Does a horror movie have to be scary to be a good horror movie?

This is a conundrum that has been plaguing my already plagued mind for quite some months now. Earlier this year, I revisited William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which prompted a number of questions for me: if a horror movie is not scary, can it be considered ‘good’ or ‘successful’? Indeed, if a horror movie is not scary, can it be considered a horror movie in the first place? What is a horror movie? Why is Rosemary’s Baby considered to be a horror movie, but No Country for Old Men isn’t?

It had been years since I last watched The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and when I watched them years ago, I struggled to reconcile how little they scared me with their perception as two of the greatest horror movies ever made. The Exorcist is, inherently, disturbing and unsettling in its subject matter, and has moments of genuine shock – but I never really found it to be ‘scary’. I feel the same way about Rosemary’s Baby – it has a general aura of chilling foreboding, but I don’t think it could be called ‘scary’. However, I have come to terms with this now. As of this year, both films are amongst my favourite movies of all time.

Horror movies are anecdotally considered to be movies that aim to scare the audience. Horror is “a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears” (thanks Wikipedia). But what does being scared actually mean? I think a ‘scary’ movie is one with an unrelenting mixture of tension and shock that gets under your skin, makes your heart pound, and makes you apprehensive about what will happen next. So if being scary is the ultimate marker of a horror film, how can I possibly find The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby to be successful when they don’t necessarily scare me?

The truth is that ‘scariness’ is subjective. What might scare me might not necessarily scare you, and vice versa. Just because the supernatural elements of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby aren’t scary to me doesn’t mean that the films are not horror movies. They both possess the aim to scare, to shock, and to ‘horrify’; however to me, their most profound value is as supreme works of art and filmic craft, rather than as conduits for scariness. In fact, most of my favourite horror movies are movies that I don’t find necessarily ‘scary’.

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The Exorcist undoubtedly has plenty of moments of tension (just look at the frosty atmosphere of the climactic exorcism) and disturbing moments as well (the very idea that the devil has possessed a 14-year-old girl is disturbing in and of itself), but overall it never ‘got under my skin’ in a way that left me frightened and fearful. But I still love it; I love it as an extraordinary achievement in writing, acting, cinematography and editing.

It would be difficult for anyone today to call Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho scary. Maybe that’s because all the truly horrifying moments have become such staples of popular culture (the shower scene, Norman Bates’ maternal obsession, etc.), or maybe it’s because it feels a tad dated in its censorship of much of the gore. But it is still a movie that I love because of its ability to use elements of filmmaking in such a unique way – particularly the music and the structure. Look at Jaws and Alien. They aren’t movies that get under my skin or make me paralysed with fear, but they are still brilliant horror films, and brilliant films in general. Whether it’s the infamous semitonal music in Jaws or the foreboding silence of Alien, both Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott have a knack of racking up the tension and relieving it in moments of shocking violence. Then there’s The Blair Witch Project. And John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Thing…the list goes on.

I like horror movies a lot, but there aren’t many that truly, intensely scare me. However, I can think of many that are considered horror ‘classics’ that I do not like. I would rather undergo Ludovico treatment than watch Friday the 13th again, because it lacks everything that makes the aforementioned films great – it lacks the patience of Halloween, the subtle foreboding of Rosemary’s Baby and the character depth of The Exorcist, and is instead an exercise in showing as much gore as quickly as possible. I really don’t care for Kubrick’s The Shining either. The last half hour is incredible (worth owning the DVD for), but the first hour-and-a-half or so is an incoherent, emotionally cold mess with a handful of brilliant moments. I don’t find either film scary at all, but unlike Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there’s nothing in the story or the characters for me to latch onto.

Horror movies should be judged on the criteria we judge all movies, not just the one criterion of whether it is scary or not. I believe horror movies can be appreciated on more than just a base level, and this is what separates them from other genres. If a comedy isn’t funny, it’s still a comedy (as it is trying to make you laugh), but it isn’t a successful one.

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Scaring you isn’t the only thing that a horror movie can and should do. They are one of the simplest and smartest microcosms of social commentary – look at the commentary on consumer culture in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Joe Dante’s Gremlins. They can also very effectively be hybridised with other genres. Wes Craven’s Scream, a film I go back and forth on but currently I really, really love, feels like more of comedy than a horror movie to me; there are occasional scares, but its self-reflexive cynicism is what wins out for me.

I don’t think a horror movie has to be scary to be considered a good horror movie. Even more so, I don’t think a horror movie has to be scary to be considered a horror movie at all. Looking back at my definition of what a ‘scary’ film is, I would say that the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men ‘scares’ me more than any other film I’ve mentioned, but very few people would call it a horror film even though its plot can be boiled down to that of a slasher movie. My best friend (Wikipedia) describes horror movies as movies about the intrusion of an evil force into everyday life, and while this is clearly correct, I think horror movies are more distinguished by the mood they create and their overarching purpose.

So let’s look at the semantics of the phrase ‘horror film’. ‘Horror’. Maybe what a horror movie boils down to is a disturbing and suspenseful film that aims to horrify and to shock, not necessarily to scare. I think Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist aim primarily to shock and to horrify, and aim secondarily to scare. Perhaps this is why Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer are horror films and The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men are not; Texas Chainsaw and Henry are so fucking horrifying that I never want to see them again, whereas Silence and No Country are tense and disturbing, but are never horrifying to the point where I was startled and had to look away in revulsion.

Just because my favourite horror movies didn’t make me flinch or gasp or look away does not mean they are unsuccessful movies. And it doesn’t mean that you won’t be scared by them either.

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3 thoughts on “Does a horror movie have to be scary to be a good horror movie?

  1. A large consideration is time. All those movies you describe really were scary when they were released. It is just that they do not scare today’s audiences because we have seen so much and you have seen it as you grew up so the bar has to be raised. I remember showing The Shining to a student audience just a few years after it was released and already they thought it was tame.

    • Even though it doesn’t scare me, The Exorcist is gradually becoming one of my favourite movies of all time. Despite a clunky first 15 minutes, it’s so rapturous and enthralling throughout even though today’s audiences may not appreciate the shock value it once had.

  2. Pingback: 5. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) | The Cineaste's Dilemma

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