Unexpected as it may have been, The Office made one of the best observations about horror that I’ve heard in some time. In the 2011 episode “Spooked,” resident weirdo Gabe shows the crew some short horror films made up of seemingly unrelated, disturbing images, such as a birthday cake oozing blood. When pressed by his office mates to explain the film, Gabe tells them that the movie is meant to be plotless, as “even narrative is comforting”. It’s a surreal joke, but, it says something very true about horror writing: Oftentimes, the less we know, the more unsettling the experience. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that horror filmmakers seem to have begun forgetting in recent years—and it’s hurting the genre.
Look no further than the Alien franchise for the latest example of this. For generations of moviegoers, the xenomorphs were simply abominations of evolution. They were essentially wasps, with no wings and slightly better attitudes (seriously, look it up. Wasps are terrifying). No one made them; they weren’t part of some grand scheme; nature had simply spit them out of some dank, horrifying, primordial cesspool, because sometimes nature is terrifying and if we’re going to go exploring the furthest reaches of the unknown we might fall prey to some of that terror. It was frightening in a cold, meaningless, merciless sort of way. Flash forward, though, to Prometheus and Covenant and suddenly the xenomorph isn’t just an (un)lucky accident. Now, it’s the result of a lot of weird genetic experimentation, and giant white things drinking black goo, and robo-Michael Fassbender playing god. And, yeah, the xenomorph will always be scary—it’s a ten-foot tall alien rape monster. That will never not be scary. But, some of that generic terror is gone. It’s been personalized. It’s no longer just a monster. It’s been given a narrative.
And that sorta sucks.
It’s been going on for a while now. In its’ original iteration, the house in The Amityville Horror was just evil. Sure, there was talk of portals to Hell, ghosts, and evil spirits, but at the end of the movie, 112 Ocean Avenue was quite simply bad, and anyone who moved into it was severely screwed; and if this house can simply be bad, why can’t that brand new home you’re about to move into? Why not the one you’re living in right now? Flash forward to the abysmal remake, though, and suddenly High Hopes isn’t an anomalously cursed piece of real estate, it’s haunted by the ghosts of Native Americans tortured by an evil preacher whose damned soul rules over them. Gone is the generic terror. Gone is the sense of “this could happen to you.” You are not going to move into a house that sits on top of a 200-year-old torture chamber. Your house is not the site of an insane preacher’s attempt to reenact the inquisition. We’ve seen it, too, with the Texas Chain Saw Massacre reboot; the remake of Black Christmas; and in the (thankfully) aborted script for the new Friday the 13th. In an attempt to make the stories more relatable by piling on information, filmmakers have, paradoxically, made them less relatable. Consider the aforementioned Black Christmas remake: In the original film, the caller’s messages have no rhyme or reason. They’re the deranged, nonsensical ramblings of a clearly unhinged individual, and that lack of context or narrative framework enhances their disturbing nature. Who’s Agnes? Who’s Billy? What children? We never find out—and that’s terrifying. The human mind can come up with all sort of unsettling scenarios for what he’s talking about, and none of them are pleasant. Compare that to the remake; gone is the nebulous weirdness of the caller’s rants. We’re given a tidy (albeit nasty) origin story that harkens back to many an evil mother of horror films past. The mystery is gone—and so is a lot of the fear.
To be fair, this isn’t a problem totally isolated to modern horror. We’ve seen it happen before in the most tragic of circumstances. Part of the power of watching the original Halloween ignorant of its’ sequels is how random it is. Why is Michael Meyers evil? He just is. Why does he steal his sister’s gravestone and put it in a murderer girl’s bed? Because he’s insane. Why does he kill all these people? See #2. Why does he stalk Laurie Strode? Because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a palpable undercurrent of ”this could happen in your town, to you”. By imparting Michael Meyers with a Druidic heritage and compulsion to murder his family, though, the story gains context; and with that context comes a departure of fear. Laurie was no longer in the wrong place; Michael was just after her anyway. He didn’t just steal the headstone because he’s a creep, it was some symbolic gesture relating to an ancient curse. Michael isn’t just a kid who went evil and crazy, he’s part of an ancient murder conspiracy with generations-spanning implications. He isn’t the random psycho in your town. You probably aren’t related to someone with a supernatural imperative to kill your family.
Halloween was an isolated example, though; lately, it’s the rule. Blame it on the recent success of the shared universe—audiences have shown that they’re receptive to backstories, origin stories, and as much information as they can get their hands on. That dude in the background of the final battle sequence in the latest Marvel movie? That dude is Thor’s cousin’s husband, and he’s totally getting his own spinoff movie and subsequent trilogy next Summer. Ever wonder how Darth Vader got hooked up with all of those bounty hunters in Empire Strikes Back? Good—because next Summer, we’re getting Star Wars: Bounty Hunters. It’s understandable. We live in an age of instant, limitless access to information, so why shouldn’t our media have a similar ethos? What works for one genre doesn’t work for all of them, though. Adventure movies, by their definition, thrive on adventure; and the bigger the cast, the more exotic the locales, the more treasures to hunt and the more bad guys to fight, the more avenues for storytelling and enjoyment. Horror has always been a genre that’s thrived on a certain sense of isolation, though. Many of the classics feature small casts of characters in insular locations (The Shining; The Thing; The Haunting; and on…). The less we know, the scarier it is. And the scarier it is, the better.
We’re currently in the midst of something of a horror revolution. Audiences have shown they’re ready for the intelligent, high-concept, mature horror that defined the 1970s and part of the 80s. Along with that return to form, let’s have—as odd as it may sound—a return to a certain level of genericism. Cut out that origin story. Ignore the compulsion for a prequel. Delete the shocking, third act exposition sequence. Less is more. And it’s much, much more frightening.