The WAYS of Elevated Horror

A Horror Renaissance

Horror is having a renaissance in the 2010’s. With the commercial and critical success of movies like Get Out, A Quiet Place, Hereditary, The Babadook, The Conjuring Franchise, and my personal favorite, It Follows, it seems like all the studios are itching to release the next elevated horror hit.  I’m interested in getting to the bottom of it.  Why are critics and audiences alike going nuts for horror (regular scores in the 80’s and 90’s on Rottentomatoes and box office records beings set).  Let’s discuss THE WAY of Elevated Horror.

In this post, I’m going to attempt to shed light on the following questions:

1) What exactly is “elevated” horror?

2) Why do audiences have an appetite for elevated horror in the 2010’s?

3) What makes a good jump-scare?

What is Elevated Horror?

So, let’s begin by defining ELEVATED HORROR.

I see it as a specific sub-genre of horror that deals in social or cultural metaphor, and places an emphasis on relationship drama while at the same time offering up hefty doses of fright.  It’s smart horror.  HOLD UP!  I’m not knocking hard genre horror (it takes a great deal of intelligence to put together any film), I’m just pointing out that I think people use the term “elevated” as another way of saying “smart” – or – “non-exploitative”.  It’s a horror movie for people who appreciate resonant themes, truthful emotions, layered performances, clever cinematic voicing and good writing as much as they value a good scare.

Let’s look at some examples of elevated horror movies and break down specifically what makes them “elevated”.

GET OUT – This is an obvious example of a horror film that communicates much more than just “boo!”.  It’s a social satire and a commentary on race relations as much as it is a horror.  The whole premise rests on the audience’s familiarity with real-life racial tensions, and the sordid history of slavery in the US.  The scene in which a black man is silently auctioned off by a group of wealthy white people draws a direct parallel to the dehumanizing auctions African slaves endured up until 1865.  This scene is both frightening in the context of horror genre (the threat of capture) and also in the context of US history (the threat of repeating history’s deepest flaws).  This second layer of historical context is what makes the scene “elevated”.

Elevated horror movies don’t rely entirely on violence and gore, but instead lean into atmospheric scariness and scariness that can relate to our real lives.  That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of blood-soaked scenes in elevated horror movies.  They just spend a lot more time building mood before the corn-syrup starts to flow.

A QUIET PLACE is another example of elevated horror.  There is irony in the main character being deaf, which adds another level of vividness to the world the characters inhabit, thus making the premise “elevated”.  It’s that second level that does it.  The plot could have easily followed a character who wasn’t deaf, but there wouldn’t have been that added layer of humanity (to those who are unfamiliar, the movie is about a family trying to survive in a world that has been overrun by vicious monsters who hunt by sound alone).  It also focuses heavily on relationship dynamics following a family tragedy, what it means to raise a daughter in a dangerous world, and is all-in-all a very emotional story.

Why Now?

Let’s talk about WHY audiences seem to be showing up in droves for elevated horror movies in the 2010’s.  Let’s face it, there have been a lot of smash hits in the horror genre lately. 

I think it is a direct response to the success of the Superhero Genre over the past decade.  People are finding relief from movies where the stakes are so low you could play limbo with them.  Superheroes are basically indestructible and the sense of safety pervades through the whole plot.  Granted, Avengers: Infinity War, did a great job turning that on its head… but I digress.  For the MOST part, Superheroes have historically been victorious against insane odds, leaving the audience to feel like no matter what obstacle is thrown in their way, the good hero will emerge victorious.  Horror is NOT like that.  Horror likes to kick you while you’re down.  Horror likes to turn the screws and make you feel unsafe.  Horror likes life or death stakes, or worse!  Horror likes to take your expectations and grind them into the ground until you’re left wondering if you’ll ever feel safe again.  Ever checked behind the shower curtain at night just to be sure?  Ever flipped a light on in a room you’re not using just because it makes you feel safe?  Horror likes to inflame those fears, which is the opposite feeling Superhero movies want to elicit.  I think that after a point, people want to see what they haven’t seen, feel what they haven’t felt.  After ten plus years of safety, audiences are ready to be scared again.

What Makes a Good Jump Scare?

Lastly, what makes a good JUMP SCARE?  By jump scare, I mean the moment in a horror movie where something startles the audience and makes them jump. 

There are three components of a good jump-scare:

1) Reduction of the senses – one or more of the character’s five senses become limited in some way. (example: Newman can’t see in the rain in Jurassic Park before he getsgot by a dino.)

2) Closing the distance – the threat is established as being far-off, right before it closes the distance faster than any human could. (example: Insidious, the ghoul paces back and forth outside the character’s window, back and forth, in and out of frame a few times before leaving frame one last time and returning into frame INSIDE the bedroom.)(example: beep, beep, radar machine thing in Alien.  We know where the threat is, we see the threat, we lose signal, then OH MY GOD IT’S RIGHT ON TOP OF YOU!)

3) Horrifying imagery payoff – this is the scary image that pays off at the end of a jump scare.  Pretty self explanatory.  What does the Alien look like? What does the scary clown look like? You get the idea.

Those are my thoughts for now.  More to come!

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