As we enter October, we once again enter the season of pumpkin patches, costumes, candy corn, and, of course, horror movies. That’s right, it’s that time of year when we cram onto couches with our closest friends and watch—through our fingers—the creepiest movies Netflix has to offer. But as a year-round fan of horror, I find myself asking: why aren’t the genre’s best offerings celebrated during the time of year most associated with horror?
In October 2018, the top grossing horror movies included Halloween and Suspiria, two underwhelming remakes which were panned by critics. Both October 2017 and October 2016 follow the same trend with top releases including Jigsaw, the eighth installment in the Saw franchise, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, the prequel to 2014’s Ouija that shared its predecessor’s searing reviews. For the most part, apparently, when we choose to watch horror films around Halloween, we choose objectively bad ones.
Yet recent years have seen a renaissance of sorts in the horror genre. 2018’s Hereditary received glowing praise from diehard horror fans, and 2017’s Get Out found extraordinary mainstream success, even nabbing an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The past decade has seen some trailblazing directors depart from the slasher genre and pursue true horror. Notably, the most critically acclaimed horror films from the past few years have been directorial debuts; both Get Out and Hereditary, as well as A Quiet Place, The VVitch, and The Babadook, come from first-time directors. I doubt that this is a coincidence. Fresh directors are far more likely to cook up fresh and shocking ideas than directors who have drowned in the monotony of the mainstream for decades on end, and these fledgeling directors have certainly delivered clever and truly horrifying content.
So why do we, in the designated spookiest of seasons, subject ourselves to such bad movies when we have such fantastic and original choices available? I suspect that the answer may lie in a greater societal trend. In general, it seems like we favor escapist media, evidenced by the massive popularity that superhero movies have found in the past decade. We seek television shows and movies that leave us exhilarated yet satisfied, secure in the victory of the good and righteous; the almost obscene success of Disney’s Marvel franchise suggests as much. The modern trend in Halloween horror reflects the same desire, presenting us with a 90-minute series of superficial scares tied together by a plot just interesting enough to hold our intention while still being inconsequential enough to forget by the time we get home. We leave these movies with a slightly elevated heart rate and confidence in the triumph of good, but we certainly don’t leave with any deeper understanding or appreciation for the horror genre or the greater art of filmmaking.
Masterpieces of horror, both new and old, often depict this struggle between good and evil, often with the same satisfying result. 1973’s The Exorcist ends with the banishment of the demon and the salvation of Reagan, 2014’s The Babadook finds the mother and son living happily together, and 1983’s The Evil Dead sees Ash watching the sun rise over the woods. But it isn’t quite that simple, is it? The best horror films can’t just be left at the cinema doors. They raise compelling questions that challenge and disturb us. All three of the above films end victoriously, but they also make us question our reality and ourselves. What is the nature of evil? How can we survive in the face of unbearable loss? What violence are we truly capable of?
These are by no means comforting or easy questions, but they are in- credibly relevant. We may not face a demonic possession on a daily basis, but we certainly grapple with the presence of evil in our world. Our grief typically doesn’t manifest itself in the form of a horrific monster, but, nevertheless, loss permeates our lives. While I doubt that many of us have fought off deadites, we may know how it feels to push ourselves beyond what we once thought bearable or possible. After all, no horror movie worth watching has the theme of “scary"—they have themes of family, loss, survival, betrayal, and love. These concepts are universal, complex, and yes, scary; perhaps that’s why we seemingly avoid the entries to the horror genre that so adeptly address them. It appears that even at Halloween, we don’t truly wish to be scared. Spooked and jumpy, sure, maybe even leaving on our lights that night, but not truly scared, not unsettled or disturbed or, well, horrified. Until we embrace that fear rather than distracting ourselves from it, I suspect that Halloween will remain the realm of the jump scare and little more.
Illustration: Tim McDonagh