Why Does Horror Have Such a Bad Reputation?
By Danny Gallagher
The horror genre has been a part of storytelling and literature since the dawn of artistic expression. Works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and even William Shakespeare’s immortal Macbeth aren’t just among the most beloved and critically lauded horror tales of all time. They are often among the most beloved and critically lauded tales of all time, period.
These days, the genre has earned a strange reputation, even for one that revels in bloodthirsty creatures and demons. Critics and scholars in just about every artistic medium seem to regard attempts to raise the blood pressure of its readers or viewers in the same vein as a third-rate comic book.
It’s far from being on life support. Horror fans have built thriving communities that hold annual conventions and celebrate the contributions of old and new talent who are breathing new life into the genre.
It also still rakes in the dough at the box office. Guillermo Del Toro’s Mama recently reached the top spot in its opening weekend. However, it’s not the biggest moneymaker compared to other blockbusters. None of the top 20 grossing movies of 2012 fell into the horror genre, unless you count the eye-bleeding badness of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.
The proliferation of horror movies also deserves some of the blame. The B-movie genre often falls on horror to make a quick buck by cheapening its product. The proliferation of the low-budget slasher movie throughout the 1980s relied less on plot, purpose, and true terror to give audiences a cheap thrill with buckets of blood, short scares, and increasingly gruesome violence. Some of the greatest films, plays, and novels of all time use these devices, but they also weaved them into a deep, thoughtful narrative with loads of pathos.
This means that stories that have a creative twist on such a tired genre have a hard time fighting the usual stereotypes that have stigmatized the entire genre. Joss Whedon’s ingenious take on the slasher movie The Cabin in The Woods found new ways to turn a familiar story completely on its head. It wasn’t a bomb, but it failed to find a big audience outside of the horror-loving crowd.
Movies such as Saw and Paranormal Activity also found creative new ways to terrifying massive audiences, but their never-ending series of sequels can cheapen the genre all over again by simply copying and pasting the same movie on a different reel.
Horror stories can also be a thorn in the side of parents who don’t feel it is appropriate for their little ones to be exposed to such graphic violence or dark depictions of the world. Censorship has long been a problem for the horror community, even after free expression has risen above the heavy hand of political suppression. None, however, have done more damage to the genre than psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham. His infamous tome Seduction of the Innocent, released in 1954, tried to virtually destroy horror comics such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror” by linking its dark stories and grisly images to the rise of juvenile delinquency. The false dichotomy of the two may have been disproven to some extent since then but the iron fisted influence Wertham’s crusade and the Comics Code Authority formed in the wake of these accusations gave parents one more reason to sleep less at night for generations to come.
Modern horror literature isn’t finding it as hard to find time in the spotlight thanks to the rise of graphic novels, but traditional books have been engulfed a bit by mainstream book publishers who focus only on finding the next Twilight or Hunger Games-esque hit.
There are plenty of horror authors who found massive success in the mainstream spotlight such as Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Bentley Little, but even they can get lumped into the same tired stereotypes by critics and scholars that squash the paths of budding horror writers who could take the genre in new and exciting directions.
Horror as a whole isn’t dead. It’s got a strong fan base and audience who still loves the thrill of feeling adrenaline run through their bloodstream as they are scared out of their wits. It may never reach the same level of acceptance as so many other pop culture successes, but its fans seem to like having a corner of culture that they can call their own.
Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer, reporter, humorist, and blogger.