I. The Difference Between "Shock" and "Suspense"
Which of these short films is scarier?
Both of these projects use a similar film structure (one uses Polaroids, the other uses light) but both have a similar payoff.
Except, they don't.
See, Polaroid uses "shock" to scare you. Sure, it builds suspense, but the payoff of the film is that moment where the monster is revealed -- where the music cue sounds loudly and the monster appears in a tight close up, growls, and then disappears. This is something we have come to expect from our horror films; we know these moments as jump scares. They are moments designed to overload our system with stimuli which triggers our "fight or flight" response. It's the same reason why, in all of those vines, that parents jerk when their child screams at them in the car. Our body is instinctively reacting to a possible threat.
Lights Out is different. It, too, builds up the suspense. It pushes it to an unbearable limit. For three minutes we only see the shadow of this specter. When our protagonist peeks out from under our bed covers, we are on the edge of our seats -- we are waiting for the jump scare. And then it doesn't happen. The woman looks relieved. She looks over at her light and sees the monster (as do we) for a split second before it turns off the light. This isn't a jump scare though -- there is no loud music, no horror screaming, nothing we usually identify with the typical horror film. Instead, it is just an image that is, for some reason, terrifying.
The differences between these two films perfectly illustrate the difference between shock and suspense.
Hitchcock famously explained the difference between "shock and surprise" *(as he called it) which also points to the inherent differences between these two methods of fear. Here, he explains it in a way that pertains to his own filmmaking (he never really made a "horror" film other than Psycho, so he's explaining it in the context of a thriller like North By Northwest).
What Hitchcock is essentially saying is that the effectiveness of "suspense" comes with the immersion of the audience, whereas the inefficacy of a jump scare, or "surprise" derives from how short it lasts. The most memorable horror films of all time are the ones that truly unnerve you, that stay with you long after the credits roll, whereas we forget about other horror films once we leave the theater.
II. The Definition of Horror
It's important to make a small detour here to mention a simple fact: horror (that being what scares people) has changed.
Films weren't always littered with jump scares and "shock" storytelling. Instead, they focused on atmosphere and sound design to really sell how tense a situation is. One needs only to look at this scene from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, The Shining, to see this at play.
Kubrick sets up the scene by giving us all the information we need: at this point Jack is crazy; he has his ax and he is dangerous. Then we hear the sound of Dick Halloran's voice calling out from the hallway of the hotel. So at this point we know something is going to happen between the two of them.
And then we get a beautifully suspenseful tracking shot that is just over 60 seconds long where we follow Halloran down a long hall littered with openings for Jack to appear from. We keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and then...the payoff. And when the payoff happens the initial attack does not have harsh musical cues to shock the viewer; the music only comes once we see the ax in Halloran's chest.
Just compare this scene to the opening scene of Andy Muschietti's film IT from last year.
In this scene, within the first minute, we get a jump scare. What is the jump scare doing? Accompanying the opening of Pennywise's eyes. In other words it is a needless inclusion of "shock" with little to no suspense; it is specifically designed just to get you to jump.
The rest of the scene is relatively creepy, thanks to a neat lighting trick with Pennywises's eyes and the performance itself. But, when I saw the film in the theater, that moment ruined the scene for me. It didn't stop there, either; the film is full of cheap jump scares that force the horror. Nowadays, though, if you showed people IT and The Shining the vast majority of them would say that IT is the scarier film.
Horror is a subjective genre; what some find scary others find funny. However, this speaks to a cultural shift in terms of what people find scary and how horror films are made. Modern horror films, the good and the bad, have embraced "shock" over "suspense."
Is it so surprising, though?
III. Money Talks
The movie theater enhances all types of horror. We're stuck in a large, dark room with a huge screen and an impossibly loud surround sound system and we're shown creepy imagery and haunting music -- of course we are going to be scared by films like IT. Because of this, these kinds of films (along with The Conjuring, Insidious, etc.) gain a reputation for being terrifying and scary. In turn, they make money. Producers notice in this and they invest in the same kinds of films. The cycle repeats.
I wanted to test this theory and see if this was a valid theory as to why we have seen this sudden outcrop of jump scare horror films. Therefore, I Googled "scariest films of the 2010s" to see what audiences considered the scariest horror films of the past eight years. I then checked the box office returns of these films and cross-referenced it with their approximate budget. The results aren't that surprising, but validate what I'm talking about.
Revenue of Modern Horror Films Compared to Budget
Out of all of these films, which are generally positively regarded among audiences, only one of them doesn't utilize the "shock" style of horror filmmaking. That is Jordan Peele's film Get Out. The rest of them, though, utilize this tactic.
The other interesting similarity between these films: who produced them. The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and It were all produced by New Line Cinema. Get Out and Sinister were produced by Blumhouse. Insidious was produced by smaller production companies but was directed by James Wan (who also directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2.)
So in addition to the nature of horror changing, you have a small group of production companies and filmmakers controlling the majority of mainstream horror films. Because, while not as well regarded as these films, let's not forget that James Wan alone is attached to the Saw franchise, all of the side projects associated with The Conjuring (including Annabelle and The Nun), and all of the Insidious films. That's one man who is, directly or indirectly, connected to 9 of the highest grossing horror films released recently and an upcoming horror film that is sure to make a lot of money. Oh, and he's also produced the feature length version of the short film we watched to begin this, Lights Out.
Put simply, this is a lot of money and a lot of influence put in the hands of one director who has a very distinct style of -- you guessed it -- using jump scares and shock to sell his horror. And while other production companies have jumped into the ring and have been successful (A24 being the most obvious example with the success of films like The Witch, Green Room, It Comes At Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Hereditary) they are more the exception to the rule, especially when it comes to audience approval.
IV. Does Quality Really Matter?
Many people may be thinking Keith, I don't go to horror movies to get "immersed"; I go to horror movies to be scared. To some extent, I can understand this argument. As much as I hate jump scares, I can't deny that they work -- people like them. The films people see nowadays, which are riddled with them, are considered terrifying while the more thoughtful, suspenseful horror films I prefer are often given the label "psychological horror" as though to downplay the scares they can offer. So does quality really matter?
At the box office it definitely doesn't seem like it. This year the film Truth or Dare, produced by Blumhouse, was released. It has a whopping 14% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 4.7/10 on IMDB. And yet, despite that, it made an impressive $87 million, far exceeding its measly $3.5 million budget. Truth or Dare isn't alone, either. In 2017 alone there were three horror films audiences and critics abhorred that made a profit at the box office: The Bye Bye Man, Rings, and Jigsaw.
Some of this can be chalked up to our enjoyment of "brain candy" films -- the kinds of films where you don't need to really think about what's going on. It's important to recognize that the reason we keep getting these films is that they are cheap to make and we keep paying for them.
Does quality really matter when it comes to horror? I would argue yes. Because, putting aside our motives for buying a ticket to the newest horror film, we still want to see a good movie. We still want to feel like we got what we paid for in the theater.
V. Where Do We Go From Here?
I know that this seems like a very cynical way to view horror films. If "jump scares" are reducing the efficacy of actual tension, and if a small group of filmmakers and producers are controlling the type of horror film we are watching, then how can quality horror films ever get produced or see the light for day? More specifically, what if I want to make a horror film? Is it even possible to make one nowadays that doesn't utilize this shock style?
The answer is yes! In fact, A24 is leading the way for really intellectual, thought-provoking, jump-scareless (or jump-scare lite) horror. Films like It Comes At Night, The Witch, The Babadook, and Hereditary are garnering a lot of critical praise and making a decent amount at the box office. Other independent films, like It Follows, are also making waves with critics and audiences.
The issue is that a lot of people aren't used to this kind of horror style. Since 2000, and even a little bit before, the vast majority of horror films produced by large companies have utilized the shock style. This has effectively made us Pavlov's Dog ("Horror's Viewer" if you will). When we hear the sound get quiet and when we see constant shots between a character and an empty space we automatically know what is coming; we brace ourselves for the loud noise.
What a lot of independent horror films are doing is using this to their advantage. They are building suspense to an unbearable level, knowing full well that we are bracing ourselves for something to happen, and they are not giving us that payoff. That makes those scenes much scarier. It also lasts longer than a jump scare would, making it more effective; it sticks with us longer.
So what is the future of horror?
Well, I would argue the future of horror is what it always has been: young filmmakers and independent cinema. Films like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween weren't massive productions with huge budgets. They were small, independent efforts from young directors. These directors had a lot of creative freedom and through their creativity (both in terms of their filmmaking and how they allocated their budget) they created some of the best examples of tension and suspense in the horror genre.
Jump scares are not the worst thing in the world. They can be used effectively. The goal of suspense and horror is not to hide the bomb from going off (using Hitchcock's example). Instead, it is just to make the moments leading up to it effective.
I'm hopeful for the future of horror films. I think that we will get to a point where suspense becomes the dominant horror technique again. Once that happens, horror will, again, reinvent itself through young filmmakers and the indie scene.
In the meantime, I'll just have to put up with jump scares and put my money towards higher quality examples of horror, as will we all.