PULP FRICTION: HORROR VS CRITICS

These films may be fiction, but are driven by the reality of human fear.


Marmite, early mornings, horror films – you love them or hate them. But with a fifth of the highest grossing films of all time being horror, it’s undeniable the genre is adored by many. However, scepticism from critics and alienation from mainstream pop culture has meant horror had to claw its way to the top.

The genre owes much of its success to pulp fiction. By definition, this was disposable; printed on cheap paper and priced at pennys, editors weren’t fussy about the quality of writing, meaning authors could churn out pulp pieces at an unprecedented rate. They were short, visceral stories about monsters and aliens, cheap enough to be accessible and exciting enough to appeal en masse. The stories that were told through this medium paved the way for long form horror, sci-fi and fantasy fiction that we love today. But before pulp, there was Poe. Father of horror, Edgar Allan Poe was a pioneer of the “art for art’s sake” movement and his approach to writing was a departure from his contemporaries’ utilitarianism.

With the combination of Poe’s ethos and pulp’s prosperity, the foundations of modern horror fiction were laid: authors like Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft revolutionised the genre with a bounty of science fiction and horror that could only be found in magazines. Snowballing through the 20th century and gaining traction with Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Robert Bloch’s Psycho, both published in 1959, horror truly arrived in the 1970s. Stephen King brought us Carrie (1974) and The Shining (1977), Peter Benchley Jaws (1974) and William Peter Blatty The Exorcist (1971). The 80s saw Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, along with more Stephen King than you could shake a sledgehammer at. All were met with unprecedented fervor for fear, but the decades following introduced to the genre its most critical skeptics yet. So, with loyal followings and bountiful publishing deals, why is horror still the most disparaged genre?

While most horror fiction is still fondly revered, it is its cinematic counterpart that is widely marginalised in critical discussion. Of the 92 films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, only 6 were horror films. With recent Oscar snubs for Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019) and Us (2019), many begged the question: what’s missing from horror? To really answer that, we have to look at what’s already there: iconography, young audiences and mind-boggling magnitude.

Low budgets

In what other genre could a film cost $140,000 to make but gross over $30 million at the box office? Where else would you find a 9-film-strong franchise spanning 4 decades, all based on the same seed of an idea? Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) did all of this, but finds its Metacritic score slashed in half between its first and last film.


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Drawing: CommonGT

By Joanna davies: Literature Columnist


This is emblematic of a genre-wide epidemic: the sheer volume of content has caused horror to become a victim of its own success. Low production budgets make ad nauseum sequels a lucrative endeavour, so pale imitations are rife. As George A. Romero explains: “if one horror film hits, everyone says, ‘Let’s go make a horror film.’ It’s the genre that never dies.” This perpetuates the misconception that horror is intrinsically devoid of value and contributes to the high-brow vs low-brow battle that it faces.

Labels

Following the boom of horror fiction in the 70s and 80s, adaptations of beloved spine-tinglers began their ascent to acclaim. Directorial powerhouses like Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin attached their names and reputations to horror blockbusters like The Shining and The Exorcist. Thanks to the genre’s popularity, traditions quickly became tropes and gave way to franchises like Halloween and Scream, elating young audiences and horrifying veteran critics. The implication of making a “horror” in the context of slashers burgeoned into a fear that is felt today. John Krasinski, star and director of The Quiet Place (2018), tentatively called the film “elevated horror.” “Whenever a horror movie makes a splash…there is invariably an article calling it ‘smart’ or ‘elevated,” says film critic Anne Bilson, “they hate horror so much they have to frame its hits as something else.”


Audience

Needing to divorce horror from horror-adjacent work signifies an identity-crisis in those wanting to draw inspiration from the genre but not be pigeonholed by its misconceptions. Mostly this is done to increase the commercial success of a book or film: “thriller” is easier to stomach than “horror.” But if you were being cynical, it could be said that when out-and-out horror is being marketed to young cinema-goers, many people abandon the genre. Society’s scepticism of young-adult orientated pop culture breeds an inherent distrust of anything that appeals to this demographic. Young people are rarely trusted with the accolade of knowing what they’re talking about, so naturally books and films primarily consumed by them can be written off as unworthy of merit.

In reality, horror is a misrepresented amalgamation of universally human fears. The boundaries of the genre may be blurred by the subjectivity of what is scary, but it is predicated on the universal truth that fear is fascinating. Horror isn’t scared of mass appeal; its tenets ebb and flow with our anxieties whether we know it or not, timelessly encapsulating what terrifies us to the core.


MACKAYAN: pulp friction: horror vs critics