Fundamentals of Genre: Culture, Credibility and Horror
Whether it's movies, music, food or friends, we all have a desire to put things in a box. To define what they are, and what they aren’t. To draw lines around them. And like all boxes, and all lines, they are only as useful as we make them. They can help us to understand and appreciate, or they can limit us, and prevent us from seeing what is new and fresh.
For the aspiring in the film industry, these labels can feel suffocating and prescriptive. They can make one feel like they are running around chasing their own tail, searching for what is “in” or what the last development exec said is hot right now.
The truth is that no one knows what is going to sell. No one knows what is going to catch the public's attention. The only thing to do is to write what you love.
And if you love something, you want to understand it.
Let’s look at genres. Let’s consider what makes them tick. Let’s peel back the layers off the surface, and take a look at what really defines them, and what makes the greats successful.
If there is one genre that everyone has an opinion on, it is horror. The genre that even defines the word itself. You write “genre,” or produce it, and there is rarely any confusion as to what you are talking about.
Just as commonly, though, it is one where people think the book is written. They either like it, or they hate it, and they are sure they know all the reasons why.
Compared to the awards fare that floods the cinemas (or streamers in this day and age), it gets comparatively little serious consideration. Sure, there are few breakouts every year that people take as “real” films. But beyond that, there is scant attention paid to it.
So, what makes it so popular? What keeps it in endless vogue? Is it just the thrills and the chills? No, there is something deeper and more vital than that.
There are things in this world too terrible to look at. Too horrible to consider. Chilling, obscene, impossible, unimaginable. This is where horror comes in.
It is the genre that allows us as a culture to step outside ourselves and look at something we couldn’t possibly otherwise imagine considering. And, even more powerfully, it’s a way to do it that people will actually watch. Teenagers will tune in for something that can shape minds, understanding, and interest.
Consider Get Out—only the most recent in the grand and storied lineage of horror with a message—it fundamentally reshaped the cinematic approach to race in America. And it did it while being an amazing film, a fun one to watch (as much as such an experience can be fun), and making what can only be described as a boatload of money.
But while that film is perhaps the most famous example, it is far from the only one. From The Purge's examination of class struggle to Rosemary's Baby's look at female bodily autonomy, Midsommer's interest of grief, The Shining's chilling appraisal of alcoholism and a resentful family; and classics like Night of the Living Dead, which take the idea of the zombie as a way to look at consumerist culture—it is a genre which is as obsessed with ideas as it is with scares.
And that obsession is no accident. It is not just a few cherry-picked examples of conscious horror, it is baked into the DNA. It is irreducible and fundamental to success in the genre. Shorn of this kind of meaning, a horror film is nothing more than a study in suffering. In an Aristotelian sense, it is all Opsis and no catharsis.
That intellectual depth is, in many ways, more important than the jump scares, the creeping smoke, or all the trappings we think of as defining the genre.
But it cannot work alone. If cultural connection, curiosity, and interrogation is some bedrock to our interest in, and fondness for the genre, what else draws audiences so endlessly to these films? Well, as we just said, the horror. Obviously.
But what makes something that is scary, scary?
There are as many answers to that as there are films made and viewers watching. The diversity and details of which are impossible to explain but delightful to explore. There is a throughline, one which unites them all, and which, when followed, helps a film to land with impact.
Not that this story has to be able to happen in our world exactly. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, killers etc, they all might seem to strain the bounds of credibility. No, what is necessary is that it feels like it can happen to you. That yesterday, or tomorrow, the ground beneath your feet could open up and you could find yourself in just the same world. Which requires transportation. It requires seeing yourself, your actions, decisions, and most importantly failures, manifest on screen.
We need to connect with these characters, their struggles, personalities, picadillos and the things that got them involved in this world to begin with. There is a reason that there are few horror tropes quite as familiar as the audience member shouting at the screen, begging the character not to open the door. Because there is a tension there, between what they have done so many times themselves, what they can imagine themself doing, and what they think the character is ridiculous for doing.
There is no more relatable feeling in horror than that of wanting to look over your shoulder ... of watching a movie and wishing that your couch was flush against the wall ... or looking up at the darkened window across from you wondering if anyone outside is looking back in. That sense that what you’re watching on screen could have bled out into the world around you, and you might be about to suffer the same fate as those you’re watching on TV.
All of these ideas, this connection, this uncanny intensity, requires a sense that it is possible—or not only possible, but imminent, unavoidable and perhaps even deserved. We need to feel that we, too, could stumble into the same circumstances that wracked our characters with pain and terror.
That ability to empathize is not just a crucial tool of cinema, it is key to the issue we first described above. If someone stands there and lectures you, each of those ideas is likely to slide off you like water off a duck. But if the speaker makes you imagine you are the duck, well, then a hunk of bread starts looking pretty good.
This is what horror thrives at. Taking the unimaginable and making it real. Helping audiences to step outside their day-today lives, not just to experience fear and step back from it to normalcy—that rush of leaving the theater and knowing you are not going to be hacked apart—but also to do the same intellectually. To allow us all to explore the struggles we are, paradoxically, too afraid to consider, in a more traditional film.
The best of them will deliver on all of these. They will frighten, entertain, inspire thought, and remind indelibly under the skin.
Horror might be, in some ways, the most famous genre of the “genre” films. But it is by no means alone—thrillers, rom coms, action, etc.—they all have their tropes and visual expectations. But below the surface, they have qualities that unite and define them. They have the elements which make them indelible and timeless. And if we’re able to examine these, not only can we better understand the media we are consuming, we can also better replicate it in ways that feel deep and abiding without derivative, which make the old new again.