Please Stop Explaining The Horrors
Every kid is scared of the boogie monster. What did it look like for you? You probably can’t say, and if you can, whatever you imagined is different than what I imagined, and certainly scarier than whatever the actual boogie monster might have looked like if you’d ever seen it. Where did it live? Under the bed? In the closet? Wherever felt scariest for you, if I had to guess.
Now imagine that at eight years old, you learned that the boogie monster’s brother died when it was a child. And the boogie monster hid the last birthday gift it ever got from its dead brother under the floorboards of its bedroom. And when the boogie monster’s family moved, it went searching for that all-important memento, but couldn’t find it, and it searched and it searched, but never found what it was looking for. So the boogie monster’s trauma brings it back to this house, searching under the floorboard, which just so happens to be under your bed, and all it wants is to find this totem of its beloved brother, of the fraternal bond it once felt.
Yeah, not very scary anymore.
Or, let’s say, your parents make a game out of figuring out who the boogie monster is. You’ve been told it has to be someone who visited the house in the last 48 hours. And you’re given clues throughout the night about the monster’s identity. Again – the monster loses its power to terrorize, this time by becoming no scarier than the subject of a riddle.
This is the epidemic facing American horror films in the new century. The need to explain, to justify, to spell out the shape of the horror – its backstory and its motivations – has sucked the fear out of movies faster than a pin deflating a Frankenstein balloon.
Whether you look at critics or box office or even just the number of genre films getting made, we’re living in a peak era for horror. And yet, too many suffer from a modern-day obsession with puzzle-box entertainment. Some of the 21st century’s most popular films and television shows have followed in the wake of Lost, giving viewers something to figure out – or be shocked by – over the course of watching. Inception and The Prestige and Knives Out, Westworld, Mare of Easttown and True Detective – this is what captures the imagination of bloggers, podcasters, and Twitter. And it has its hooks in the horror genre.
Because horror movies are natural prey for this predatory trend: it’s an entire genre that comes with questions baked right in. Who – or what – is behind the terror? And why are they doing it?
So let’s take these questions in turn, and peek under the covers to see where the fear has slipped through the cracks. It must be said that this is a general trend; it doesn’t apply to all movies, or even the majority. But it has afflicted a noticeable subset of this writer’s favorite genre.
This is a two-parter. First, the Jaws rule. If there’s a terrifying thing that’s targeting and killing the people we care about, don’t spend all that much time showing us the terrifying thing. Just show us the terrified people.
Sure, this rule is named after an economic and artistic necessity, but it holds true nonetheless. We didn’t hang out with Michael Myers in Halloween. In fact, he never takes his mask off, and we don't learn who he is. In the original Black Christmas, the killer is merely heard on the phone – and even then, our access to him is limited. Compare that to something like The Black Phone, where, despite his commanding performance, Ethan Hawke's "The Grabber" loses his power for every additional minute he's on-screen.
This also explains the diminishing returns of horror sequels - for example, 2021's Candyman. As soon as we rush to the theater to see our old pal, the villain, we've stopped being scared. It doesn't mean they'll be less successful as movies; just less successful in scaring us.
It’s important to remember that in these cases, the who of the monster isn’t necessarily a complete secret. After all, we know it’s a fucking shark terrorizing the citizens of Amity Island. And that brings us to the second rule of the who of horror villains: it’s better to reveal your monster than to make its identity the central mystery of the film.
Look, if you want to make a mystery film, that’s fine. But there’s a reason Agatha Christie wasn’t the highest-selling horror author in history. It’s not scary when your characters spend the entire time trying to solve the puzzle box. This is a particular problem in modern-day slashers. I’ve already cited Halloween and Black Christmas, but let’s look at another classic slasher, Nightmare on Elm Street. Sure, we spend far more time with Freddy Krueger than with Michael Myers, but we also learn fairly quickly who he is and how he kills. We’re given just enough information to be absolutely horrified any time one of our favorites realizes they’re in a dream. We know what’s coming.
That’s much scarier than a movie like Bodies Bodies Bodies, a modern-day twist on the slasher that spends more time trying to confuse its audience and its characters than it does trying to scare them. It’s a film that wants to be smarter than its audience, so it wastes time with red herrings and overly complicated plot mechanics. It’s a fairly successful film; it’s also a complete failure of a horror film.
And it represents the trend of horror movies spending long segments as procedural crime dramas - like Sinister, Smile, The Black Phone. The act of solving the mystery becomes front-and-center, and the fear fades away.
But the who isn't the only problem - because the truth is, there have been plenty of monsters that viewers get to spend time with. Movies have diverged from the Jaws Rule and welcomed their villains into our living rooms for extended periods of time – and yet we’ve still been terrified. That brings us to an equally important question that recent horror movies have insisted upon answering in excruciating detail:
We fear what we cannot understand – this is human nature.
I cannot grasp the depravity of Leatherface. This is what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre one of the scariest movies ever.
Or take Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s gripping, horrifying, fucked-up home invasion movie. It preys on the public’s fascination with real life home invasions horrors – when there’s no motive, it could happen to anyone. It could just as well have been you or me when these lunatics are picking a house at random. It's why I can't watch The Strangers without the lights on. But compare those to a movie like Who Invited Them – an otherwise unsettling and chilling home invasion movie out this year that devolves into the type of over-explaining and too-neat endings that plague horror movies of the last decade.
The most frustrating part of this phenomena is that it leaves us with horror movies that work perfectly…until the last act. Take a movie like Smile. There’s something so sinister about the inhuman smiles plastered on the faces of those who foretell doom. And then, suddenly, the movie shifts into a detective thriller in its second act, as the two main characters piece together the puzzle behind the murders. And worse than that, the final act dives into psychological motivation, working hard to link the horrors to grief and trauma. And Smile loses its terror.
Grief and trauma have always played an important role in movies, it’s just in the last decade that filmmakers have become obsessed with transforming the subtext into bold, underlined, header-sized text. In pursuit of the mythical “elevated horror” crossover, movies like Men, Barbarian, and Hereditary offer convoluted back stories or final act reveals about the horrors behind what was already scaring the shit out of us. And these are movies I like!
There’s one important caveat to this rule: the slow build. When a movie’s horrors come from the deliberate act of watching someone lose their mind, the explanation is part of what’s scary. Just like Funny Games instills fear because the victims could be anyone – including us – so too does The Shining scare us because Jack Torrance could be someone we know. It’s the same reason why TÁR, while not a horror movie, is nonetheless horrifying. When someone we’ve identified with becomes deranged, we’re not just scared of what they do, not just scared of them…we’re scared of ourselves.
This is the brilliance of this year’s Pearl, a note-perfect exercise in watching recognizable circumstances bring about a young woman’s psychological deterioration. It's a prequel to X, a more traditional horror movie released a few months later, and director Ti West had the foresight not to reveal too much about Howard and Pearl’s motivation in the earlier release. He subverts our image of an elderly couple, turning them into sexual, demented beings that we cannot understand from prior experience. If Pearl had come first – or if we’d gotten an explainer on her motivation halfway through the third act of X – the film would have lost its power. But by saving her story for Pearl, and turning the prequel into the slow-burn spiral of one woman, West has given us two different types of terror.
Modern-day horror directors should take a page from his book. Stop explaining; we don't want to know. Just scare us.