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The evolution of horror movies: Why less is still more

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These experiences all allow us to vicariously experience thrills and terrors with low to zero risk. – Brigid Cherry

Carl Sederholm is a champion and connoisseur of horror movies. First a hobby, then an obsession, he channeled his love of fright into a career, teaching classes about American horror and monsters at Brigham Young University.

“The thing that I worry about is that horror will be seen in terms of immorality,” Sederholm said of his beloved subject. “And it's an easy target because you might have a film that has violence, or it might have bad language or it might have nudity … exploitative-type material. But I've always come to the sense the horror, the story itself, is moral in the end.”

Sederholm anticipates denouncements of the horror genre. People have questioned his own morality in light of his favorite subject.

But fans like Sederholm say horror is a self-reflecting genre. It puts a magnifying glass to our collective love of terror, using current events and our own worst enemy — ourselves. Although the trend may be to create bloodier, more violent scenes, the horror genre is at its best when it leaves things to the overactive imagination.

We love horror

“Let me put my horror hat on here,” Sederholm said as he attempted to explain what draws him to the genre. “I think that I've always thought that people do like to be scared, even those who say they don't. And I think part of it has to do with the fact that it's fear in a safe environment. I mean, as scary as a horror movie is, there's really nothing that can harm you at all in that circumstance. People often tell me that they don't watch horror because they don't like to be scared. … Sometimes I think they're just afraid that somehow it's real.”

There are purposes for this fake fear, said Brigid Cherry, horror expert and author of "Routledge Film Guidebook to Horror."

“These experiences all allow us to vicariously experience thrills and terrors with low to zero risk,” Cherry said. “This can be cathartic, maybe allowing us to get some anxieties out of our system, but many people also find these feelings exhilarating for their own sake or find the relief afterwards pleasurable.”

Cherry said that horror films have many subgenres within the main genre that may appeal to different people and create different responses. Various types of monsters and villains allow moviegoers to experience things they might otherwise avoid, testing their limits of bravery, Cherry said.

Villains reflect society

That dark side is reflected in the nature of the villains in horror movies, and the ways the characters are victimized by the bad guys. Through the ages, horror films have existed to create larger-than-life villains for our subconscious to sort through.

“Horror films tend to reflect the anxieties of the cultural moment,” Cherry said. “Many of the 1950s horror films deal with fears related to the Cold War, nuclear disasters and science run wild. It is said that every time gets the monsters it deserves, be these rampaging terrorists that fall from the sky or mental patients, pedophiles and sadists that prey on our teenage children either at home or on trips to Europe.”

Sederholm said that a large push in the last 20 years of horror has been to make a villain who is less obvious. Whether they keep their masks on, or have unclear motives for their crimes against humanity, our modern bad guys are less predictable.

“You don't really meet people like a stereotypical villain all that often," Sederholm said. "A villain may actually do something nice for someone. On the way to their great heist they might help an old lady across the street.”

He specifically mentioned Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychopath of “The Silence of the Lambs” and subsequent movies.

"Is he a figure that has any good in him?" Sederholm said. "Probably not. I mean the way he is presented in the stories is as bad as it gets, but the thing is that people were interested in was the way he worked. I think part of a good villain is the inexplicability of their motives.”

Sederholm and Cherry both mentioned a shift in the 21st century, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The rise of movies that center around torture, like "Saw" and "Hostel," has no true explanation, but several theories. The gory body horror, depicting extreme violence and torture as a game, may have been inspired by current events, Sederholm said.

“There was waterboarding and debates about Dick Cheney and whether he was moral in authorizing torture,” Sederholm said. “So one of the theories about the emergence of torture-type films in that period was … it's a way for horror movies to address the morality of torture.”

The original “Saw” film, which is very graphic and violent, did pose some interesting moral questions, Sederholm argued. He said the “Saw” sequels threw the concept out the window in favor of even more bloody violence. Unfortunately, Sederholm said, this is a common trend.

Imagination creates terror

Killings in horror movies have become more over-the-top, with higher stakes and lower probability. There almost appears to be an element of competition between filmmakers over who can make the most memorable death scene.

However, the truest horror, the kind that really scares people, is far more subtle.

“I think it's supposed to linger,” Sederholm said. “I think it needs to be subtle. I mean, ideally it needs to trigger in your mind the fear so that you are filling in the blanks. It's scarier to say ‘There might be something behind that door, but don't check.’ But you always check. So the walk down that hallway is scarier than even the creature standing in front of you, because when the creature is standing in front of you, you can start to process whatever you think that creature means."

Masters of suspense, like Alfred Hitchcock, know that our imaginations become our own worst enemy in scary situations. If nothing is held back, often the payoff is weak. The monster is not as scary as we expected or seems to have a discernable weakness to exploit, Sederholm said.

Jacob Forman wrote the movie "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane." Although the film gets an R rating for extreme language, violence and sexual content, Forman said "The entire team felt that suggested violence was far more effective than graphic, shown violence.

"And I'm not sure this will ever change," he said. "The things we imagine are generally far, far scarier than anything we'll see onscreen.”

The purpose of gore and violence may be to simply gross out the audience. It leaves a strong impression on the viewers, and according to Sederholm, sometimes that's the best a filmmaker can do.

“If films reflect the time in which they were made, then if society becomes more violent, so will entertainment,” Cherry said. “There is not necessarily a demand for more violent entertainment — it has probably always been there. There will always be people who seek it out, and there will always be groups who condemn it.”

Cherry also pointed out that many fans of horror movies reject violent films, and do not consider them part of the genre.

Sederholm doesn't advocate watching "the most violent and filthy thing," but he does feel that there is still good to be found in the genre.

"I think horror still works generally in very similar ways; it's just that some writers or directors prefer to amplify certain elements over others," he said. "I think the morality is still there.”