Why Horror is the Best Film Genre

Directors that specialize in scary movies specialize in a complement to imagination – not a replacement.

Film gives rest to an under-burdened imagination. As all filmmakers are aware, there is virtually nothing on the big screen that cannot be duplicated with equal vividness by the mind.

This is not a condemnation of entertainment that is not self-created. Bored with our own thoughts, we seek the refuge of fictional narrative outside of ourselves. The desire to be enthralled by the storyteller predates recorded history. Memorable fights, or hunts, were immortalized in ceremony and re-enacted imperfectly for those who had not witnessed the action. Eventually the exploits of others were embellished with greater deeds- delighting audiences and thus making them all the more memorable. Memories became shrouded in fantastic myth and characters imbued with more sympathetic traits. Thus, drama was born.  

Storytellers would memorize the equivalent of hundreds of pages as they both told and re-enacted the event – provoking the imagination with appropriate visual and audio prompts. The mind created its own life-like picture of the narrative. Once the storyteller became literate, recording the drama was the next logical step and the Epic of Gilgamesh and later the Iliad and the Odyssey could be preserved for eternity. In this case the storyteller’s letters exclusively prompted the imagination without any audio or visual stimulation. The descriptive power of the written word determined the parameters, but the mind was left exclusively to conjure the images and sounds that comprised the story – emphasizing features and glossing over others, for a unique and imagined interpretation of the text. Narrative interpretation was partially wrested from the mind when the three tragedists, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, then the more mocking Aristophanes, resurrected and enhanced the performance aspect of primitive storytelling. Their introduction of stage performances partially alleviated the imagination’s responsibility, but still left the bulk for the mind’s eye to determine.  

Hence, the dominance of the imagination remained, whether reading a poem and later a novel, or unburdening it somewhat with a performance that could never hope to match the vivid interpretation within the confines of our minds. The stage was (and remains) a place to compare performances, where even if we don’t know the plot the real entertainment becomes whether those troubadours are living up to the exacting expectations our imagination has of their character. There is also the allure of that live interaction between the watched and the watcher – of a different sort between the words and the imagination exclusively found in written works and later in spoken radio performances.  Neither form of interaction would be possible with film

Yet after film’s introduction a little over a century ago, its advantages became clear. Shifting camera angles meant that the audience was not confined to a single perspective. The speed of the action meant that a three-hundred page novel could be faithfully enacted in less than two hours. Film’s could be shot anywhere and the technology of effects allowed for the first time audiences to suspend disbelief not as they devoured the words on a page, but as they watched the performance of another. Film was not confined to a set, perspective, lighting, or one-time acting shots. Directors could play with all of these and craft them meticulously to bring stories to life in ways not thought possible. And in the process these ingenious film makers slowly replaced the labor necessary for the imagination to create images and advanced film to a point where audiences could break from their own mind’s interpretation of the story and reliance on conjured images. We were allowed to indulge completely, without any imagination, in that which came from another.

Yet, in the end is a film still not a poor copy for imagination, or has its enhanced visual and audio effects convinced us otherwise? We are sensory creatures and our senses become addicted to well-cued stimuli. Film enhances the stimulation to the point where the imagination becomes superfluous and can be discarded. Yet, this is all it can do.  Film can render nothing that our minds cannot imagine. There is no camera shot or shadow juxtaposition that could not be conjured with equal vividness when prompted with spoken or written words – whether as a novel, poem, or dialogue. Film evokes no emotion our brains cannot feel with equal clarity from reading a finely crafted story. Yet, film takes the imagination out of the story. The individual ceases to be an active participant and becomes a mere viewer.  

In other words, film can produce nothing. It cannot add to the human experience, only enhance the chronicle both true and fictionalized for those whose imaginations are not up to the task, due to lack of time or laziness (that covers about everyone on the planet). Yet, fear not, I am not imploring you to relearn how to vividly imagine stories and interact with text to create a far more vivid experience. We have all experienced the perfect vividness of imagination and can choose at any time to exercise it again. This explains the common refrain, “the book is better than the movie”. Those of us who read with any regularity walk into movies based on novels knowing to expect disappointment and if we are not it is not because the film maker has crafted a gem more remarkable than we imagined, but because they have altered the storyline in such a way so that it follows a divergent path and he no longer must compete with your imagination, but can replace it, since you no longer have a plot with which to compare.  

Yet, for all its flaws film can produce one thing beyond the limits of our imagination. We read books, or watch movies to encounter the unexpected – suspending our disbelief either in our mind or before our eyes. (Great storytellers usually present us with both options with the help of a publisher, or filmmaker respectively.) Here is where film can triumph over imagination. It can produce something that cannot come from within us – an experience our minds cannot conjure and must be shown in all its naked ferocity in order to be experienced: the scare.

That exquisite combination of horrific appearance, timing and sound is the product of film and cannot be reproduced by our mind. As all fiction, it is a substitute for experience, but such an experience cannot be conveyed with any emotional accuracy in the written word and thus cannot be imagined in the context of a storyline without outside sensory stimulation. Even when reading Stephen King’s The Shining, it is impossible to illicit the same effect that the appearance of the ghost in the bathtub has on viewers of the film because our minds control the pace and extent of what we imagine. We may frighten ourselves, but not out of our seats due to the limits of what we allow ourselves to visualize. Of greater relevance, our minds are incapable of capturing the entirety of the horrific image at once, which is why we scream, jump, jolt, or suddenly widen our eyes. No matter how quickly we read, it is still word by word. Unlike other descriptive scenes where word by word allows savoring and a richer mental picture to develop – a scare does not profit from extensive build-up.  Seeing Regan in The Exorcist slowly flip herself over and crawl down the stairs like a crab until her mother sees her does not have the same effect as seeing it immediately and fully formed with no build-up, however slight. Reading a description allows your brain to slowly adjust at a pace it determines adequate.    

It is in the instance of a scare that film provides its ultimate value-added. The imagination will always triumph over the drama in The Godfather, or even Citizen Kane. Yet for a scare, the mind’s eye is a poor substitute, because its effectiveness lies in moving too quickly for us to cope.  

No doubt, this is the reason many shy away from films with scares and horror movies. The intellectual elite rationalizes their apprehension as a distain for “cheap thrills”, preferring options that their imaginations can replicate. They are easier to digest and do not challenge the pace at which our minds process stimuli.  

On the other hand, those who appreciate scares are drawn to an experience – one unique to film. Directors that specialize in scary movies specialize in a complement to imagination – not a replacement. Those of us who flock to see their horror films at a conscious or unconscious level seek the unexpected thrill that is impossible to mentally mimic. Other movies are not worth the time as they provide imperfect reflections of our own imaginations.  

Yet, horror freaks appreciate what others dismiss or distain. They are a unique breed who do not just ‘get’ horror movies, but the reason for movies. This is why horror is the best film genre ever!