On the Topic of “Horror”

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There seems to be this common misconception that horror’s sole purpose is to terrify its audience, typically with the idea of making them jump in reaction to something startling. But horrors won’t scare everybody, and if you look back on a lot of classic horrors, they’re snore-fests for today’s audience (excluding Japanese movies, because what the fuck Japan? You’re too good at horror).

Since horrors can’t guarantee they’ll scare everyone, there needs to be something else for people to enjoy. A good horror story isn’t dependent on scaring you, but has something else to offer those who aren’t easily scared. Horror fails when it has nothing else to offer, but cheap scares (if that). Movies with dull attempts at creating tension and recycled characters alluding to a horrifying presence through generic dialogue like “I don’t think we’re alone” or “there’s something behind you” tend to rely on jump scares to earn their badges of horror. Now, that’s fine and good if that’s what you want out of your horror, but it’s not tapping into the potential of the genre all that much, and essentially is an drawn-out equivalent of Scary Maze games.

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On the flip side of this, you have movies that use horror as its tone – rather than deliberately go out if its way to shock the audience, and instead preferring to have an engaging narrative with the sense of something horrifying lingering in the background. Take Alien for example, given the setting, atmosphere, and conflict for the characters, it’s fundamentally still a horror. They’re trapped out in space, and hiding for their lives, trying to escape from a dangerous unknown horror. The situation of being trapped in space is a horrifying predicament, even without the added bit of tension from the alien, for obvious reasons. Here, it isn’t so much the visuals that are terrifying as it is the idea of being in this scenario.

Horror doesn’t need to be scary toward the audience, but it should try to be believable for the characters to be afraid for their lives, and have understandable context and reasons behind whatever course of action the characters take. Fear is a great source of conflict and there are so many different forms of fear that can be used to great effect in storytelling: fear of death, fear of isolation, fear of confronting the incomprehensible, as well as fear of insanity, and fear of the unknown, and so on.

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Corpse Party does this well too.

If it’s not intended to scare the audience directly, it should aim to evoke tension from the atmosphere, and place the audience’s fear on the characters instead. Of course, this would require having likeable and relatable characters. Another, for the most part, lacks this. Sure, the deaths are gruesome, but the characters are so bland and one-dimensional that there’s more of a sense of humour surrounding their deaths than horror. It doesn’t serve to terrorize the audience, nor does it place much value on the characters’ lives for us to care if they die. Occasionally, some sympathy might arise from otherwise nice enough characters being killed off for seemingly no reason, and that can evoke something akin to horror – in the vain that it’s horrifying to realize or remember that it’s normal for people to die for no reason. But these moments are cut short by the jarring tone and sheer ridiculousness of everything going on – so much so, that it becomes hilarious and more of a tragicomedy than a horror.

Higurashi, however, is a prime example of a horror story that while unnerving at times, might not be frightening for the audience, and embodies the concept of horror in its setting through talk of superstition surrounding the village and curses, while maintaining an air of tension through putting its characters in ambiguous situations. And the accompanying eerie soundtrack elevates all this. Higurashi has great characters and expertly crafts a mystery with a strong air of suspense in a really believable way. Whether or not it scares you isn’t what makes it a horror, because the elements are there. It’s a horror story for the characters involved, and horrifying for you because the characters are likable, charming or interesting enough to get invested in their lives and feel concerned or distressed by the potential danger surrounding them.

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Oft times that danger is themselves

Then you have video games. This is your Fatal Frames, your Silent Hills, Dead Space, and so on. In a medium where the player is in control and has power to overcome almost anything with enough firepower, it can be difficult for developers to find a harmonious balance between this capability and what’s supposed to be a frightening or perturbing setting. But even though you can breeze through Dead Space on the highest difficulty without so much as a jump from the necromorphs, there is no doubt that it’s full of a horrifying creatures. The scenario is bleak and the atmosphere is dreary and the setting is disturbing. Dead Space is what I would consider an action-horror, where your level of competency in your weapons ultimately determines how frightening the experience will be. Games like: Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, and Dead Rising do this as well.

Fatal Frame, however, a game I still consider terrifying to play. It’s chilling because your enemies are disembodied spirits, your setting is an array of cursed and haunted locations (Japanese mansions), and your weapon is a camera. Taking photos with your camera is your defense against these spirits, and it’s always unnerving, because it doesn’t ever feel like a viable weapon against hostile, incorporeal beings. Oh, and unlike Dead Space, where you’re in third-person shooting away your fears without having to stare at them that long, Fatal Frame requires you face your fears directly by having you go into first-person every time you use your camera. Which is the only way of pacifying and capturing the spirits, and the only way of progressing in the game.

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My reaction looking up images for this

This feeling is to be expected of a game like Fatal Frame, as it is survival-horror, a genre where your situation and setting is made to seem as dark and unsettling as possible, while making you feel under equipped and unprepared for what is to come. It’s about taking away or minimizing as much power and control from the player as possible, while still making it playable and beatable. Difficulty isn’t so much to do with unfair mechanics, as it is the level of competency and courage you have to continue. Other games that do this well are: Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Eternal Darkness, Alien: Isolation, P.T., and Silent Hill.

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Essentially, anything full of horrifying elements falls into the category of horror. It’s not a matter of if it made you tremble in fear or jump in shock at a split-second disturbing frame or unsettling sound. It’s a matter of evoking a sense of disturbance. A dark corridor filled with corpses with a flickering light revealing more gruesome horrors, and concealing lurking threats is disquieting.

While fear, mystery, suspense, and surprise are all important components of a good horror, they’re not the be-all and end-all of it. Having strong relatable, likable or interesting characters is a golden rule for any story, but in horror it’s more titillating because there’s a higher chance that they’ll die in gruesome ways. As is creating a believable setting with a strong atmosphere and convincing tonal shifts (i.e. broad daylight begins mystery, nighttime evokes an air of dread).

The real trick of horror is leaving it ambiguous and down to the imagination. Jump scares are good if all you want from horror is a cheap thrill of excitement, but it’s not all horror is or can be. Great horror doesn’t rely on triggering easily manipulable reactions. Great horror is able to seep dread into your head gradually and plant ideas of terror for you to dwell on the rest of your day or even weeks.

~ Ace

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18 thoughts on “On the Topic of “Horror””

  1. You’re spot on with your interpretation of what makes a great horror series here. I’m going to expand on a side point here: how anime is generally not the best medium for horror.

    The way we buy into a horror story is through caring about its characters and world, but also being able to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters. The barrier with animation is that it’s, well, animation. We inherently have a perceived distance between ourselves and the characters because they’re more obviously fake (whereas when the characters are played by live actors it’s easier to forget they’re fake, at least when the performance is good which granted tends to not be the case in a lot of horror films). I think the reason that Get Out is doing so well right now is because it’s a situation that resonates with the current social climate and plays into those fears, and the representation of the person suffering them is in the flesh (haven’t seen it yet so I’m spitballing here).

    Also, horror in live action very much plays with the camera as a character. When you need to draw every frame you don’t get this same effect, and even if you go for it it’ll always be a fabrication of a camera. There’s a tactile, nuanced feel to a camera that picks up every little movement and quirk. Great horror films use this to frame the suspense, for example sometimes simulating the first-person perspective of a person as they run away from the monster (or vice versa with the monster creeping up on a person).

    Anyway I might expand on this in the future when I get around to seeing a few more of the classic horror anime (namely Higurashi).

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    1. I agree that horror has been done better in live-action, but I also believe that there’s plenty of anime that have also done it as well and far better when compared to the schlock that infests the genre in live-action.

      To expand further, I believe gaming to be the best medium for horror, especially now with VR and a possible revival of great horror games. There’s an extra level of interaction that allows for things like Eternal Darkness’s insanity features seemingly messing with your TV, or simply the fact that you are forced to confront the unknown in many cases, often unarmed and unprepared for what lies ahead. The fact that it feels like you’re in the situation yourself, I think, makes it all the more gripping of an experience (as I pointed out with Alien, it’s the idea of being in the scenario that makes it terrifying – which you can now that Alien: Isolation exists).

      Good points.
      ~ Ace

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      1. I can’t agree on the basis that there is a lot of non-schlock live action horror (which is my focus here). And I also still believe live action film to be the best medium for horror as it’s a genre that works best when dutifully crafted. Horror is very much about manipulating your emotions through perception and in film you have no control over it, you’re a captive audience.

        I do think there’s a lot of merit to horror games though. It’s not lost on me that immersing yourself in a world can be frightening and I imagine it’s doubly so for VR. I’m yet to try VR so I can’t really comment on that but the best horror games succeed at scaring you through interaction. However, I still think the purest art of horror comes when you don’t have any control and that idea of purity probably comes from me being a pretentious film school student, lol.

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      2. I also think that video games have a distinct advantage because the narrative is not certain. Games like Silent Hill and Eternal Darkness have a possible narrative, but the character/player could die prematurely at any time. In contrast a text or video story has a predetermined path. While some characters may suffer, or die, the audience knows that someone is going to survive until the last scene, which can hamper the tension & fear.
        I think my favorite scary mechanic is the fog in Silent Hill, mixed with the radio. That is such a wonderful plot device. It tells you that something dangerous is getting closer, but you don’t know which direction it’s coming from or what it is. You could try to run away, and instead run right into it.

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      3. Excellent point. Funny that you should use Silent Hill’s fog mechanic as a good example (which it is), since that was used to save cost and cover up the lack of buildings, etc. in the game. One of those cases where cutting corners leads to creative benefits.

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      4. They often say creativity thrives in restriction. They adapted their shortcoming into a strength. Inot general I love fog. Creates such an air of mystery.

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      5. This can also be applied to Akira Toriyama and Dragon Ball Z, where he’d plan to end the series several times or have certain characters decided as the villains (i.e. Dr. Gero and Android 19 for the Android / Cell Sagas), but then his editors would tell him to replace them with better looking / cooler villains or something and of course this frustrated him to no end (having to make Androids 16, 17, and 18 to appease his editors only for them to say no good. And then make Imperfect Cell (no good), Semi-perfect Cell (hurry up and make him handsome!) and finally Perfect Cell). Then after that he was given free reign on the Buu Saga and… well you can see the result of what happened there. Though, to be fair he was probably just fed up with the industry at that point enough to not care what he did next.

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  2. I’ve not watched any horror anime, though one episode of Chaos;Child freaked me out for its horror tones.

    Fatal Frame, however… it’s called Project Zero here. It was the first time my friend ever got on her PS2 and even now, in our late 20s, we’ve never finished the game and probably never will. It always gets too much for us – of we run out of film.

    But that game stays with us. I remember the rope hallway, the way she paused before opening the doors (with us peering between our fingers in case something was there), the blinding mask ghosts that couldn’t see you but could hear you move. There was so much in that game that relied on the horror vibe along with the jump scares, odd camera angles, and her heartbeat coming through the controller.

    Now I’m a little freaked out, I’m going to go bed…

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    1. Yeah, it’s called “Project Zero” here as well (nonsensical change, really). After searching for images on it, I was reminded of an immediate NOPE reaction to it, and memories of fear and terror flooded my mind. I tell you, Japanese are too good at horror. It’s more than just jump scares, it’s fending off jump scares in a location that’s eerie and unnerving from the get-go, equipped with an inventive, but discomforting apparatus for self-defense against the spooky horrors that roam the mansions. Truly, the epitome of horror.

      Sweet dreams.
      ~ Ace

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  3. Not to turn this into an argument, I can respect the differences in our preferences after all. But with live-action (and even animated) I can choose to look away and it will continue. I have the ability to avoid the horrors – which isn’t to say it’s a fault on their part, but with gaming you don’t have that freedom or comfort. As the player, you MUST press forward into the horrors, and with VR, I see it as more of elevated live-action horror in the sense of the equivalent being dragged into the screen (a horror in and of itself). Being so intimate with it is what breaks down the barriers to an incredibly unnerving extent (I have a strict NOPE policy on VR, and even non-horror VR is terrifying).

    As for animation, most of the examples of terrifying moments from my childhood are predominantly animated. Not even strictly horror as a genre, but had horrifying elements and moments scarring me for life. Courage the Cowardly Dog for example, (spoilers for the ending)… The finale has his owners turned into puppets, and as a kid’s cartoon, you’d expect a happy resolution of them being turned back to normal, but NOPE. This show ends with Courage taking his owners back to their house AS puppets and using ventriloquism to re-enact their typical day-to-day lives with and ending on that somber, unsettling note.

    As I mentioned above, it’s a multi-purpose genre with several sub-genres (including existential and psychological horror) and it’s ultimately up to what you want out if it that will be the deciding factor in what you consider to be great horror. For me, it’s representing and leaving you with unsettling ideas than imagery (but I do believe imagery is a huge factor, as is the lack thereof). But again, my point was just to illustrate the idea of multiple forms of horror more-so than declaring the best form or medium of the genre.

    ~ Ace

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  4. I think one of the often overlooked elements of good horror is creating a natural pause, a safe space in which audiences can re-acclimate, so that the next moment of horror hits with the same potency. Of course there is the danger of making this pattern to rhythmic and predictable, but it is one way in which I feel the Higurashi anime shines. When I first watched it what I found most unsettling was the uncertainty. One moment things would be fine and happy, and the next a switch would be flicked and everything would be wrong. And there were a few moments where the protagonist, reacting to the horror he or she had recently experienced, jumped to conclusions, and proceeded to harm innocent bystanders, whom he assumed were in fact a threat. That added a whole other dimension, being in “horror/defense” mode only to find that things are “back to normal”.

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  5. I really enjoyed your post on the genre of horror that I agree it is a snore fest for people these days. most live action films seemed to only be done half decent. In anime this genre is seriously lacking, it’s not my favourite genre though but anime is the one acception of where I will watch horror. No clue why. I could never play horror games so much for a chicken I am but just hearing games like dead space or silent hill I want to curl up in a ball haha lol Glad to see someone finally wrote an article like this XD

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    1. You should try reading horror manga. For Higurashi, there’s pages with images that really jump out at you. If that’s not something you want to see, there’s plenty of different types of horror too. But most of the cover images would probably be considered terrifying or creepy to the average person.

      Thank you.
      ~ Ace

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  6. Man, Amnesia: The Dark Descent scares me to this day. It’s one thing to be able to defend yourself, but there all you can do is run. And that music that plays when they find you? God damn it. That game genuinely made me more afraid of the dark as a teenager than I’d like to admit.

    Very good post. Would recommend.

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    1. Ah yes, Amnesia is one of those games that preys on your imagination and fears. It’s not something I care to go back to for that very reason (but I’d still recommend it because it’s a good game for those reasons as well).

      Thank you.

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