A couple of weeks ago I found myself watching Insidious for the first time. My roommate, a junkie for horror movies had put it on. He will watch anything that claims to be even remotely scary but I’m pickier than he is, which is why I was so happy to be enjoying the movie so much. Insidious has jump scares galore, but it’s real strength is the overall sense of foreboding and helplessness attributed to the unknowable spiritual threat in the film. That is, until the medium character shows up and the entire plot stops so she can explain the entire mythology of the franchise to the main characters.
It’s not that astral projecting too far from your body and potentially losing it to a demon isn’t scary, it’s just that now we know exactly how to fight it. Which means it isn’t that unknowable threat anymore. In a genre as ubiquitous as horror, telling the audience exactly what the monster is will always break the movie.
It’s a problem I have with most monster-based narratives. There’s always the grizzled older person who’s been there before. The watcher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the guy who’s passed on the curse in It Follows, and Until Dawn introduces a grizzled old man who fights Wendigos just so he can tell the main characters what they are before he’s brutally killed! It’s easy to write, it gets the info out there so the heroes can learn how to fight back, and it sucks.
It sucks not just because it’s lazy, but because you can gain so much in your storytelling by allowing your characters to discover the monster’s abilities through their interactions. Take Alien for example. The entire second act of the movie has the cast searching the ship for their first xenomorph and attempting to kill it. Injuring it makes it bleed acid, and they go down and check out how many floors it melts through. It grows at high speed, it blends in, it has that jutting inner mouth thing. By the time Ripley is on the escape ship in her underwear (you ever get out of a life or death situation and think, “I really need to get out of these pants”), we know exactly how dangerous the alien is. Yet they still have time to teach us why it isn’t attacking in that exact moment.
This year’s It is the same way! Pennywise seems to be capable of anything. He’s a shapeshifter who appears everywhere to scare our heroes. But all of that changes when one of them sticks a fire poker through his head. Now we know he has physical form. Now we learn he can be hurt. And yes that makes him less terrifying but that is the point. That’s how we arrive at the same revelation as the kids by the end, that his strength comes from their fear, and they aren’t afraid anymore. Besides, there are still those unknowable elements like what the hell was going on with those three lights in his mouth and the levitation. We might find out in Chapter Two but I hope they don’t give me too much.
The simplicity of not knowing the rules makes the story so much more tense than the other way. They have to confront the threat to learn more about it, because defeating it is the only way to live. And everything you gain comes with a heavy cost.
Otherwise I walk in on my roommate watching the Bye Bye Man where the kids all talk about how they can’t say the Bye Bye Man’s name, thus saying it, and then I have to watch them almost but not die for an hour until they do in the final act and oh boy now the uncle said the Bye Bye Man and seriously who approved that name are you kidding me?
So anyway, run on sentences am I right?
If you absolutely have to write the scene that explains it, out of fear the audience might not piece it together, at least push it as far back in the movie as possible. Get Out leaves their threat largely unsaid until the final act and by then we’ve been given enough hints that you could have figured it out on your own. The movie just wants to make sure we’re all on the same page for the fireworks to follow.
So when you’re picking a horror movie to watch for Halloween (or otherwise, I’m not your dad), do yourself a favor and find one where they have to discover what’s killing them for themselves. Or at least one that uses culturally understood shorthand to avoid that altogether. Like Zombieland! Oh man I haven’t seen Zombieland in years.
Well I know what I’m watching tonight.
PS, jump scares are also overused. They’re not wrong I just know we can do better. Have y’all seen Sinister? Terrifying, almost no traditional Horror movie structure.