I have been a fan of horror and horror movies all my life. That and the superhero genre, have been neck and neck as my favorite forms of entertainment for as long as I can remember.
One of the more fascinating elements I’ve noted about the horror genre over the years, perhaps a mild form of irritation, was that the ratio of good to bad horror was so one-sided, in that there was always, always more bad horror than good. That in fact, really good horrror was more of an anomaly than anything else. Eventually, it got to the point where I made a conscious effort to mark what it was that made a bad horror move bad, and a good horror movie good.
Some of the causes boilded town to basic story-telling and movie-making failures. A bad story is a bad story after all. But This is only part of the tale, for in a horror film there are further elements that must be considered at the end of the day. These elements compose a narrative template that we will now examine.
The Honeymoon Phase
The protagonist is generally celebrating a new event in their life. They just obtained a new job, or promotion, or are on vacation, or they have recently moved to a new area. This event can take form in many ways but generally it is something the protagonist is optimistic about. This ‘high point’ as a starting position is good because it allows for a descending phase when things start to go bad in the film.
A word on what makes a good horror movie protagonist
When it comes to horror movies, the type of protagonist used plays a huge part in how effective the ‘horror’ element is. To better understand why this is so important we will take a detour to briefly discuss what the goal of a horror movie is. One of the primary goals of a horror film is to garner an emotional reaction from the viewer. These emotions entail fear, shock, anxiety, and sometimes revulsion. This comes from the act of the viewers putting themselves in the shoes of the protagonist and other participants in the film. When a character walks down a dark alley that the viewer believes harbors something dangerous. Danger is the key ingredient here. Without danger, without the possibility of the protagonist coming to harm, there is no reason for the viewer to fear for them.
Because of this paradigm, a good horror movie protagonist is usually someone who is more vulnerable to threats or at least appears to be, this is usually a woman or a child. Given the nature of most societies, these types of protagonists are easier for the audience to believe are susceptible to the threat. The more powerful the protagonist, the more difficult it is to achieve this dynamic. For example, the long-haired ghost woman from The Grudge trying to scare Thanos (a God-like Marvel comics villain) by touching him on the shoulder is not scary…it’s comedic.
I’ve found that horror movies where the protagonist is already living a nightmare to be less enjoyable than those that present a protagonist who is generally doing okay in life. Protagonist who are destitute, homeless, live in a war torn country or whom have a terminal illness are already in a horror movie…piling on to these circumstances seems redundant and nihilistic. As I will discuss later, nihilism, as far as I’m concerned, has no place in a horror movie. The one caveat I would make for using such a protagonist would be if overcoming the additional horror also aids in overcoming their original horrific circumstances.
The Courting Phase
This is where the negative force, the antagonist, begins to make itself known to the protagonist. This sometimes begins gradually, sometimes a little more immediate. In this phase the protagonist becomes uneasy as they begin to feel something is not quite right. It’s also in this phase where the movie usually gives birth to what kind of movie it is by having this event be scary or unnerving.
The First Date
The antagonist has made itself fully known. It establishes itself as a danger and tries to accomplish whatever nefarious goal it has in mind. Of course the protagonist survives this event, otherwise there would be no horror movie.
The Scooby Doo phase
In this phase the protagonist seeks to understand their foe (bad-guy, beasty, ghost, demon, creepy aliens, whatever). Sometimes this information is garnered from books but often this information is acquired from a wiser, more knowledgeable third-party. Sometimes this third-party will join the protagonist to help them fight the antagonist.
Applying What You Have Learned
This is the final exam. Where this new knowledge is used to vanquish the antagonist. What effect this has on the protagonist is myriad but generally they come out of the event stronger and wiser than they began. Sometimes if they fail to apply what they have learned (or don’t learn anything at all)…they die.
Some horror films take the route where the protagonist garners nothing from the events but death. This being the filmmakers intention all along. These films and those who make them have a nihilistic view of the world. Life means nothing. People mean nothing. Nothing means anything. Other filmmakers simply take delight in watching others suffer. There are viewers who get off on this sort of thing but I have no interest in knowing or meeting them such folk.
I do not love horror because I like to see people in pain or to suffer. I love horror because I love to see people overcome adversity. I love horror for the same reason I love the concept of a superhero. I love to see people stand up against evil. I love to see monsters vanquished. I love to see the bad guy pay. Some believe that people who enjoy horror do so out of cynicism. In my case it is quite the opposite.
I know I have watched a good horror film because it reaffirms my belief in the power of the human spirit, the soul. I know I have watched a good horror film because no matter how dark and horrific the events may have been, in the end it reaffirms my belief in the power of humanity.
The best horror films are an exercise in the power of the light…not the power of the dark.