2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Horror’s Fight for Respect


Outside of the visual effects department, horror has a hard time getting recognized by critics and awards organizations. As the skeleton in cinema’s closet, only a handful of horrors have been held up as acceptable within the canon and many of them are enveloped in a swirling semantics discussion that robs them of their genre pedigree. Take any horror that has found some critical momentum and it won’t take long for someone to argue it’s not a “real” horror movie, but instead a thriller or some other genre hybrid. Horror is such a dirty word that critics and cinephiles alike have tried to argue the genre’s “outliers” as anything other than horror.

For Glamour, writer Abigail McCoy recently published an article about her aversion to horror called “Do People Actually Enjoy Watching Horror Movies?” The article, which frankly offers no insight as to why she doesn’t like horror and offers no opportunity to really understand why others might, touches on an audience aversion problem. Even the best horror films, the ones that critics at large feel comfortable endorsing as “art” rather than just entertainment, are met with a wall of discomfort. In spite of the fact that horror has a strong and diverse fanbase, it still seems to occupy a niche space compared to other visceral genres like comedy or melodrama. While horror may be the most oft-produced genre to deliver high returns on low production costs, it struggles to find respect.

For the canonical aggregated list “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?,” only one true horror film finds its way into the top 100 films — Steven Spielberg’s Jaws at #92, which challenges easy genre categorization and can be thought of as a blockbuster first and a horror film second. Two films by David Lynch do a little better, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. (which are sometimes lumped into the horror genre), with the latter placed at #66 — the highest horror ranking on the list. The value of the canon doesn’t reflect which films are actually the best or most important, as it highlights the opinions of the participants. While horror gains more representation deeper into the list, its woeful under-representation suggests its perceived lack of value within the greater ranks of cinema.

Does this mean there’s no horror films that are better or more important than movies like Pulp Fiction, The Conformist, La Strada or Wild Strawberries? Possibly. But, the question as to why so few horror films are considered worthy of the same respect as the great auteurs of American and European cinema reflects less on the quality of great horror than on the critics tasked with choosing the greatest films ever made. Horror’s goal to “scare” puts it at odds with the perceived tenuous artistic value of cinema itself. While cinema is well over 100 years old, it still often seems like the medium has something to prove and horror can seem at odds with the task of being taken seriously.

Perhaps, more deeply, horror exposes and challenges audiences on a primal level. Aesthetically and ideologically, it is a genre that confronts audiences with truths they may not be willing to face. Wrapped in mythology and monstrosity, it harkens to an ancient and perhaps unrefined time space that doesn’t allow for easy experiences or interpretations. Even within mainstream horror like I Know What You Did Last Summer or the Halloween franchise, these films do not suggest a comfortable narrative finality. While these examples did eventually lead into sequels, others like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas end on a cynical note where the killer is still free and likely still in the house. The genre itself rests precariously on an open-endedness that challenges easy interpretation.

In many ways, the fragility of fear itself defies the normal routes of discussion. More than laughter or pleasure, fear and horror require giving yourself over to the reader — something that many critics are uncomfortable doing. Basic horror discourse still floats around the idea of what works and what doesn’t with an unnatural amount of space still devoted to whether or not a film uses jump scares or not rather than an in-depth examination of fear. A certain vulnerability lies at the heart of the best horror writing, something that has perhaps been perceived as antithetical to the critical process.

Writers like Kier-La Janisse and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas touch on the personal in their approach to horror. In Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women, she looks at horror from an autobiographical perspective, touching on how the psychotic and “problematic” women of genre cinema helped ground her. In a recent piece for the Overland Journal, Heller-Nicholas tackles the image of the witch on the big screen, recontextualizing the “cleaning” image of the witch on screen, like with Sabrina the Teenage Witch:

“Mainstream postfeminism in the era of the Spice Girls broadly reconfigured grotesque, malevolent evil into something far sassier and lip-gloss wearing.”

While this quirkification of the witch satisfied many feminist critics at the time — understood as a shift from a blanket notion monstrous-femininity to a more positive representation of ‘grrrl power’ branded agency — for me, at least, something important was lost. I mourned for these vivacious teens and their right to a less acceptable form of monstrosity, one that they could — if they so wished — be a more radical force to unleash their own gyno-rage however they damned well pleased.”

This discussion points towards a fundamental issue many writers face with horror — that it feels disempowering. So, to be socially accepted, it needs to be cleansed of its more difficult and contradictory elements. Reckoning with a difficult image of a monstrous heroine poses a challenge for writers unwilling to lay part of themselves bare. Horror challenges the image of ourselves we want to show to the world — admitting an affinity or a love for films or characters from works like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Possession unveils a hidden part of yourself. It also negates the quiet idealism we want to impose on “great art” as if the admission that humanity might have a dark side could somehow crumble the possibility of a brighter future.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.