The Art of Horror: Mirroring Reality

picture from The Haunting (1999)

I love horror movies. Not the slasher, blood-and-guts-everywhere kind—the supernatural/psychological thriller kind. They fascinate me. They terrify me. I’ll even watch the cheesy 50’s movies with black-and-white zombies or bad Edgar Allen Poe retellings.

My partner doesn’t like them so much because he finds them predictable.

And yes, I can admit they’re predictable, but for some reason, that doesn’t diminish their scare value. In any other genre, predictability would be likely to annoy me. But in horror, it’s okay. I don’t think horror movies are as much about originality as they are reality.

Now I know that last statement probably left you sitting there thinking, “what kind of reality does she have if she thinks horror movies are about reality?”

No, you’re right. On the surface, they are far from realistic, but there’s always more than just what’s on the surface.

Just as fiction can sometimes represent truth more accurately than non-fiction, horror movies can represent reality better than realism. Horror movies personify our problems, fears, and relationships. And the better they are able to capture that, the better they are—even if the ending is so predictable the plot summary can make you yawn.

We all know how most horror movies end. We certainly don’t watch them for the ending any more than we watch romantic comedies for their surprising twists or action movies for their intelligent dialogue. The lingering popularity of horror movies, I think, lies in their ability to represent something deeper.

The family looking for a new start that moves into a house only to discover that they can’t make that fresh happily-ever-after ending they were seeking. The parents that refuse to listen to their child who is crying out for someone—anyone—to open his/her eyes enough to see what the child sees. The friends who discover that someone isn’t to be trusted, a discovery they make too late. The person falling in love with the not-so-nice stranger. The haunting way a dead loved one lingers around or the terrifying absence of another.

For every one of these, we can look at the characters and say, “No, don’t go in there!” “Listen to what she’s saying!” “Don’t trust him!” “Don’t run that way!”

We know what’s waiting on the other side for these people—we’ve been there. Maybe we currently are there. Not literally, but in other ways.

We know the destruction that can come to a family that hides secrets from each other. A monster may not come out and mutilate them, but then again, perhaps a monster does, they just can’t see it. They can only feel the effects.

Horror movies are predictable because they’re supposed to be—they need to be in order for us to relate to them. In fact, I think the most terrifying part of a horror movie is that the predictability is so damn realistic. So I watch them, because I want to feel the ability to scream out those warnings, knowing that in that situation, I probably would be doing the same thing.