Good effects balanced with emotional triggers engage the audience

From classics like The Thing to modern masterpieces such as Get Out, the genre of horror has been thrilling film audiences around the world for over a century. That’s a lot of time for the genre to have grown and morphed across the years, but it has remained popular with avid horror fans and casual viewers alike.

However, anyone who has taken the time to indulge in more than a few horror films will have undoubtedly noticed their vast variability of quality. Of course, all genres have produced their fair share of trash and treasure, but horror seems unique in the sheer volume of its disappointments. More than any other genre, horror films seem able (or many try to be) to get away with lacklustre plots that aren’t compelling or convincing. Often the main characters are uninteresting and audiences struggle to feel invested in their story, and their survival from whatever dangers they face. In other cases there are heinous examples of poor direction and subpar acting. But why is this? Is story truly important in horror films, or is the scare factor all that matters?

A big reason behind horror’s notorious diversity in quality could come down to its purpose. One could argue that no matter what secondary layers there are, such as morals or political themes, the primary purpose of film is to entertain. When movie-goers settle down with their popcorn in hand – whether it’s for the latest Marvel movie or a historical drama – they want to be entertained, to while away their time engaged in something separate from reality. But horror takes on another primary purpose: to scare. And this purpose can muddy narrative waters.

Typical Characters portrayed in many horror genre. Photo: geralt

Perhaps it’s not so much that filmmakers always instil this goal, but that viewers as a whole have assigned it to the genre. When we discuss films we’ve seen with others, they’ll ask if it was ‘good’, and whether or not we enjoyed it. But in the vast majority of cases, when discussing a horror film, the same question will pop up time and time again: was it scary? It’s almost always a talking point with horror films, for obvious reasons, but it highlights just how important the fear factor is to viewers. The checkbox of ‘did this scare me’ is seemingly just as, if not more, important than the film’s quality in and of itself as a piece of art.

Sometimes this concept even extends to having social influence; many of us will remember watching horror films as teenagers, boasting to peers that we’d seen an 18-rated film that our parents wouldn’t have allowed, that we ‘weren’t even scared’.

mackayan: horrors underlying conflict

In many examples of poor quality horror films, it seems as though this apparent need to scare audiences overshadows all other ambitions of the project, and becomes the entire reason for the film’s existence. The story then takes a backseat in these cases, and begins to serve as a mere vehicle for scares, rather than the driving force behind the film.

But story is hugely important in our society; we share stories every day, in our conversations with loved ones, in our family legacies, in myths and legends, in history, in the news, and of course, in art. We connect the most strongly with stories when we know and can engage with the characters, or what they’re going through. So it stands to reason that when the protagonists of horror movies are vapid or badly portrayed, it’s more difficult to engross ourselves in that story and feel truly invested. If not enough of the character’s personality, history or motives are revealed, they are merely a shadow, pushing along a meaningless plot that holds little weight.

Audiences are and always have been willing to suspend their disbelief; ghosts, aliens, and mythological demons are all plausible in the world of fiction. But if the very fibres of the narrative are disjointed and without good pacing, if events aren’t driven by the characters, or if we don’t care about those characters, it can all start to fall apart. Where filmmakers pour all their efforts into special effects for the most terrifying, realistic monsters or gory body horror, it can cause the whole film to miss the mark. Stephen Spielberg, for example, said ‘audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.’

When the goal of a horror film is to be frightening above all else, and the story gets left behind, this can actually impact the scariness of the film in the long run. People are afraid of things when they are emotionally triggered. As an audience we fear for Chris, the protagonist of Get Out, because he’s an engaging, realistic character, and we witness a very recognisable racial struggle being portrayed in the film. The environment he faces is threatening not only because of how eerily it echoes real, life-threatening racism, but because we relate. We’re threatened because we want him to escape his dangerous circumstances.

Conversely, the protagonists of movies with one-dimensional characters with little to no development kills any tension the film attempts to build falling flat when there is no reason to root for the principal characters. When the script is badly written, the fear is diminished because the stakes are automatically lowered. Why should we be afraid of an axe-wielding murderer killing if we don’t really care for them?

Good stories require compelling characters, storylines, and meaningful conflict. Perhaps if horror filmmakers put more focus on the story, they would get those scares they’re after, and the forces of fear and a well-written story can come together to create more of the classics we love.

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