By Tom Kapr
Horror may be the most difficult of all genres to define. The harder I try to draw distinct lines around it, the blurrier those lines become; and no two people’s definitions of it are the same.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the denotation of the word itself. Merriam-Webster defines horror as “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay;” “intense aversion or repugnance;” and “repulsive, horrible, or dismal quality or character.” The etymology can be traced back to the Latin horrere, which can mean to dread, to shrink from, to shudder at, to bristle, or to shiver — all apt terms in describing our visceral reaction to well-made dramatic horror.
Most horror films have an element of the supernatural, the fantastic, the otherworldly, or simply the unexplainable. Maybe that is part of the reason why it is such a difficult genre to succinctly explain, because the material itself deals with inexplicable themes. And isn’t that the basest reason why we watch horror movies? Isn’t that the reason the horror filmmakers — the good ones, at least — make them? To explore the unknown and to try to come to grips with our own human fears and frailty?
Horror goes beyond twisted fantasy. Horror is in the world around us. We are confronted by its reality on a daily basis: Serial killers. Terrorist bombings. Rape. Genocide. Nuclear destruction. Cancer, AIDS, death. A YouTube video of a psychopath throwing puppies into a raging river. Somewhere in the world right now, someone is experiencing unspeakable horror. Somewhere in the world right now, someone is committing unspeakable horrors against another human being.
But let’s get back to the movies. Some make categorization easy: Hellraiser? Horror. Night of the Living Dead? Horror. Horrors of Spider Island? Horr — well, actually more like a super-softcore skin-flick, but there are spider-human mutations and such, so, still horror. District 9? Now it becomes more difficult. Duel? Death Proof? Mulholland Drive? The Silence of the Lambs? Thomas Harris’s tale is a horrific one to be sure, but nothing outside the realm of possibility. In fact, Silence more than many films is controversial in its classification, as many would argue that it is a thriller but not a horror.
Schindler’s List? No one would argue against Schindler’s List being one of the most horrifying films ever made. Adolf Hitler was a monster, and the Holocaust is one of the most horrific chapters in our history. In a way, Schindler’s List is more purely horror than Hellraiser, and is a title I always come back to when I think about cinematic horror.
I like Clive Barker’s take on the genre. In the introduction to his compilation book Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, he writes, “Most horror, whether it’s real or fictitious, literary or cinematic, deals with the eruption of chaos into human existence (or else the revelation of its constant, unseen presence)….”
“Horror is everywhere,” he later writes. “It’s in fairy tales and the evening headlines, it’s in street corner gossip and the incontrovertible facts of history. It’s in playground ditties… it’s in the doctor’s surgery… it’s on the altar, bleeding for our sins…. It is so much a part of our lives (and deaths) that a hundred volumes could not fully detail its presence.”
There is yet another take on the horror genre that I quite like, and it’s not just because I wrote it. I found it written in one of my journals from about five years ago, when I was musing about the subject one day:
“A good horror film is more about striking imagery than anything else — visuals and sounds that burrow into your consciousness and dig in their claws, making themselves a uteran home in your mind, gestating till they are stirred by random recollection, and poke forth their heads, whether in conscious feelings of unease or subconscious dream.”
This being the time of year when the horror film is at the forefront of our collective consciousness, I am taking upon myself a month-long movie experiment. Every night for the first 30 nights of October, I will be watching at least one horror film, chosen at random from a predetermined list, and recording impressions of my experiences watching the films, here on the Rant Pad in both video and written form. On Halloween night, I will publish some sort of a horror compilation, a “Top 50” list perhaps, or possibly just some sort of conclusion to the overall experience.
My podcast cohorts are worried about my sanity. True, cramming this much horror, especially since I’ve already gotten a head start, into such a short span of time may drive me to some form of madness. But that’s okay…
Go to Day 1 — Nightbeast
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