My father asked me my definition of a horror movie yesterday. I didn’t have an elevator-pitch answer, so I stumbled through a spontaneous one about a movie that focuses on inspiring fear, dread or revulsion with events that move beyond what we would consider regular “normal” events. I then added that horrifying events don’t mean a horror movie. War is horror. Child abuse is horror. Movies about war or child abuse are not horror movies, or more specifically, the horrific topics don’t automatically make them horror movies.
Horror movie folks know a horror movie when they see one, but non-horror movie folks sometimes don’t get it. Any horror movie fan has heard someone say something like, “___________ is real horror” or “the world is full of real horror like __________ that I don’t need made up stuff,” to know they don’t understand the genre or the appeal of the genre.
That’s not to say there is strict agreement in the community on what is or isn’t a horror movie, but discussions between horror movie people are different than discussion between horror movie and non-horror movie folks. It’s a nerdy pleasure to for horror movies fans to argue if Silence of the Lambs or Wake in Fear or Hush should be considered horror movies. I subscribe to Shudder, the horror movie streaming service, and there are movies there I wouldn’t consider horror. That’s cool, because it’s on the edge that interesting things happen, and being confined to unbreakable rules leads to boring content.
Still, however, horror movies are a genre, and while there aren’t specific rules (or at least there are rules that can be broken) generally good horror movies come from people who understand the genre even if they choose to push the boundaries. You’ve probably seen a movie made by someone who obviously didn’t watched horror movies who thought adding a gruesome death or a jump scare made it a horror movie. I know I have. Those movies generally fail because they don’t understand basic elements of the genre or what makes a horror movie frightening.
I’m bordering on sounding like a horror movie snob or elitist, and that’s not my intent. A good movie is a good movie and doesn’t need to be defined or pigeon-holed into a category. Is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a horror movie? Who cares? Most of us in the horror community wouldn’t call it one (how do you categorize most of Lynch’s movies?), but it’s an amazing piece of movie making which undoubtedly has influenced horror movie makers, regardless of category. Undefined categories are fine. It’s when a movie proclaims to be a horror movie without an understanding of the genre where issues can happen.
I refuse to bash movies, so I’ll be vague, but one particular instance comes to mind in a low-budget horror anthology movie where indie directors where asked to make horror short shorts, with many of the directors from outside the genre. That unnamed anthology fell short because of the previously mentioned misunderstanding by some that showing a horrific situation automatically makes a film horror. While some made important observations about needed societal change, they didn’t belong in a horror anthology. Definitions or not, most horror movie fans would recognize some of the films weren’t horror shorts. There was a lack of understanding of the genre and it showed, the equivalent of taking a Facebook discussion of gardening and subverting it into a political discussion. The anthology was expressly a horror anthology.
Interestingly, social topics and societal change can be intensely important to horror movies, and I would argue the genre is a near perfect vehicle to explore those topics. Again, though, the topic itself, however horrifying, doesn’t make the movie a horror movie. Whether an intense exploration of grief in The Invitation or racial issues in Get Out or living with family trauma in The Babadook or damaging stereotypes in the horror comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, horror can go places difficult for other movies. It’s when a director exploits the horror genre to expressly to get a point across without holding deference for the genre that movies become preachy.
So going back to the original question from my father, who is not a horror-movie fan: did I consider No Country for Old Men a horror movie? Certainly there is a terrifying, soulless killer, tension, horrific scenes of violence. If not, why?
Horror fans, I’ll leave you with that. Tap into your horror nerd and answer that one in a make believe interview.