"Everyone's entitled to one good scare," says the sheriff with a knowing wink, foreshadowing the iconic night Jamie Lee Curtis has ahead of her in John Carpenter's Halloween. The line and the film have since passed into cinematic infamy, launching a whole era of genre movies that changed the pop culture landscape of the decade to come. Furthermore, the sentiment rings true with audiences. Box office returns prove people love their fright flicks, flocking in droves to see whatever blood flood has hit the multiplex that week.
Yet, for all this love of horror, when it comes time to dole out artistic praise, genre films are always dead last.
As someone who works primarily within the field of fear, it's a condescension I've come to know well. Tell one of the Hollywood elite that you work on "monster movies" and you get a glib "How nice," as if you've just announced you can tie your own shoes. Horror routinely gets passed over for award nominations, and Stephen King, though decorated and honored, has had to face venomous criticism from crusty academics his whole writing career. We monster kids routinely get looked down upon by the "real" artists, and I find it not only pretentious, but perplexing.
I recently was discussing this very issue with filmmaker, collaborator, and friend Bart Mastronardi. An accomplished master of his craft, Bart and I share a great interest in film history, and so I was surprised to discover that he also found the easy dismissal of horror to be confusing.
"It really doesn't make sense," Bart said to me, "Because, when you think about it, horror is the genre with the most potential."
That's really true. The fears of a society or culture can tell us infinitely more about its people than the mundane aspects of daily life. Furthermore, good horror has always been utilized as a reflection of what was occurring in the world at the time. For example, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein emerged out of an era where the debate between science and religion was full swing, and if you think the rise of torture films like Saw or Hostel just happened to coincidentally coincide with the events of Abu Ghraib, you'd be mistaken.
Horror is the mirror that shows us our darkest selves, serving as a commentary on the aspects of humanity that we often choose to ignore. It's art doing what art is supposed to do.
At the root of all good horror, there's a kernel of truth. On the surface you may think you're seeing monsters, but in reality, you're seeing people, society, and all the things we only dare show through a veil. Horror's important because it reveals who we really are, even if doing so requires a mask.
Granted, the genre has also been responsible for over-saturating itself. The 1980s were a windfall of slasher movies whose sole purpose was to capitalize on the financial successes of similar films. This flood undoubtedly helped contribute to the snobbery horror tends to face today. However, I think it's also crucial to embrace the campier aspects of our beloved genre. After all, there are many nights when I get home from the office where I'd much rather watch Ghoulies III: Ghoules Go to College than Sophie's Choice. It's not that Pakula didn't craft the superior film, but who wants to deal with that after a full day? Furthermore, the endless supply of imitators and exploitation of the horror genre should only further serve to prove its credibility. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery, and these films all recognize that within the course of the horror history, there have been some films that have simply changed how things are done.
Horror, above all other genres, allows artistic freedom from societal trappings and conservative "morality," which is why so many great masters (such as Kubrick, Bergman, and Kurosawa) have dabbled in the darkness to make a statement.
Horror is likely also the only genre that is self-aware. Films like Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon's recent The Cabin in the Woods rely on the tropes of the genre to pull back another layer about society and its expectations. By being able to joke about what we've become, horror allows us to delve deeper into our comforts and constantly reinvent the art form.
It can be campy, and it can be fun.
But, it can also be challenging, unforgiving, and true.
Horror matters, because we're all victims... and we're all monsters.
Personally, I don't believe that any one art or genre is better than any other, but I've always been a firm defender of fright flicks because of what they offer. Admittedly, there will always be naysayers, but they can have their ivory tower. After all, we have the truth...
...and the night.