Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.
– Guillermo del Toro
As a niche genre, horror is often misunderstood. It is often vilified as ultraviolent, misogynistic exploitation or mocked for cheap costumes and overdone fairground tricks, associated with schlocky, lowest common denominator fare churned out just to make a profit. However, like anything, horror has its gems, and there are many things that horror accomplishes that few other genres can match.
Horror is fundamentally psychological
What causes fear? Uncertainty. A lack of control. Being subject to the whims of fate. These are the feelings that horror thrives on. In fact, Psycho is essentially a psychological study of Norman Bates and his struggle for control over the memory of his abusive mother, showing also how horror gives insight into the darker aspects of humanity, parts of it that many of us do not experience and thus have trouble comprehending.
It’s also worth noting that the common jump scare is rooted in the fear of the unknown, not knowing when it will strike. Many do not understand this, thinking the jump is what causes the scare rather than its context, and this is why it has become such a derided narrative technique.
Horror is a depowerment fantasy
What distinguishes horror from other genres is the power of the protagonist, our proxy character. In a typical hero story, the protagonist is able to conquer any foe by the tale’s conclusion. Despite all the pressures imposed by the narrative, applied just enough to cause suspense, the outcome is rarely uncertain. In contrast, the protagonist of a horror story is far weaker than their adversary, again lacking control over their situation. You genuinely feel that the hero is outmatched in a way that cannot be overcome by training and experience against weaker foes. When faced with an invincible man or monster, or some strange environment not subject to the protagonist’s rules, the goal is often not to win, but simply to survive.
A good example is the original Wicker Man. The protagonist, a police officer, believes himself in a position of power and thus acts aggressively towards the islanders. However, he does not triumph in the end, for his heroic bravado merely played right into the cult’s hands. In the end, he was defeated by a force more powerful than himself. (as an aside, I must admit that the Nicolas Cage remake parodies this aspect pretty well. “I’m a police man! See my badge?”)
This is also why people often consider Resident Evil 4 the point at which the series started to shift from horror to action. The more powerful the protagonists become, the less scary the adversary is.
Paradoxically, this makes horror empowering
Because horror is so willing to explore issues to a depth that few other genres dare descend, we gain a better understanding of those issues, and knowledge is power. Whether it’s growing up in a broken home or living in fear of sexual assault while people around you blow off your concerns, seeing your experience on screen says that yes, someone understands you. Yes, your concerns are valid. And it is possible to overcome them.
It’s no surprise that the faces of horror protagonists are typically female. Society treats women as the weaker gender, less capable of fending off evil presences. But passive characters like the typical love interests in action movies don’t make compelling protagonists, because people want to see themselves as more active than that. The very choice of making a girl or woman the viewpoint character gives insight into her mindset, so that even male viewers come to understand her story. And in the realm of horror, where masculine strength means nothing in the face of a much more powerful enemy, it is female cleverness, ingenuity, and determination that succeeds over evil.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is nothing if not corny, with byzantine death sequences (a weightlifter turned into a bug! A guy eaten by his own motorcycle!) and a villain who seems to have a dayjob as a Catskills comedian. But it’s also explicitly about female empowerment, as its final girls learn not just how to control their dreams but to control their lives as well, and overcome such obstacles as alcoholic parents, insecurity, and being ignored by those in power. It also establishes what can only be described as a final girl matriarchy, with myths, rituals, and a strong bond of friendship uniting its heroines.
– Sarah Marshall: Beyond Clarice: Underrated Horror Heroines
Like life, horror does not always resolve neatly
But of course, true evil takes more than a punch to the face to disappear. No, the cackling slasher will always return again and again. The spirit will always find a new host. Even after escaping, the legacy of her terror will always come back to haunt the hero. Such is life, where we must always remain vigilant, for real-life horrors such as racism are not simply resolved by one civil rights movement.
By no means are these aspects limited to stories specifically made to invoke fear in the audience. Horror elements often overlap with other genres, such as in dark fantasy or psychological thrillers. Even if you are not interested in reading or writing horror, it is worth understanding the genre. Again, knowledge is power. To conquer fear, you must first learn its roots.
Like romance and comedy, horror is a difficult subject to get right, since all three involve manipulating people to achieve a specific emotional reaction. Doing them badly is like failing at a magic trick; the production ends up being incredibly awkward (if not unintentionally hilarious). But the insight into humanity horror can provide makes it a genre worth respecting.