My History in Horror
One film fan’s journey from skeptic to believer
For most of my life, I never appreciated horror movies. It took decades for me to realize the point was often to not leave me horrified, but entertained and curious.
Despite how popular horror seemed to be for most of my childhood, thanks to slasher icons like Michael Meyers, Jason Vorrhees, and Freddy Kruger, I never found any of these fright flicks very frightening. They just struck me as silly, filling my young mind with questions that are cliches at this point. Why are people going into the murder places? Why don’t they leave the murder places? Why do they split up at the murder places?
In hindsight, a smarter version of me should have pretended to like horror movies more to score dates as a teenager. Another late-in-life revelation occurred to me: The first horror movie I can remember seeing was “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 famed adaptation of the Stephen King novel. As I was an only child about the same age as Danny (Danny Boyd), a young boy stuck in a secluded (and haunted) hotel with his mother (Shelly Duval) and slowly-going-mad father (Jack Nicholson), it was easy to be drawn in as the film arrived on early pay cable movie channels. But as an adult, I can see Kubrick’s unsettling masterpiece set a high bar for horror movies that impacted my perception of the genre before I even had the tools to understand it.
As a result, I promptly ignored the vast majority of horror releases during an influential decade, choosing instead to focus on high-concept films of fantasy and science fiction. Like typical film bros of Generation X, my filmgoing teenage years led to an eventual discovery of David Lynch, and later in college, Quentin Tarantino, plus all of their influences and knockoffs. The hyper-awareness of their own film work put me in the headspace to appreciate 1996’s “Scream,” the meta-slasher picture from director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. I enjoyed the acknowledgment of all of the genre tropes, but as the success of “Scream” led to more sequels and knock-offs, my interest in seeing the magic tricks again and again continued to dissipate. All was not lost, though: The duo hit from 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Sixth Sense” thrilled me in appreciate of what inventive filmmakers can do with the genre.
But as the 90s turned into the 00s, the emotional baggage and responsibilities involved in adulthood, combined with a radically different American mentality I didn’t foresee, I occasionally found cathartic release by watching more horror movies. By this point, I grew more aware of different genres of horror that moved beyond slasher films in mainstream popularity, like Japanese supernatural and torture porn. The series that pulled me in the most were the Saw films. The first “Saw” was released in the fall of 2004 and earned good buzz online. A day after the 2004 presidential election and being mercilessly trolled about the results from co-workers, I abruptly took a half-day and went to the movies to watch revenge and dismemberment on the big screen because it was much more preferable. And I surprisingly enjoyed it! Seeing the gruesome twists and turns conceived by the Jigsaw character appealed to the Batman and Riddler fan in me. The success of the first “Saw” led to multiple sequels, often released annually around Halloween, and I hung in there for a couple of years. However, I tapped out after the third or fourth movie, once series mythology consumed any fresh surprises available.
I may not have cracked the value of horror yet, but I was close. I was more open to seeing horror films than I had been in the past, once I realized I could explore different subgenres both past and present. There’s no doubt that the decade of the 2010s was a revolutionary one for the genre; not only did the advent of streaming making horror films much more available and accessible to audiences, but a number of new and exciting filmmakers raised on the classics were making impressive debuts. I believe another trend was impacting Hollywood; the studios’ increasing focus on franchises and intellectual property movies hallowed out their mid-budget variety of films that used to be their bread-and-butter. By the end of the decade, people going to the movies were essentially left with the choice of either seeing a big-budget superhero film or a low-budget horror flick. David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” chilled me to the bone. Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” haunted me. My eyes were being opened to the possibilities.
My curiosity was growing about horror, but where would I find time to take the next steps in the most prolific genre in film? Little did I know a worldwide pandemic was on the horizon, forcing me into the house with little to do other than contemplate the state of humanity. It is with this mentality that gave me the time and motivation to track down “Mandy,” the 2018 Panos Cosmatos revenge flick with an acclaimed Nicolas Cage performance. “Mandy” was available on the horror streaming service Shudder so I signed up for a trial. I immediately loved the service, and have been a subscriber ever since. Shudder compartmentalizes the entire horror genre in a way that’s understandable, from “Slashics” to deep dives into Italian horror. It was through Shudder that I found the In Search of Darkness documentaries, which offered long dives into the great genre films of the 80s.
Watching these retrospectives with creators, actors, and fans alongside the new work has given me the realization that so much of the horror genre is pure filmmaker crafted at its basic level: An idea morphs into a story, a handful of passionate craftspeople and artists come together and somehow create something out of nothing. The fact that so much of horror is made at a low budget that it flies under the radar, while a sizable audience of enthusiastic fans embrace and discuss the work. It’s possible that there are similar toxic and gatekeeping groups of people who tend to ruin conversations about horror films, like there is in so many other subcultures, but I feel fortunate to not have encountered them in person or online. All I can see is the fun and enthusiasm throughout the film genre in greatness and shlock, and everything in between.
There’s a neighborhood theater where I live that hosts regular horror film nights highlighting both the classics and anticipated new films. I’ve been to a few of them, and it’s always a great experience for me, even if I don’t know many of the people around me or have even seen the film they’re playing. Today it’s clear that horror is one of the essential genres of film, one in which so many of our common understanding of cinema would not exist without it. It took a while, but I’m glad I finally walked into this particular terrifying house of film. Now I just have to find the time to catch up on all of it.