Monday, April 14, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: Scares or Social Critiques?

A reader named Sarah M. writes:

“I’ve noticed that you seem to read a lot into horror movies. So my question to you is would you rather see a deeply scary horror movie with no deeper or wider meaning, or a non-scary horror movie that has a lot of meaning?”

Sarah M., that’s an interesting question.  However, I think it may involve a false premise. 

For me, a horror movie can scare audiences in many ways. It can features jump scares that pop us momentarily out of our seats, to be certain, but it can also play on deeper, even subconscious fears that resonate across our society. 

So I would argue that a really scary horror movie must incorporate the idea of deeper meaning, otherwise it wouldn’t scare us so effectively. 

I just don’t think you can have a “deeply scary horror movie” that doesn’t reflect our culture, or that doesn’t play on some fears roiling in the culture.  It just doesn’t happen. 

Later this week, I’ll be looking back at A Nightmare on Elm Street, and that movie clearly has deeper meaning, reflecting both literature (Hamlet) and society of the 1980s, specifically the fear of dissolving middle-class families, and the notion of the sins of the father visited upon the child, which was relevant given the nation’s vast deficit spending at the time.

Now, Freddy is absolutely terrifying as a stalker, as boogeyman, and as an initiator of jump-scares, but he would not be as scary if not contextualized regarding the influences I name above.  And he is not alone.  The Tall Man in the Phantasm movies represents a fear of mortality, and uneasiness about the “death industry” in our country.  Leatherface arose at a time when our nation had run out of gas, and so forth.

So I can’t really make an “either/or” choice, because I don’t believe that the “either” that you present in your question really exists. 

I suppose another example of this idea is The Exorcist (1973). That film plays on peoples’ fear in the early 1970s that the culture had turned away from religion, and that, vis-à-vis Time Magazine in 1968, God was dead.  You can’t separate that sense of spiritual terror from the scares in the film, can you?  That cerebral meditation about spirituality walks hand-in-hand with the shocks, and augments their power.

I have often written in my books that horror films should effectively “scare” the audience first and foremost. That’s their business.   But as a viewer I desire the full-range of scares from my horror movies, ones based on jump scares, and ones based on cerebral terror, on ideas, on issues roiling the culture.

I would find it difficult to name even one great horror film that doesn’t couch some deeper meaning.  You term this “reading into” a film, but I say I’m just reading the film grammar, the text itself of the film in question.

So, my answer to your question is that I want a horror film that scares me in a variety of ways, and on a variety of levels.  If it achieves that, I’m going to write a good review and describe how the film succeeds. 

If it doesn’t, I can write about how and where the film succeeds, and why, in other arenas, it doesn’t measure up.

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at

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