When it comes to Halloween, think audience, not titles.
As the horror movie geek in my circle of friends, I find that October is my biggest time to shine. This is the part of the year when people I know set aside their disinterest in scary movies and ask me for my recommendations. My wife and I have even started a holiday tradition with one specific couple that involves baked good and a horror film of my choosing, despite the fact that everyone else in the group avoids horror movies during the rest of the year. October is often my one chance to convince people that horror movies are smarter, artier, and/or funnier than they expect. It’s an opportunity I don’t bear lightly.
And that’s why I get so bummed out when people loudly profess their disinterest in the genre. A few weeks ago, Glamour published a piece titled “Do People Actually Enjoying Watching Horror Movies?” In it, author Abigail McCoy discusses her intense dislike of the horror genre and her complete skepticism that anyone actually enjoys watching these films. “For me,” McCoy writes, “having an appreciation for horror movies falls into the category of ‘Things I Understand Exist, but Reject Wholeheartedly,’ right alongside anime and micropenises.” Setting aside for now the fact that McCoy seems to be mischaracterizing her audience – after all, people on Twitter responded with enough harsh language for several lifetimes – let’s focus instead on the underlying issue: how can we expect anyone to love the horror genre if we don’t give them a good reason to love it?
Hopefully, I don’t need to convince you that there is more value in the horror genre than just a few sicko makeup effects. Low-budget horror regularly gives birth to some of the most interesting talents in Hollywood history. There are creative homemade special effects, unique locations, and unforgettable soundtracks. Horror films can spotlight issues of representation – gender, sexuality, and race – in a way that few mainstream movies would dare consider. Classic horror films help us measure our cultural evolution since the ’60s and ’70s. For every entry in the Saw franchise, there are a half-dozen movies like Let the Right One In or Sauna that approach individual anxieties from very primal places. But horror film fans – even the smart ones – can sometimes treat the positive elements of the genre as self-evident when they are anything but. If you are going to try and win over the horror skeptics among us, you need to be a little more in-tune with their fears and desires.
It starts with knowing how afraid is too afraid. Fear, like humor, is an incredibly subjective emotion. What makes you tremble in your seat may cause another to writhe with laughter; sometimes a person can even bounce wildly between the two over the course of a single film. Therefore, when people ask you for horror movie recommendations this time of year, it’s important to be honest about the game you are playing. Are you trying to pick movies that a friend of family member would really enjoy? Or are you trying to expose new viewers to the classics of the genre? It might be fun to expose people to movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th for the first time, but are you really doing that because you think they’ll love it or because it’s a movie that Everyone Should See? You’re propping up the horror canon on the backs of audiences you’ve simultaneously driven away from the genre itself.
Well, I say forget the canon. Halloween is not your opportunity to shove horror ‘classics’ down people’s throats before they clam up on the genre for another year. One of the most revealing moments of McCoy’s article is when she admits she has only ever seen The Ring and a few episodes of American Horror Story. While I would probably be the first among us to roll my eyes at the prospect of American Horror Story being a terrifying experience, if your baseline is nothing, then any jump scare or minor chord will be enough to get the blood pumping. Any horror recommendations should start more basic than that. Begin with animation – something like Monster House or Laika’s Coraline, for example – or dive into the depths of the horror-comedy hybrids that genre purists like to laugh at. Avoid blood and graphic content. Find scary movies that don’t venture too far afield from the type of films people already love to watch. You might be proud of yourself for convincing someone to watch Hellraiser, but it’s pretty unlikely they’ll ever come to you again for another Halloween recommendation.
Know your audience, not just the movies. Maybe the 2007 found footage film Rec is one of the best horror movies of the past decade, but if your family and friends aren’t familiar with the style of filmmaking – or, worse yet, just can’t stand to read their way through movies – then Rec probably isn’t a good place to get the conversation started. Try and find common ground with the current interests. Classic film fans deserve classic horror films; fans of DIY low-budget horror might be interested in something like The Innkeepers; even fans of big budget movies can still watch something like The Frighteners and feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth. There’s a little bit of everything in the horror genre, and knowing what works best with your audience is half the fun of making a recommendation.
If this all seems pretty self-evident, then great! That means you’re probably not part of the problem. But if you’re one of those people who views the value of famous horror films to be self-evident, it’s important to remember that there are thousands of people who may only watch one or two horror movies a year, and most often in the days leading up to Halloween. Do you really want to blow your chance to double that number – a whopping two-to-four horror movies a year – because you think everyone should love Re-Animator as much as you do? So do the rest of us horror films fans a favor and blip the next “Do People Actually Enjoying Watching Horror Movies?” article out of existence before it’s ever written.