I have ambiguous feelings about horror movies. On the one hand, I enjoy the suspense, the creepy atmosphere, wondering how/if they’ll escape, and speculating on how I would react under similar circumstances. Horror movies trigger my mirror neurons, and, in the same way people react to football (or Thought Catalog articles, womp womp), I criticize each and every behavior a character makes, negotiating the cognitive dissonance of what they did versus what I would’ve done. This is my favorite aspect of watching a horror movie because, although these movies are often criticized for being dumb or formulaic, I feel like people’s minds work a little harder to interrogate them critically.
On the other hand, I don’t like watching people die. Not at all. Unless, that is, they’re evil, mean, or just plain unlikeable, I don’t relish watching perfectly nice people get dismembered, particularly when the movie seems to revel in it. Having recently watched Cabin in the Woods, one of the better horror movies I’ve seen in a while, I’m inspired to lay out my personal preferences for the ideal horror movie.
Doesn’t Foist Conservative Values on Me
When someone dies after having sex, it feels as if the movie is saying, “Yeah! That’s what whores get!” like it was written by a vengeful misanthropic guy who never got laid in college, like it was written by Pat Robertson. The same goes for smoking pot. In Last House on the Left, two girls go looking to score pot before a concert, leading to them being raped and murdered by a gang of psychotic convicts, which, um, seems a bit harsh to me. I don’t know how many others interpreted this as Wes Craven saying, “Well, that’s what happens if you smoke pot,” but since it’s a theme he keeps returning to, I would guess yes, and that brings me to my next point.
I enjoyed most of the Hills Have Eyes remake because it has wacky irradiated people, a guy with a huge weird head, and the most amazing dog since Shadow in Homeward Bound, but when I set out to see a fun scary movie, I expect no rape. None. A smidgen of rape? No. Zero rape. Some people might like their movies chock full of rape, but not me. It’s not scary or horrifying so much as depressing and sickening (and not in the good way like when you’re blindfolded and your friend puts your hand in the spaghetti/witch’s brains.) Unless I’ve deliberately set out to see a movie like Requiem for a Dream or Enter the Void, I don’t enjoy being unexpectedly drained of all hope for humanity.
Fewer Main Characters
Include too many main characters in a horror movie, and I detach from all of them, assuming they exist just to increase the body count. If there are fewer characters (Frozen, Insidious, Bug), it raises the stakes and usually means I won’t have to watch death scene after death scene until I stop caring. It means the movie has to rely on plot and atmosphere instead of buckets of gore. Obviously this isn’t an absolute rule as there are plenty of great horror movies with tons of people in them (Dawn of the Dead, The Thing, Alien), but in general, three people seems to be a good solid number.
If they inexplicably don’t call the police, continue living in a house that is clearly haunted, leave the lights off when investigating a scary noise, break into and explore an isolated plantation home, ignore whispers/ghostly visions, or place their faces close to the presumably dead monster’s face after whispering, “I think it’s dead,” then they are not acting rationally. The mind recoils from this nonsense logic.
In order to avoid plunging me into misery, the movie has to counteract the murder, crying, and pessimism with a sense of humor like in Zombieland, The Signal, or Shaun of the Dead. Almost nothing’s worse than a humorless melodramatic horror movie like Saw or those two most recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, films where everyone’s deadly serious at all times. If the main characters are all sullen and unlikeable, then who cares what happens to them, and for that matter, who cares about the movie?
Often, horror movies have Cheerleader, Nerd, Tough Guy, Nice Girl, Negative Nelly, but no actual multifaceted humans. Other times, they just have a room full of pugnacious jerks you hate (Devil, Saw, The Mist), and you have to then watch these dullards shout at each other for 90 minutes, punctuated by a few brief scenes of running and stabbing. I can think of plenty of horror movies with well rounded characters (Jennifer’s Body, Let the Right One In, etc.), but I can think of many many more with Scared Girl Who Screams “I CAN’T!” Every Five Minutes and Guy Who Constantly Questions Main Character’s Leadership.
I like sad/grim endings to horror movies, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it’s too much even for me. (And I love Synecdoche, New York, so that’s saying something.) These are those endings where you leave the theater feeling bitter and despondent and then, after a long silence, someone says, “Well, I’m going to go kill myself now. Bye.” The ones followed by a quiet car ride home as everyone ruminates on a universe without hope or compassion, and then, if it’s a date, you both tacitly agree to never see one another again. The ending to The Mist was so miserable as to nullify any enjoyment felt previously about anything ever. I walked around, saying, “But it was so unnecessary,” for an hour, but still I felt I had not conveyed the needlessness of it. This happened again when I saw Tree of Life but for different reasons.