I’m the first to admit I’m a shameless wimp when it comes to scary movies. I’m a total coward whenever an unsuspecting girl walks into a dark basement, a scream is heard from a distance, or a door shuts by itself. I know my man-card should have been revoked a long time ago due to my pathetic cowering in the arms of my girlfriend every time I see a horror film.

Written by Matt

I’m the first to admit I’m a shameless wimp when it comes to scary movies. I’m a total coward whenever an unsuspecting girl walks into a dark basement, a scream is heard from a distance, or a door shuts by itself. I know my man-card should have been revoked a long time ago due to my pathetic cowering in the arms of my girlfriend every time I see a horror film.

But despite this, I can’t say I dislike the genre of horror. Some of my favourite films of all time are classic scary movies, like Jaws and The Shining. Yet, I feel the genre has run itself into the ground in recent years. I’ve seen horror films take a sort of reverse evolution in the past decade, where a very diverse and exciting type of filmmaking has become a tired, lifeless body of films that resemble each other visually, thematically and in terms of scares. This is why I, as a proud wimp, turn to the classics for my horror, and avoid the modern.

Horror movies back then were just plain cuter

As a disclaimer, I’m not saying ALL recent horror films are bad, I’m mostly talking about recent Hollywood mainstream horror. Though I haven’t seen them, I’ve heard films like Let the Right One In, [Rec] and others are good, recent horror movies, but they’re not what I’m referring to. The films I want to complain about are the bland, haunted house films that have been an epidemic since the mid 2000s.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is, for me, a prime example of what made the horror films of the past so great. The Thing isn’t about startling you to the point of urination, it’s about a blend of story and atmosphere that combine in just the right way to become terrifying. To illustrate my point, let’s look at Paranormal Activity. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like Paranormal Activity, it does some incredible things on a shoestring budget. It’s definitely scary, but the way in which it presents these scares demonstrates the issues with modern horror movies. Paranormal Activity is all about suspense that builds and builds until a final payoff where everyone screams, laughs and wets themselves (not necessarily in that order). Take for example the scene when Katie wakes up from a nightmare, and then a thunderous, startling bump is heard from downstairs. Everyone is totally freaked out, but then next thing you know it’s daylight and every one feels safe for a little while. The whole film is a series of startles like that one, followed by lulls. The audience knows when to feel safe, and when to feel scared.

He can pretend the cameras were for catching ghosts, but we all know he was in talks with Brazzers.

Now think of The Thing. From the moment that husky shows up, the audience is no longer allowed to feel safe. It doesn’t matter if it’s light outside, or if the characters are playing pool, any feelings of safety and security are gone. Instead of building over the course of one scene, like in Paranormal Activity, tension builds throughout the entire movie. There are no cheap, startling payoffs, either. When you do get startled, for instance when MacReady tests Palmer’s blood, the terror doesn’t stop, we don’t get to take a break in the sunshine, the audience keeps clutching the arms of those next to them as the monster attacks.

I’ll say it though, Paranormal Activity is a scarier movie to watch. I found myself jumping and screaming much more than I’d like to admit, and definitely more often than when I watched The Thing. But when I say that, I’m talking about the actual act of watching the film. During the hour and a half Paranormal Activity was in front of my eyes, I was terrified. But when it ended, I didn’t care anymore. When the credits rolled, I breathed a nice sigh of relief and went on with my day. The Thing on the other hand did a lot more for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it when it was over; the atmosphere and tone overtook me. Could someone around me be the thing? What would I do if I had to fend those things off?

The reason I felt this way is simple, and is the central reason I think modern horror movies have lost their appeal for me: In recent mainstream Hollywood horror movies, you’re scared of being startled. In classic horrors, you’re scared of the same thing the characters are.

It all comes back to the writing for me. Stronger characters make for more empathy and more empathy means you don’t want the characters suffer, not wanting the characters to suffer means you’re terrified when they’re in danger. When you’re scared for the characters, the horrifying bits mean a whole lot more. Take Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws. Another film without a lot of startles, but still very scary. Would the film be as scary if you didn’t care about Martin Brody? He’s the kind of character you root for: he’s a humble man with a job to do and a family to protect. He’s also a quiet, reluctant man who has to step infinitely far out of his comfort zone and kill a shark.

“Hey, you guys like fish sticks?”

Because you care for Brody, Quint, Hooper and the rest of Amity, the shark is that much scarier. When it shows up, you jump, not because it just popped out in the dark with a loud bang, but because you know what’s coming. The fear doesn’t come from the shock, it comes from knowing the shock is on the way. Making it even worse, there’s nothing you can do to help these characters you’ve grown to know and love.

Hitchcock was the master of this type of suspense. His films created suspense through letting the audience know about the terror that was to come later in the film. In Vertigo, you know Scottie’s condition is going to kick in, and in Sabotage you know the bomb is going to explode at 1:45. He also created tension through dramatic irony, like in Rope, where the audience knows there is a body hidden in a chest off of which a group of unsuspecting party guests are eating.

Unlike the suspenseful and tense horror films like Jaws, The Thing, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, newer horror films are much more about the easy, but frightening scares. Writers focus more on making you wet your pants, and less on creating quality characters and brooding atmospheres. The effect is that you’ll be scared in the theatre, but forget all about it when you leave. This is even more obvious with recent horror flicks inferior to Paranormal Activity, like The Devil InsideThe Last House on the Left, or The Happening (a little more atmospheric, but still lame). The 2011 remake of The Thing provides a perfect example of this idea. Compared to the original, it’s just a bunch of startling moments that add up to nothing memorable.

The bottom line is modern mainstream horror seems to have adopted the idea the only way to scare an audience is through a series of “boo scares.” Sure they make the audience jump, but is that really what makes a film truly scary? Movies like The Thing and Jaws make you feel connected to the plot, characters and setting before throwing them into terror. That’s what makes for a memorable horror movie that resonates with the audience long after it’s over.