Horror movies and the fear of the unknown

We’re nearing the end of October, and in addition to nearing the beginning of NaNoWriMo, we’re also getting closer to Halloween.  I love Halloween–if it were up to me, I would spend all day on Halloween eating candy and watching horror movies (unfortunately, work gets in the way this year).  I l’ve had an unhealthy love for horror movies since age 11.  Around that time, the movie Scream came out, and I watched it, despite the fact that I was way too young to see that movie.  It terrified me, but it also fascinated me.  I became obsessed with what scared people.  In fact, the first thing I remember writing to completion was a terrible yet awesome screenplay about a serial killer in the middle of nowhere.  I say “remember writing” because I can’t find any record of it on my computer – I probably deleted it during angry teenage years.  But I did find my second complete writing project, which was another screenplay, but this was more in the horror/comedy genre (think more Cabin in the Woods than Nightmare on Elm Street).

Wes Craven is quoted as saying, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”  I think he’s right, and I think there’s something very interesting about the underlying reasons why we watch horror.  Why do we like being scared?  It’s an adrenaline rush, forcing our minds to enter the fight or flight stage without any real sense of danger.  We can live vicariously through the hero’s fear and accomplishments, imagining ourselves in the central role, finally defeating evil.

And in addition to why we want to be scared, I think it’s interesting to examine what scares us.  I’m particularly thinking about this lately because of my upcoming project.  What is scary?  What truly terrifies us?  I’m not a huge fan of the recent torture porn genre (Saw, Human Centipede, etc), because these movies focus on shock value.  It’s not necessarily scary when Jigsaw sets up his latest puzzle – it’s just disgusting.  When we compare these more recent movies to classic horror movies–I’m thinking, for example, Halloween, Alien (and yes, this is a horror movie), The Thing, The Shining–there’s clearly something missing from the new crop.  In the classic movies, the biggest fear comes from the unknown.  In Halloween, there’s no explanation for what Michael Myers does what he does.  He’s just evil.  Where did the xenomorph come from?  Who knows.  Likewise, where did The Thing come from?  When Jack and Danny see things in the hotel, are they ghosts?  Is the hotel causing a hallucination?

Contrast that again with Saw – we don’t need to know Jigsaw’s back story to make the story better.  I would argue that it weakens the story’s impact.  Jigsaw goes from being an unknown entity to just being a really weird dude who once had a tumor.  Once the audience knows that, it lowers his status as a villain.  Again, compare with Michael Myers – what is he?  What is Jason?  Are they human?  Supernatural?  Just evil?  The lingering question is what haunts our nightmares.

The original Alien movies led to a discussion among fans about the origin of the xenomorphs.  Fans debated and theorized what was really going on with the “space jockey” on the crashed ship.  What was he doing with the eggs?  Were they weapons?  When it was first announced that Ridley Scott was making Prometheus, a quasi-prequel, fans, myself included, went crazy.  “Finally,” we shouted, “maybe some answers!”  But it turned out that the story in Prometheus didn’t satisfy a lot of fans.  It didn’t present a true origin story, and what answers it did provide were embedded in a story with a lot of holes (sidenote: I actually liked Prometheus and found it incredibly entertaining, but I understand its faults).  The take-away?  Again, sometimes giving audiences more back-story/answers doesn’t serve the ultimate story (another sidenote: I’m sure R. Scott would argue that Prometheus isn’t necessarily supposed to further the ultimate story of the Alien universe, but come on, man, you had a xenomorph burst out of an engineer at the end of the movie).

Today, a lot of movies and novels answer questions that nobody even asked. I think that when we’re writing, we should ask ourselves why we’re giving the audience answers.  Do they need the answers to further the story?  Could we withhold the answers and keep more mystery?  And is the answer one that the audience deserves?

What do you think about answering/not answering audience questions?  Do you think I’m completely off-base about recent horror movies?