With the exception of a very certain breed of horror fan, that of which places the need for on-screen suffering above all, most genre junkies are of two minds when it comes to fright fare. The first mind is that of the thrill seeker, enticed by cinematic magic tricks and shocking twists-of-fate that strike down the cast of characters in innovative and wicked ways. It’s a mindset that places the element of fun front-and-center, and pushes back the darker subtext of the action in favor for embracing scares and style. It’s also the mindset that is often targeted by critics of the horror genre, who confuse the desire to see nightmarish visions brought to life with a thirst for the real-life counterparts of said action, which almost couldn’t be further from the truth.
The second mindset is a touch more humane, and it’s that as a level-headed audience hoping that, in addition to the adrenaline rush we may get from horror, we may get a good story out of the picture as well. It’s the part of us as viewers that bond to the characters, picking favorites in hopes that they may live to see the sequel while watching those we despise get their due. It’s the same mentality that hopes there’s a deeper meaning to the monster on screen, and that, despite the vile and vicious ways they slaughter our protagonists, they may be more of a misunderstood or wrongly maligned creature than a ruthless killer. And it’s the same dynamic that will occasionally weigh upon us when a filmmaker goes out of their way to flip the script and turn a mirror onto the audience, causing us to wonder exactly what fuels the emotional catharsis of the horror film.
To be honest, this writer has felt these viewpoints colliding more often than not in recent years, with the concept of “elevated” genre films permeating through the studio system and crafting a narrative of indie success stories with emotional resonance. Films like The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, Get Out, Hush and Green Room have started a new dialogue among horror fans and critics alike about the notion of horror films that trade double digit body counts for organic and gripping tension that posits the importance of the characters before they’re cut down. But beyond even what that conversation really means, whether it’s the removal of stigma crafted by low budget gorefests upon the genre or emphasizing the role of those behind the camera of horror films, these mindsets have also reinvigorated another conversation among fright fans: the idea of death and all of its emotional baggage in horror.
It’s a discussion that, for the most part, never quite gets addressed in horror films, to a degree; most fright films treat the death of close friends and family members via unintelligible screams before the affected runs off to prevent their own demise. If the subject ever does get broached, it’s usually either in a very surreal sense, ala Jacob’s Ladder, or as a focal point to re-establish the previous films events in a sequel, as seen in Aliens, Halloween: H20, or Final Destination 2. But the concepts of death, grief, and loss are inherently important to the genre, sometimes driving home the weight of a film’s core threat or anchoring the point-of-view of a narrator who is mentally fragile.
Of course, the wider web of death is instrumental to the birth of the horror genre as a popular medium, with some of the most seminal artists in fright fare cementing their legacy in such a mentality. Authors who immediately come to mind include Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein remains one of the most poignant tales of the emotional and physical scars of loss, and The Grimm Brothers, whose work unfortunately is remembered more for their hyperbole-laden viscera, but none quite stands out in terms of focus and fascination with grief as much as Edgar Allen Poe. From The Tell-Tale Heart to The Raven to The Black Cat, Poe’s tales captured a perspective on death and its subsequent emotional toll that has been unmatched by his contemporaries, bearing an honesty that emphasizes that ghosts are far scarier within our own hearts and minds than floating in the ether. While Poe’s work has set the standard for all things Gothic, Poe was among the first to toe the line between depraved and depressing, even though many of his on-screen adaptations fail to capture his unique take on death.
Even though the genre is no stranger to treating death and loss with a sense of reverence, it’s easy to see why the fallout surrounding death is so easily cast aside by storytellers within the genre. From the emotionally distant subgenre of Italian horror to the dubious morality plays of the slasher film, it can be difficult to justify digging into a complicated and somewhat polarizing depiction of death when the genre is prioritized as entertainment. But with the concept of grief so rarely depicted with authenticity within the genre, it does allow the exceptions to the rule shine brightly, and sometimes become a point of longevity for the film; for instance, Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps could be passed off as a kooky horror comedy if not for a pair of emotionally palpable moments, one of which depicts a heart-wrenching confession during an implied suicide while the other reveals the skeletons in the closet of an otherwise wise-cracking, hard-ass detective.
For some filmmakers within the genre, the ramifications surrounding death can become a prominent subject in their output, most notably that of horror maestro Don Coscarelli. Coscarelli is best known to genre audiences for the Phantasm franchise, a five-film series that has repeatedly explored the nature of death and dealing with profound loss in the midst of over-the-top monster movie action and suspense. Yet even beyond Phantasm, Don Coscarelli’s other films have all uniquely approached the subject: Bubba Ho-Tep finds an emotional core with its depiction of dwindling mortality, while his adaptation of John Dies at the End addresses the philosophical aspects of death even while compounded with a relentlessly increasing atmosphere of absurdity. In doing so, Coscarelli’s work smashes the intellectual expectations of his audiences, and has helped his work become more relevant today than upon their release.
At the same time, it’s hard to say that the horror genre doesn’t trivialize the horror of death, and often times quite intentionally so. While there’s much to love about films like Don’t Look Now and The Vanishing, they are admittedly less fun and exciting as a gore-laden slasher film, especially in franchises where the filmmakers can find more unconventional avenues of dispatching their protagonists. Yet even in doing so, building a body count does have some emotional effects on the audience on some level; if not for the double-digit death toll brought on by an antagonist, the audience wouldn’t be as invested in a Tommy Jarvis or a Nancy Thompson, and we certainly wouldn’t double down on our excitement to see them in a sequel. Even the loosest depiction of grief can work wonders for a pick-‘em-off horror romp; I remember the sole highlight in Jaws 3 being an emotional moment when a charismatic supporting character sheds a tear for a recently fallen friend.
That’s not to say the genre has always been narrow-minded when it comes to emphasizing the realistic emotions of processing death within its scare fare. In fact, some of the most important genre films are those that herald the value of life, such as The Exorcist, which—above all—shows the sacrifices made to save a single life from a fate worse than death itself. However, while supernatural horror films tend to explore these themes more often than not, the very nature of these films tend to be absent of the finality that surrounds death. However, there will always be exceptions to the rule, especially in more classically structured horror stories that use folk tale conventions to better convey empathy such as Pan’s Labryinth or Pumpkinhead.
In the realm of more human-centric horror, loss and grief has always been a bit of a fascinating subject. For some storytellers, it’s the launching point for some of the most memorable and disturbing on-screen villains, such as Maniac’s Frank Zito, La Femme from Inside or Pamela Voorhees from Friday the 13th. For others, it can be used as an intimate gut-punch, such as when a fan-favorite character, a romantic interest, or a redemption-seeking villain sacrifices his-or-herself to a monstrous entity in a final act of selflessness. And for some filmmakers, the proper application of these emotions can make all the difference in an audience’s reaction; after all, if a character has gone through hell and death has been presented in its utter finality, you’ll be rooting for them to make it across the horde of zombies rather than see them torn apart for the thrill of an impressive SFX gag.
Oddly enough, these themes have bled into other arenas of the horror genre as well, specifically in the space of foreign and independent storytelling. In the former, films like Train to Busan have found massive success by addressing the weight of death in the setting of a high-octane zombie blockbuster, allowing the emotional twists and turns of the film to hit with paralyzing force. Likewise, the burgeoning Irish horror scene has drawn critical attention to films that find their monsters from the fall-out of loss, from Citadel to The Canal to Nina Forever all challenging the way horror can personify grief. Meanwhile, the independent horrors in the U.S. have found greater success by eschewing blood-letting killer thrillers for stories with contemplative crises surrounding life and death, such as festival favorites We Go On and The Blackcoat’s Daughter.
Of course, the recent emphasis on grief and loss within horror could be traced back to the recent rise of horror on television, with shows like The Walking Dead, Bates Motel, and Penny Dreadful further exploring how one faces mortality. In the case of the former, The Walking Dead has almost turned the depiction of on-screen bereavement into an art form, with entire episodes dedicated to characters processing the emotional toll of losing the ones they love. Meanwhile, the latter examples have better explored the concept of rejecting loss, twisting archetypal horror stories to find new dimensions and depictions of grief. With this in mind, it’s fitting that Twin Peaks, a seminal television program that blended melodrama with surrealism and nightmarish horror, is returning to screens, being a major genre series to genuinely deal with loss with mental and spiritual devastation rather than as an exploitative footnote.
But perhaps the movement towards more emotionally potent horror has less to do with the genres roots and the content itself as it does the changing environment of its audiences. With myriad streaming platforms, VOD services, podcasts, and film festivals, audiences have become inundated with options to which they could fill their time, which has put greater emphasis on the value of word-of-mouth suggestions. Though one might hope people would gravitate towards new, original stories, the chances are that series like Black Mirror and films like The Final Girls have struck a chord with audiences thanks to their more vulnerable and emotionally engrossing nature. By being more than a jump-scare laden horror film or a slow-burn thriller that can be left on in the background, stories that make you give a shit about who lives and who dies have raised the bar in terms of audience expectations, and help establish cult classic status to films that may not necessarily pass as a mainstream success.
Make no mistake: for those who prefer their horror without dour reminders of their own mortality, the genre will always remain a haven for fun and frightening cinema. After all, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as being in a room full of people all on the edge of their seat, waiting for a filmmaker to take the head off of some shitty, horny teenager. But as instrumental as death is to the horror genre, the word is out on the potential of emotion within horror films, and as more fright fare aims to challenge our notions of grief within the genre, there’s a chance that we’ll see more prescient and gripping horror stories in the near future.