The public perception of horror is changing, but what does that mean for our cinemas?

To my best recollection, I went to my first movie in 1990. I’ll never know the film because all memory was erased by the sheer terror of the trailer for Childs Play 2. It’s a chicken or the egg question really: was I frightened of Chucky before the trailer or did that spark my childhood fear of the doll? It left such an impression that even as an adult, Chucky’s visage makes me uneasy. And this is true to the power of film as art; even childhood memories of schlock can wield an emotional punch in the present.

These powerful foundational memories are why the cinematic experience is so important to so many. But in the reactionary days of streaming media, the idea that the cinematic experience is the only way to appreciate film has become a topic of conversation for shadowy elistism “Film Twitter”.

And I get it! It’s understandable to find the notion ludicrous that a film may be better viewed at home. There is nothing like watching a story unfold twenty feet high. You naturally feel the energy of an engaged audience. It can make a tepid film memorable. But it can also turn a masterpiece into a frustrating memory.

Enter Prestige Horror. Or are we calling it Elevated Horror? Didn’t I just read a think-piece calling it Post Horror? The confusion in what to call this new trend is just the beginning of the mixed feelings the horror community has about this new public embrace. On one hand, we are getting incredible films like The Witch and The Invitation. Conversely, though, the dialogue surrounding these character-driven fright films have begged the question: is there an undercurrent of disrespect for horror? Others have openly asked whether this new contextualization is actually best served outside of the cinemas, from the comforts of home.

Ridley Scott, producer of AMC’s horror hit The Terror recently talked with The Wrap about just this,

“[And with TV] you are at home. And by being at home you are kind of uneasy. ‘Cause if you are by yourself, you’re looking over your shoulder in the room. — if horror can be called ‘fun’ and being scared to death can be called ‘fun,’ then yeah, I think it works better at home rather than sitting in a room full of lots of people. Sitting by yourself, the fear can be really scary if the show is very effective.”

Within the shared experience of horror cinema, there is a level of implied audience interaction. Obviously not uninvited stand-up acts, but the stereotypical image of a crowded theatre, audiences losing their minds in delight. No other genre welcomes unintentional nervous laughter, full-throated screaming, and audible whispering of “No, no, don’t go in there!” in a room full of strangers.

And for teen screams, slashers, ghost flicks, and the like: this feels natural. An emotional recall of midnight screenings with electrified audiences. But how do we reconcile this natural reaction when the current pop horror has begun exploring headier deconstructions of family dynamics? Is it possible that this shared audience engagement can potentially disrupt our own personal experience?

Take Hereditary, the current horror du jour. In the film, a key character makes a recurring sound, a clucking noise. It reminded me of a nouveau Friday the 13th or Jaws theme, a simple sound used to terrorize younger siblings for generations to come.

This new “Boo!” is used effectively, but also frequently. So often that the implied audience interaction that horror can allow for took over. First one phantom “Cluck!”  a few rows in front of me. Another soft “Cluck!” a few minutes later. As more of the audience fed on this implied interaction, likely feigned attempts to break the tension, it was quickly followed by other hallmarks like audible pejoratives of “NOPE! NO WAY!” during any startling moment.

Like live theatre, there can be a symbiosis between spectator and spectacle: a cyclical fueling of energy. In films like Mayhem or Mom and Dad, as the action builds, this engagement can be pivotal to the experience. But with this new crop of emotionally complex horror distancing itself from popular popcorn-infused terror, is the implied interaction still appropriate?

Imagine an audience for a film like Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience audibly saying “Oh damn!” when the orthodox patriarch finally loses his temper. While that may be the emotion you earnestly feel, typically you reserve expressing it in the moment for films that carry that type of dramatic weight. And while horror is exceptional at forcing an immediate reaction, that doesn’t mean we should act on the urge to vocalize our experience presently.

But to be clear, we’re not talking about the inherent screams and laughter cinema gives us. This isn’t about suppressing or policing your response to a film, but rather simply reading a room. Quelling that innate need we have in the age of Twitter for immediate reaction. We should recognize what it is: a subconscious interpersonal response to fear. It’s akin to the etiquette of haunted attractions, rather than cinema. Having less to do with your experience than it does with your desire to deflect your fears through a quip shared by those around you.  

Like pulling out your phone or talking during a film: the implied interaction becomes inappropriate in this trend of character-driven genre storytelling. And if that’s true, coupling with Ridley Scott’s argument that the isolation of home intensifies your experience, why are we still reticent to praise the home viewing experience. Hereditary may pack a larger unnerving punch if the viewer is as isolated as the home in the film. You definitely wouldn’t have to worry about strangers attempting to nervously break the tension.

It’s most confounding when you consider that for many who grew up during the Blockbuster era, our first introduction to certain films were at home. This past experience seems to always be discounted in favor of cinema. Living in rural Texas, we didn’t have repertory theatre’s to introduce us to The Thing or Tremors. We had video stores and TV recordings with endearing overdubs of profanity. Getting up early on the weekend to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master from Hollywood Video. These moments made me fall in love with film just as much as the first time I saw Evil Dead II with a crowd.

But with prestige horror like Hereditary and A Quiet Place, they don’t play like party films. You don’t expect an audience to tear down the house during an A24 release. But this conversation also isn’t about haranguing nervous giggling, but rather respectful engagement and awareness. These quiet personal stories may have a heightened, more profound effect at the most personal place in our lives: our homes.

But it deserves to be stated that the cinema experience is special. No one is minimizing that. While digital is the industry standard, watching a film print still has a lived-in quality that can’t be paralleled. The grain, stray hairs, and cigarette burns can give a film its character. There is history too in the print itself which can be an exhilarating thought. How many people were inspired to write their first screenplay or direct their first film after watching this print of Lamberto Bava’s Demons? How many dreams and aspirations have this print kicked off?

Just like live theatre, seeing a film with an audience can also bring a new layer of appreciation. Jokes that may have flown over your head suddenly land as others around you respond to it. A quiet moment holds new weight as a room collectively holds their breath.

Some films are parties, while others are wakes. Recontextualizing our cinema experience is about reconciling with that difference. There are no sides, it’s not about demonizing one over the other, but it is about awareness and respect. If elevated horror has taught the public one thing, it’s that the genre is far more nuanced than they ever gave it credit for.

More to Read: