So this is something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, but my passion for finding an answer hasn’t reached the level of putting down words until now.
So let’s imagine you’ve got a horror movie. And your movie needs a scary killer. Something palpable and not en masse (not zombies or plague). Something like a big spider or a hillbilly cannibal or a pale kid ghost. Here’s the question: do you give that bad guy an origin?
Here’s why I ask. Is it scarier when you don’t know where the bad guy came from? What his/her/its motivations are? What its nature is? Or is that just lazy writing? I’ve heard criticisms both ways. The first that explaining the bad guy makes him less scary. The second from critics, who say that because you don’t know what it wants, it’s not scary. You don’t know where it came from or why it’s there or the reasoning behind its strength and weaknesses. Why does Jason seem to be able to teleport? Why does Pennywise only appear every twenty-seven years? How did a white-boy criminal learn the voodoo to put his soul into a doll?
Or you could say that the lack of definition enhances the fear. The time when things are the scariest are when you don’t know. You don’t know if something’s in the dark. You don’t know why the devil inhabits this little girl. You don’t know what the Blair Witch is. You don’t know why the Babadook has a little book (why can he get published and not me?). You don’t know why the It in “It Follows” is following you. Is it a gypsy curse? A confused ghost? Is the film itself just allegorical?
Let’s look at some scary movies to see if we can find an answer. You can’t count some franchises like Friday the 13th, Nightmare
Before Christmas on Elm Street. I applaud these movies for keeping things as fresh as possible, especially Freddy. But you can’t have this many sequels and not have backstory come out. To the point where it stops being horror and starts being action and/or science fiction (e.g. Resident Evil, Jason X).
|“Dear! Are you going out in that?!”|
I give Halloween a pass because A) it started the eighties horror rennaissance B) I consider only the first two part of the mythos. Number three had no Michael Myers. Four + Five + Six add some weird cult/curse/prophecy thing that was so tainted with studio interference and poor production that I can’t bear to include it. Seven and Eight you could make an argument for, but they’re essentially milking a dead cow for nostalgia. And the Rob Zombie movies are real reboots (and add way too much backstory).
Anyway, my point is that Halloween (I & II) do not explain where Michael Myers came from, why he kills, etc. All Dr. Loomis can say is that he’s absolute evil (not very professional, but effective storytelling). He’s like a force of nature. He’s there, but you don’t know why, and you don’t know the reason for his mask, or why he wants to kill family. It launched an entire decade of genre so it should be effective.
Some others that are scary, but do a decent job of explaining the character’s origin are The Exorcist, The Shining, The Ring, and Psycho. Yet, there is an element of the unexplainable in all these. Norman Bates’s psychosis is abnormal, so as much as the psychiatrist
bores us to death tries to explain, you still don’t get the unnatural connection to Mother. Umbrella Corporation still seems to be in business after seven games and a thousand zombie outbreaks. Hasn’t someone complained to the Better Business Bureau by now? Why does Samara care more about getting her tape out than avenging her death? How does a hotel go from Indian curse to directing a father to murder his family?
So then we have movies that have nil or just about nil story/background/characterization to the bad guy. The Babadook and It from “It Follows” have obvious allegorical meanings, but that’s metaphysical. Where did they come from in the universe of the movie? Why does the Babadook look like Ryuk with a little hat and coat?
|Is their ship name “Babaryuk”? Or “RyukDook”?|
Why does the It from “It Follows” follow? If It from “It” follows “It Follows” and It from “It Follows” follows “It” then it follows It follows “It Follows” follows “It” following It from “It Follows” follows “It”. I don’t know what I just said. None of those words have any meaning anymore to me.
The Blair Witch has no identity or origin as the kids look for her. The fear comes from what they find during their journey into the woods. And the movie was criticized for this. For as scared as people were, there were as many that said “a pile of rocks and popsicle-stick men aren’t scary”. And if you didn’t catch the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “standing in the corner” line from the beginning, the ending is lost on you. For them, the absence of meaning behind these actions was silly rather than scary.
In Jaws, there’s no explanation why the shark has entered populated waters. It contradicts what’s known about sharks. We know it’s bigger than normal and it’s behavior is aberrant. Why? No one knows. But this didn’t change the fact that it was scary. What it could do was more important than why it did it.
Okay, lightning round now: Night of the Living Dead – no explanation for zombies (the “comet” line is pure conjecture). Paranormal Activity (the first one, see above explanation about franchises) – no explanation. Funny Games – no explanation for why the serial killer preppies are doing this (but then it gets negated by the metaphysical remote control interruption). Cloverfield (doing web searches for the ARG doesn’t count). The Birds. Five Nights at Freddy’s. Silent Hill.
And then a few that are on the fence: does Texas Chainsaw Massacre count? Do we need more backstory if it’s based on a historical figure? Do we need to know what planet Xenomorphs originate from? Or how they survive with acid for blood and the evolutionary reasoning for two mouths? Does “Death” in Final Destination need something more or is that just torture porn anyway?
I think it’s more important what the characters do than where they came from. If there’s meanings in the actions of the bad guy, that makes not only an effective bad guy, but an effective movie. Random shit happening is just random shit. If you can’t attach meaningfulness (and in horror movies, meaningfulness means threat or doom), then it’s not scary.
The funny part is that “Cabin in the Woods” — arguably the best horror movie in the past decade — is nothing BUT explanation of the scary killer.