The Subjectivity of Horror, Part Two: The Fall of Psychological Horror

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In part one, we began the journey of trying to answer the question: Why do audiences and critics disagree so vastly on Hereditary and other A24 releases? We identified that the common thread of the films in question was the psychological horror subgenre and started by discussing the key characteristics of a psychological horror film. This was then followed up with an analysis of two of the most well-known psychological horror films, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. They came at a time when low budget, high tension horror films were thriving. But the genre was about to evolve and introduce new styles of filmmaking into the mix, beginning with the rise of more gratuitous forms of horror and culminating in the introduction of CGI to the genre.

The Fall of Psychological Horror

Slashers

The dawn of the 1980s brought with it the rebirth of the slasher film. This subgenre of horror is marked by gratuitous violence, often involving a serial killer or some other form of crazed murderer. While there were some notable, one-off, slasher films in the 1970s, namely The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, the subgenre didn’t really take off until closer to the turn of the decade. With this shift in horror came a number of recognizable horror icons including Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger.

The period from 1978 to 1984 is commonly cited as the Golden Age of slasher films, beginning with the release of Halloween and ending with the release of The Nightmare on Elm Street. While slashers could not be more different from psychological horrors, the subgenre does draw influence from some classic psychological horror films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The difference is that slashers go for a more direct and gratuitous form of horror that usually concludes with a cathartic moment, whereas psychological horror aims to employ more subtle and unsettling forms of horror that often concludes without a catharsis.

As the slasher craze raged on, those aforementioned movies gave rise to multiple sequels and copycat films and the subtlety of the psychological horror genre began to fade into the background. As sequels continued coming down the pipeline, the subgenre started to see a trend that pulled moviegoers even further away from the days of psychological horror. Where psychological horror prided itself on presenting a grounded story, the slashers began drifting in the opposite direction. The killers started to feel unstoppable and, in a way, superhuman. Furthermore, the films started becoming more about the villain than the protagonists, with new characters being introduced just for filmmakers to find new and creative ways to kill them off. This shift in the subgenre, combined with seemingly endless sequels and copycats, caused slasher fatigue to eventually set in among moviegoers.

CGI in Horror

As slasher films became relegated to home video release in the late 80s, it wasn’t psychological horror that came back to the forefront. When Steven Spielberg redefined what could be done with special effects in 1993’s Jurassic Park, it wasn’t long before horror filmmakers began adapting his technique of blending CGI and practical effects to achieve photorealistic visuals. Gone was the need to keep things practical or subtle like the psychological horror subgenre had done for so many years prior. Now, filmmakers had the power to put whatever they wanted on screen and with that power came a new wave of sci-fi horror films and the still popular, often special effects and jump scare laden, haunted house films.

The dawn of CGI in horror nearly put a nail in the coffin of the old school, atmospheric, psychological horror film. Not only did it redefine the possibilities of what could be put on screen, but giving filmmakers the ability to create computer-generated images opened up a plethora of new and creative ways to scare audiences. Some filmmakers used this to their advantage and crafted effective horror films that brought something unique to the genre. On the other hand, there were directors that struggled to utilize CGI without it being distracting and breaking whatever tension they were able to build up.

Jordan Forward of Screen Robot gives a brilliant example of how CGI further drew horror away from the more atmospheric and subtle form of the genre to the more explicit style that is seen today. When talking about the 2013 film Dark Skies, he states that “things start strongly, with the usual build-up of bizarre, household occurrences creating some well-orchestrated tension. But then, just as we’re settling down for a shocker, the director decides to show us exactly what’s been causing all this inexplicable activity. The shot that we’re treated to shows the extra-terrestrial assailant in all its digital glory – spindly, jet black and obviously spawned from the labors of a couple of software-wielding whiz kids.” Instead of continuing to build the tension and allowing the audience to create their own frightening image of these extra-terrestrial beings, the director goes for the instant gratification.

Dark Skies isn’t just an example of the direct nature of modern horror, but also of how the use of CGI can completely derail a film, evidenced by the negative reception of both critics and audiences. However, not all CGI in horror is used poorly. The fact of the matter is that the film industry as a whole would not have grown without filmmakers finding creative and effective ways to use modern technology. In the case of horror, that meant finding a way to incorporate CGI without breaking tension. Filmmakers who mastered this found themselves with the ability to be a little more liberal with what they showed on screen without completely sacrificing the look and feel of the film. In the end, the rise of slashers and the increased use of CGI in horror caused a fundamental shift in the genre and led to horror films becoming a more visual experience, rather than a psychological one.

Last Word on the Fall of Psychological Horror

So, what exactly is the point of all this? As horror shifted throughout the years, so did the taste of audiences. Why go see a “slow-burn” horror film when you can go see a fast-paced slasher? Why fear something that you can’t see when you can have a terrifying, computer-generated image pop up right before your eyes? As filmgoers grew more and more accustomed to newer styles of horror, the appetite for the once popular psychological horror subgenre continued to fade. Aside from some one-off releases, the subgenre became largely irrelevant throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s. But what happens when psychological horror finally attempts to make its return?

(To be continued in part three)

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