You could set your watch to it. Every couple of years, someone in Hollywood writes an article about how horror movies aren’t doing very well lately, implying a canopy of doom and gloom spread tightly across the entire genre. The implication (and often the title): “Horror is Dead.” The latest culprit? Hollywood Reporter, which recently published this article, which somehow expresses concerns for the fate of the horror genre even though Paranormal Activity 3 practically broke the box office last weekend.
The article rattles off a string of figures – all of them accurate – which indicate that horror movies haven’t been particularly successful this year, with PA3 and Insidious being the two notable exceptions. The guilty parties are “young audiences,” apparently, who aren’t heading out to the multiplex as much as they used to. That this says a lot about the rising cost of admission and the overall diminishment of the theatrical experience goes unmentioned. Why are we blaming the victims? Not just audiences, but the horror genre itself?
I’m not decrying Hollywood Reporter here. They’re reporting on tangible information and quoting real, and really worried, industry sources. Sources like Nikki Ross, the president of domestic distribution at Universal, who says, “I don’t know what’s happening. The young people just aren’t there.” As if audiences are suddenly to blame for industry problems. Maybe if Universal’s big horror offering this Halloween season wasn’t an unnecessary – and given the financial figures, clearly unwanted – remake/prequel of The Thing there would be a reason for the confusion.
Again, this happens every couple of years. Audiences get a little sick of the horror movies that mainstream Hollywood produces, the industry freaks out, and periodicals start whipping out articles with titles like “Is Horror Dead?” or, in this case, one that refers to dwindling audience turnouts as a “Horror Film Bloodbath.” I've seen this happen so many times in the last ten years alone that I'm going to try to nip it in the bud this time. The problem is not the genre, the problem is how Hollywood treats the genre. Not that anyone in the film industry would actually admit to being at fault.
Very telling is the opening line of Hollywood Reporter’s article, which reads as follows: “Only a few years ago, a new horror movie was considered as close to a sure thing as anything Hollywood produced.” Hollywood, yes, considers films a mere commodity. That’s how they make their money after all. But horror movies have always been a particularly redheaded stepchild. They’re cheap to produce and they cater, often, to low common denominators. But that doesn’t mean the fans will accept anything, at least not for long. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Hollywood treats the horror genre not as the complex and rich tapestry of subgenres that it is, but rather as a series of fads. And fads go away over time, with the possible exception of Pokemon.
Actually, that’s not fair. If something lasts long enough in the public conciousness it’s not a fad, it’s merely popular. So let's give Pokemon a pass. Back to the subject at hand, horror movies have been successful since the dawn of film, and even kept Universal afloat during the Great Depression with blockbuster frightfests like Dracula and Frankenstein. But the industry doesn't treat them with much respect, which is ironic, especially coming from folks at Universal.
J-Horror remakes were a fad, and one that Hollywood successfully milked for a year or two before audiences stopped going to see them. Torture Porn was a fad, and the same fate befell that subgenre too. The latest fad was pretty much horror remakes, which of course were doomed to fail from the get-go. Horror movies aren’t like dramas or action blockbusters. Strict adherence to a familiar formula, like those established by the original films, doesn’t interest horror audiences for long. Just like comedies (which also frequently suffer through fads, like the Scary Movie craze – now mercifully almost dead – and the gross-out boom of the late 1990s), horror depends on the unexpected. Audiences are not scared by something they’ve seen over and over again. There’s nothing unexpected to be found in seeing the same type of movie week after week, and there’s definitely nothing unexpected about audiences getting bored with it after a while.
What’s going to happen? The same thing that always happens: horror movies might subside for a little while, thanks to typical industry skittishness, but then something unexpected will come along and inject new life into the genre. And then Hollywood, being Hollywood, will make foolish assumptions about why the film was popular – usually surface elements that are easy to rip off, like the visual style or a new, highly specific subgenre – and run it into the ground. And then about two years later, someone will post yet another article suggesting, directly or indirectly, that horror is dead. And they’ll be wrong too.
Horror is not a fad, it’s a legitimate film genre that follows different rules than Hollywood is used to. It’s based on surprises, which can’t be easily catalogued, categorized or calculated. It’s an art, damn it. That’s not confusing: it’s common sense. If audiences aren’t turning out for the latest boring “sure thing,” then the industry has only themselves to blame. No, seriously.