Illustration by Jaye Elizabeth Johnson.

 

“It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.”

-Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone

Fear is a universal emotion, and thanks to that, it is easy to call on both in media and in real life.

Horror, however, is a complex genre.

In its pursuit, it seems easy to stray too far toward any number of extremes; leaning on physical drama can push the boundaries of scenes until they’re funny or shocking for the wrong reasons, and remaining dependent on psychological tropes for fear is not only boring but offensive– and sometimes even hurtful or triggering to the real individuals who have the disorders and conditions being mocked on screen. A cursory glance at the carousels of Netflix or Hulu will yield numerous titles like “Devil Seed”: cheesey possession flicks with more flash than fear, as well as dozens of movies whose horror is based entirely on being set in an mental institution–sometimes without the presence of torture or an overbearing authority figure, as though being ill or disordered on its own is horrific enough for the viewer to imagine. In American Horror Story: Asylum–an anthology horror show with scores of problems of its own–one of its characters says that  “mental illness is the new word for sin,” reflecting an opinion that is still disturbingly present in media today. Unfortunately, it’s also a big money draw for studios.

 

Consumers with disorders or mental illnesses aren’t treated any better; cinema and television are minefields of pointless gore, strobe lights and cheap jump scares that may trigger neurological conditions or any number of other disorders, anxiety based or not.  Though mental health is on its way to being treated  and understood with the importance it deserves, we have a long way to go before films and television with offensive tropes and harmful techniques are treated with the criticism they deserve. Because of this, media that is thoughtful in its consideration of its viewers and its subject content is hard to find, but invaluable – – and of the utmost importance for lovers of the horror genre. Here are a few movies–and one show–whose terror lies not in flash but in substance.


The Babadook
(2014, Jennifer Kent)

Kent admits that The Babadook isn’t really intended to be strictly a horror film, but the movie’s subject matter and the very real terror that result from it push it easily into horror territory. The film explores a storybook monster as it’s introduced to a world-weary widow (Amelia) struggling to raise her son in a cavernous house alone. This familiar trope–and the film’s initial treatment of the monster as possibly imaginary– is typical at first, but by displaying the slow transformation of the victim into the monster and showing the effects of the process, we escape using the Big Scary for shock value.

 

This film is interesting because it’s clearly a metaphor for chronic mental illness (The mantra “You can’t get rid of the Babadook” becomes a cornerstone for understanding and ultimately conquering the beast), but the fantastic nature lets you pretend it’s an old fashioned Gothic haunting tale in the story’s introduction. However, especially If you’re a person with mental health issues, you’ll recognize the villain/victim dichotomy that “becoming the Babadook” suggests: many horror Big Bads’ past are even littered with tortured or other traumas to offer an “explanation” for their condition – – but rather than blame her and rely on jump scares and gore to evoke fear, the film uses clever visual techniques to portray the protagonist’s complicated decline.

One notable aspect is the use of spotlights throughout the first act to both portray the terrible isolation of depression and invoke the headlights of the car that caused the fatal crash that took her husband. Right away we get the sense that Amelia is marooned on an island of loneliness with only stress and frustration to keep her company, and the memories of her husband’s death to keep her awake at night. We see this clearly in another startling scene, where the restless twitches of Amelia’s face are shown, close-up, in an unnerving time-lapse that displays her entire night. Later in the film we even get a visual depiction of sleep paralysis, layering more meaning on top of the simple tale of  a woman guarding against a boogeyman. All of this goes a long way when The Babadook finally takes hold; at no point does the film feel like it needs you to root against Amelia, and even its ending defies tropes in a way that’s virtually unheard of.

Pontypool (2008)
(Bruce McDonald, Tony Burgess)

Some films are better experienced than described. Pontypool is an incredibly atmospheric zombie apocalypse film set in a single building in rural Canada that has no classic zombies and almost no violence on screen whatsoever, and very little gore on screen compared to almost any other zombie or plague film. There’s blood, to be sure, but the film’s real terror comes in the unusual nature of the virus itself: Language. The protagonist of the film is a depressed, misanthropic radio host whose gloom is reflected in the dark, chilly cinematography, and much of the action is relayed through phone call and loud speakers. This takes away the squick that usual zombie-level gore brings with it and adds the incredible fear that uncertainty brings; just like the three radio station employees, you’re being plunged into an auditory nightmare while the deadly, unknown virus claims its victims and the town is quarantined by the government. Pontypool is a study in using offscreen action and tight sound design to foster fear and paranoia—something filmmakers struggle to do to this day.

 

Television is another arena completely, but cinematic rules can still apply. Shows like American Horror Story may routinely use rape and gore for shock value while slowly fleshing out its characters and lore, but other horror anthologies have found better ways. Black Mirror, for example, uses the universality of technology to its advantage to create slick, uncomfortably uncanny futures where its one-shot characters are put through the ringer. Rather than feeling hollow and pointless, the pace of the story lends urgency and depth to the acutely emotional situations the characters are living, and we’re able to connect with these very realistic people despite the markedly different realities they know. In “Be Right Back,” we feel the weight of Martha’s anguish as she struggles to deal with her loss, and it sharpens the fear that comes along with dealing with her husband’s non-quite-right replacement. No matter how dark the episode gets, however, Martha’s character is never abused or punished for punishment’s sake–and the same is true of all other episodes. The horror is never offensive (with the exception of the first episode, perhaps, but I actually suggest you leave it last), and the fear is always derived from the tension between the surreal, future-ish landscape and the character’s struggle to retain their values, identities, and humanity.

Horror should be safe for everyone to experience, and that means being mindful of tired tropes and techniques that may alienate or harm your audience.  As a member of that audience, it’s incredible to see people branching out and pushing the boundaries of genre to keep horror fresh and innovative–and, perhaps most importantly, accessible.