Horror is Not A Dirty Word

Here’s an article I originally posted on Fangoria.com, although – in such a horror-friendly forum – I was pretty much preaching to the converted. Not a horror fan? Let’s see if I can sway your mind…

Wikipedia defines the horror movie in the following manner:

Horror films are movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, horror and terror from viewers. Their plots frequently involve themes of death, the supernatural or mental illness. Many horror movies also include a central villain.

Early horror movies are largely based on classic literature of the gothic/horror genre, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. More recent horror films continue to exploit the monsters of literature, and also draw inspiration from the insecurities of modern life.

Horror films have been dismissed as violent, low budget B movies and exploitation films. Nonetheless, all the major studios and many respected directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanksi, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, have made forays into the genre. Serious critics have analyzed horror films through the prisms of genre theory and auteur theory. Some horror films incorporate elements of other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, mockumentary, black comedy and thrillers.

I think, even from this Wikipedia definition, it’s clear horror films have been getting a bum-wrap, which is why I’d like to propose a new, redefined genre for future marketing purposes – ‘fear films’ seems highly appropriate. On with my article…


Being a woman who wears brightly coloured lipsticks and enjoys tropical island retreats where yoga and other ‘soulful’ pursuits are in proliferation, an avid interest in the horror genre – in particular, its incarnation through cinema – does not fit the standard stereotype. In fact, many would expect me to screw up my nose in distaste at the prospect of even a drop of blood on-screen or the terrorisation of a pretty somebody at the hands of a stalker*.

During my teenage years, I fell into step with the horror genre, and developed a strong appreciation for its courage to venture beyond the acceptable and explore uncomfortable imagery and topics that many people seemed too afraid to touch. Those who consider themselves the more ‘civilised’ among us would say the horror genre is merely repugnant  button-pushing that serves no purpose than to satisfy the fetishes of perverts**. I believe such a perspective to be extremely naïve, reactionary and narrow-minded.

To shrug off the horror genre in this way is to turn a blind eye to the more challenging aspects of our society – to adopt a ‘what you don’t see doesn’t hurt you’ attitude – which in itself is dangerous as we’re all well aware that what is swept under the rug will eventually come back to bite us.

I remember hearing a radio personality in Australia mouthing off about the Todd Solondz movie Happiness (not a horror film as such, but one that still incited much controversy and pushed at ‘acceptability in art’). This mullet-headed shock jock was saying the film’s portrayal of pedophilia was disgusting and should be banned. Rebuttal Number One: When did the depiction of a heinous act equal condonement? Rebuttal Number Two: Paedophilia exists – active debate brings us closer to learning how to effectively handle the issue, rather than simply turning our backs because it brings a bad taste to our mouths.

That’s the thing – people just don’t like getting near anything that’s seen as distasteful and repulsive because, in doing so, they may somehow dirty themselves in the process. Watch a movie that displays a graphic rape or murder and the fact that you’re merely ‘letting it near you’ may somehow rub off. Well, no one’s going to actually say that, but in the back of their minds, there’s that little paranoid voice calling out something to a similar affect.

While horror fans are considered to be primal and uncivilised, I would argue they’re more evolved than many other people, given the fact they’re willing to watch such challenging material without fear of being sullied by its curse. Horror movies routinely reflect the social barometer of a current point in time – the fears, paranoias and collective consciousness that informs our dealings in everyday life. In fact, horror is one of the most psychologically revealing of all genres, equipping its viewers with the intellectual fodder to view their world in different lights and – maybe, just maybe – effect change in a progressive, positive way.

It is at this point I should clarify some people don’t like horror movies as a matter of taste. That’s different ­– that’s personal preference. They may not like the jolt of the unexpected and prefer to indulge in ‘entertainment’ of a lighter variety – in fact, they’re likely to deem the consumption of emotionally jarring cinema as not entertainment at all.

These people like their art to serve a sedatory purpose – a means of escapism – and fair enough… that’s their perogative. Who I’m attacking here are the people who, not only dislike horror as a matter of taste, but cast dispersions on those who choose to watch horror seeing them as inferior. Many times, I’ve witnessed that look on people’s faces – that look like they’ve sniffed a butt with dysentery and, suddenly, in their eyes, you’ve grown horns and a tail; that look that says, ‘You must be a serial killer or morally bankrupt to enjoy such filth.”

When I watch movies, I want to be moved. I want to look at the world in a different way. I want to feel an emotional shift and be ‘told’ something in a highly informative and interesting manner. For me, no other cinema does this quite like horror cinema.

Horror can show both the light and the shade. Horror can make you feel grateful for what’s good in life. Horror can make you front up to injustice and immorality. Horror can not only be horrifying but incredibly beautiful in terms of cinematography, art direction and the creation of moods and atmosphere. In this generation overwhelmed with imagery and images, it’s not that easy to move people or effect a response that stays with them well after the cinema experience. Good horror is one of those rare artforms that can do this.

Unfortunately, among horror fans, there are those vocal pundits who like to shock, and therefore can’t see anything in horror except body counts and arterial-sprays-per-minute. These people are the neanderthal few who propagate the bad name horror gets in the wider world, who wear their ‘I like horror’ status as a badge to upset other people and make themselves stand out from the crowd. These ‘fans’ make horror seem a dirty word.

Upon releasing my book on monster movies last year, I routinely experienced the social awkwardness when people would say “Oh, I don’t like horror movies.” My standard response was to object to such a blanket statement and get them to speak more broadly about movies they like.

Without fail, films I would classify as horror movies would elicit an enthusiastic response from them, and I would have to insist things like “Yes, ‘Alien’ is a horror film – see, you do like horror movies.” The fact that ‘Alien’ can rise above such categorisation speaks volumes about the film itself, but also says something about the semantics around the word ‘horror’.

Basically, horror comes in many exciting shapes and sizes and, despite the propaganda espousing otherwise, horror is not a dirty word.

*For the record, I suffer from vaccinophobia and instantly feel faint if I step inside a hospital. But such squeamish acts depicted in celluloid fall squarely into the realm of make-believe for me, even if reflecting real-life circumstance. Cinema is just that – cinema – so I can comfortably disassociate from what I see on-screen. Maybe for others, it’s different…

**These observations come based on a lifetime of informal and formal conversations and deliberations. No scientific studies, university papers or analyses have been consulted for this article – everything has been drawn from my personal opinion (for what it’s worth).

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