The Devil in the Details
One of the most popular historic adages still in use today is, “The devil is in the details.” This is used to describe a variety of situations. Maybe an offer is too good to be true, so you study the fine print. Maybe a person is too good to be true, but their behavior says otherwise.
Contemporary horror is another example that comes to mind. Many horror creators today aren’t merely bedeviled by the details, they’re inherently possessed and what’s most problematic is: they’re the wrong details. The arbitrary definitions of horror out there are so far beyond genre foundations that they are nothing like horror. A literary exorcism of mammoth proportions is needed to clarify and vindicate what has happened. This article is authored by a horror creator, true, but mainly as a fan of horror. Since I am in this position, I will not name books or movies for criticism or derogatory purposes. The only items mentioned will be those considered praiseworthy.
This site’s occasional discussions of horror are done with the intention of illustrating what’s wrong within the genre and how it might be remedied. Horror is a reputable, historic genre steeped in tradition. It is truly one of the oldest of fiction genres.
What it’s become is a carnival sideshow that’s an utter laughingstock or a court jester. Or a fool. It’s so desperate to get fans that it will lie down and roll around in the mud for a smile. It doesn’t even care about creating a steady fan base at this point, it just wants attention. Many such works seem to aspire to be “campy,” but come across as being simplistic material more suitable for high school children. The genre is in dire need of intelligence. Vulgarity and gratuity has replaced wit and suspense. The biggest thrill in far too many fiction novels is tossing the book across the room.
Creators of contemporary horror can learn a great deal just from modern trends within the entertainment world. Horror is no more “dead” than mysteries or suspense novels. It’s simply in a rut of nepotism and ignorance. The “true horror” is the snobbery exhibited by many who would rather see the genre fade into oblivion, than accept it for what it really is.
Horror has never been about “horror.” Modern creators are obviously unable to comprehend this. It was never about horror for the sake of horror. It was about pitting humanity against impossible odds and chronicling their struggle to overcome. What we see today is a generation of horror creators who simply focus on making horror, for the sake of horror. They have no respect for their material, and even worse, utter contempt for their audience. Most often, the audience or reader cheers for the malevolent villain (or spirit) because the characters are revolting.
Consideration: what if Bram Stoker had devoted around 1/3 or 1/2 of Dracula to focus on blood? How Dracula bit his victims, how gory the scenes were? What if he used up that much of the novel to depict Dracula’s concubines and their infernal seductions? The novel would’ve been forgotten, likely recalled as nothing more than a poor reproduction of a Marquis de Sade novel.
Modern audiences are literally “bored with gore.” Get over it. Move on. Audiences are so desensitized to gore that no amount of it alone will shock them. Gore never equates horror, and for that matter, humans usually make for lousy horror. Usually because the work, being promoted as “horror,” is nothing more than a hard-core detective piece. Cannibals, rapists, serial killers, none of that actually constitutes actual horror. That stems from a modern class of creators who think if they use enough blood, or enough violence, they can redefine the genre. The exception is if you’re killing them and they’re coming back as evil supernatural creatures. This is not 1950 and fiction has more than four genres.
The awesome movie franchise Alien was classified as horror, because people didn’t know how to classify it at the time. Today, it would be Science Fiction. The same principal applies to the classic The Thing.
There are many reasons for keeping the genre lines distinctive. Primarily, it keeps fans happy. There’s nothing worse than a Science Fiction fan wasting time and money on Horror, because they’re classified as the same thing. They won’t enjoy the work and will likely leave a terrible review somewhere, which will harm the movie creators. It’s a ridiculous (not to mention redundant) battle.
Detective fans will love modern “slasher” horror movies, whereas actual horror fans are usually disappointed by them. Horror fans will love modern vengeful spirit movies, but Science Fiction fans will not. Retailers should pay attention as proper classification unites fans with what they want. This helps everyone from the creators to the sellers and theaters. It’s better for all involved when the consumer actually gets what is requested.
The Walking Phenomena
The Walking Dead surpassed all expectations upon release. The series used a subject as tired as zombies to create a cultural movement. Modern, cannibalistic zombies were invented in the 1960s (despite many attempts to make them “historic”), but have became exhausted since. The Resident Evil movie franchise quickened the creative possibilities in 2001, but even that mad success didn’t reach the same heights as The Walking Dead.
Aside from these two success stories, there are countless movies and films about the same subject matter. It begs the question of what happened? Why did so many filmmakers and authors create material about zombies with no reception at all? Why was there so much failure?
In a word: incompetence. It’s harsh, but is perfectly appropriate. The Walking Dead creators did something so simple, so absolutely elementary, it seems the entire industry should be kicked in the trousers for ignoring it.
They respected their audience.
They approached the project knowing that the true story was never about gore or rotting flesh. It was never about evil people or how they torture and oppress the seemingly innocent. It was never about exploring a heinous devolution of society. It was not about rapists run amuck. It wasn’t even about viruses or the zombies. They are elements, but deserve no more attention than a mention. It’s about giving relatable, likeable characters impossible odds and pushing them to overcome them. After three seasons, viewers don’t even have a name for the virus. And they couldn’t care less. The creators entrusted their audience to fill in the irrelevant blanks, to imagine the horror, to sympathize with the characters, to understand what that world is like. And they did.
Modern horror overall has steadily shown it regards its audiences as stupid, immature and brainless drones. They must be insultingly condescended to. They aren’t intelligent enough to picture a gory scene, so every square inch of a bloody slaughterhouse must be described in plodding detail. They just aren’t capable of visualizing it, so they must be given details that destroy the plot and annihilate the story’s momentum.
The creators tell us, we aren’t able to read something as simple as a social cue. We must be bombarded with profanity to see a character is angry or upset. We just can’t comprehend that two people can have a relationship without seeing an extended sex scene between them. We can’t see people enjoying one another without a refrain to Porky’s Revenge.
Consideration: What is Mary Shelley had used tens of pages on how gory it was when Doctor Frankenstein reassembled his monster? What if she’d stopped the story and graphically explored what crimes the criminals committed to warrant execution, before they were chopped up and reassembled as the monster? Her novel would’ve never became the classic it is today.
Paranormal Activity was another movie to achieve ridiculously success. A film with a total investment of $15,000 (laughable today) went on to make millions upon millions of dollars, globally, and start a franchise. Even Japan has made their own version (Tokyo Night) of the blockbuster series.
How could a movie with such an abysmal investment do this? Innovation. They used an original storyline with original characters. No “Animal House” parties. No needless sex. No continual language. No cannibal rapists. No nudity. No gore. These details do not make Horror. If people want to watch an adult film, they’ll watch an adult film. If they want to see a college fraternity comedy, they’ll watch that. If they want to see cannibals, they’ll watch Silence of the Lambs (which is a hard-core detective piece).
Modern horror creators can’t get past these senseless details to create a good horror piece. Their self-imposed genre identity crisis has given the entire industry an identity crisis that is just absurd.
Extremity in Horror
There’s also a movement within the genre to be “Extreme.” To translate this to a non-horror individual, it normally means replacing substance with fluff. If an author is insecure about their work, they’ll throw a carnival sideshow to draw attention (to them and distract from their work). Rather than devote that time to perfecting their craft, they’d rather play, and whine that the industry is broken when their work shows it. It can be a brilliant ploy, if successful, for if anyone ridicules the ridiculous behavior, the creators in question pretend the critics are “uncultured.” It’s amusing to watch.
The single exception is reputable entities within horror who readily admit their work is “extreme” due to effects. There is no issue with this because it is honest marketing. They do not pretend there is some artistic, literary or intelligent quality within the effects (because they do not usually exist).
The primary goal of most authors is to achieve a readership. Likewise, most filmmakers want a steady audience. You do not achieve this with idiocy. You can’t achieve it with fluff, unless you’re wealthy and then it’s temporary. For most of us, you do this by giving people a reason to want to read that next book or watch that new film.
In closing, if modern horrormakers substitute the parties, gratuitous sex, language, rapists and nudity, with originality, the genre would be back to its former position in no time.