everyday world and usually include a central villain." 

This definition may not be agreed upon by eveyone as for some it may be too broad and others it may be too specific.  However, I think it is a very good starting point for each individual determining what they believe to be a horror film.   Obviously plenty of films are easy to determine as horror films.  The earliest horror films were driven by monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Wolfman, and many other characters.  Monster films like this are obviously horror, as are slasher films where you have evil killers such as Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Pinhead, and Candyman.  There is no doubt about films like this being horror, but what if they dont have this straight forwards horror approach?  There are films that are more psychological, more sci-fi, or even with more dark undertones, so why do these films cross into horror?   

I personally think the key thing is using the whole scope of the definition of horror.  For example: the film E.T. is meant to be a family film, yet I have encountered people who think E.T. is creepy and are truly scared of him.  It fits the horror mold as something "unexplained intruding into the everyday world."  However, no matter how much it scares someone I dont think it can be considered horror as it was not "designed to elicit fright, fear, terror or horror from it's viewers."  E.T. was never intended to create fear or terror, therefore I dont think it can ever be considered a horror movie.  Just because a film may unintentionally scare someone doesnt mean that it should always be considered horror as that may not have been the intention of the film.  

Obviously E.T. is a strange example as it isnt a film thats often debated as a horror film, but what about films that can go either way?  Films that may be more mystery, pyschological, action, and even sci-fi/fantasy can push the horror boundaries.  Obviously each film is in the eye of the beholder, but lets take a look at some and compare them with similar films.  Many of these movie sub-genre's are often lumped together as "thriller" but in order to understand why people may consider them horror I broke them into smaller categories.   

Let me start with films that fall into the mystery/crime category.  Obviously there are plenty of films that fall into this category as there seems to be a new film every month with police in pursuit of a killer.  These often times depict brutal muders, but arent always seen as horror, so at what point does a police investigation turn into horror?  For this lets talk about the film Se7en.  Se7en centers mainly on the police pursuit of an unknown serial killer, it just so happens the killer uses very sadistic methods to kill and the film had some gore to it.  Many people would say the grisly images and psychotic killer make Se7en a horror.  So if thats the case, then were do films like Zodiac fit in?  Zodiac has an evil unknown killer as the central villian and can be seen as causing fear in it's viewer, but its not as gory and sadistic.  Despite this its still considered horror by many becaue of the killer and the fear his killings caused.  While everyone may not agree with this, it may help understand how films like Se7en, Zodiac, The Bone Collector, and maybe even No Country for Old Men end up in people's horror discussions. 

As with crime/mystery category, psychological movies are often debated as sometimes being horror.  The master of the psychological film was obviously Alfred Hitchcock with films like Rear Window and Pyscho really playing with peoples minds and turning ordinary characters into creepy and evil villians.  There are plenty of modern day psycological films that rely on characters creepy personality to cause fear in it's viewers.  Sometimes these films have no gore and no kills, but are meant to have realism to make the viewers uncomfortable. A film that comes to mind in recent years is a personal favorite of mine, One Hour Photo.  While many may not look at this as breaching into the horror genre, I feel it does because of the level fear & paranoia it creates.  It reminds me of Psycho in style as it has an average, everyday person who's personality takes him over and does creepy things.  It provides a bit more realism because the villian is portrayed as a person you may encounter in everyday life who may be as crazy as they come.  To me this is as good as any horror film because it was meant to cause fear in its viewers with the thought that this could happen to them in real life. To others, they may be bored to death and find nothing horrifying about it.  But there is no doubt that films like One Hour Photo, Hard Candy, and Spiral often scare more people with it's everyday characters than some make-believe horror icons, so it is completely understandable if people call these horror movies.  

Action horror is an interesting category to look at because at what point does an action movie turn to horror?  The Asian film Battle Royale is an interesting look at this because it is primarily an action/drama that many people consider horror.  The brutality of the film and fact that people are forced to kill each other make people believe that this is a horror film.  But what happens when you compare this film to the film The Condemned?  A lot of people consider this film a complete rip-off of Battle Royale, yet I never hear it mentioned in the horror community.  So what did Battle Royale provide us with that The Condemned didnt?  Maybe a little more gore and a higher body count, but if thats the case then why isnt Rambo or Saving Private Ryan considered horror?  Like Battle Royale, they have high body counts and plenty of gore and after all, war is hell.  So can you really say anyone is wrong if they personally consider these movies horror if Battle Royale is considered horror?  While I dont hear many people consider Saving Private Ryan or Rambo horror, I'm sure someone out there could make a justifiable argument why they consider these films horrifying.

Another category that provides some horror crossover is sci-fi/fantasy films.  While some films like The Thing and Alien are films that are definate crossovers into the horror genre, some arent as obvious.  For instance, what about a fantasy film like Pan's Labyrinth?  It uses elements of fantasy to create a dark and macabre story and has very creepy characters. It also has gore but that comes from the war story that runs parallel with the fantasy elements.  So do these elements push it from fantasy to horror?  The elements are there with unexplained fantasy characters who intrude every day life and a central villian who provides random acts of killing/violence.  Some would say that this enteres into the realm of horror but yet many people wouldnt consider this any more than a dark drama. 

I know this is a wide range of ideas and arguments, and Iam not saying any of them are correct.  I just find it fascinating that even after all these factors, there is no right or wrong idea of whats a horror film.  I think thats something to love about the horror genre is that everyone enjoys different films based on how they interpret them.  How many other genre's of movies really blur the lines of the imagination like horror do?  None.  And thats whats so great about horror, it is what you make of it and not what others want you to make it. 

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