The ‘H’ word: why is Hollywood scared of calling a horror movie a horror movie?

Don’t say it. Don’t think it. Why has ‘horror’ become such a dirty word?

It’s a boom time for horror right now, with lots of talented new directors scaring up huge box office returns and glowing reviews. But at the same time, everyone suddenly seems afraid to say the h-word. SciFiNow investigates…

When is a horror movie not a horror movie? Well, maybe when it’s so good that everyone, even non-genre critics, recognises that it’s great. Then it might be an “elevated genre” movie instead.

You’ve probably heard the term being thrown around a lot lately. It’s been applied to quite a few recent horrors, from Robert Eggers’s slow-burning The Witch to Julia Ducournau’s gory coming-of-age parable Raw, and Trey Edward Shults’ deeply scary It Comes At Night. It’s meant to be complimentary, to establish a film as something a bit more special than a run-of-the-mill scary movie. Critics write about the surprising depth and intelligence to be found in these films, about how they use genre trappings to express vital truths or to explore the dark corners of the human psyche.

And while we’re not arguing that those things aren’t true, doesn’t it kind of seem like that’s what all horror does – and has always done? Where did this terminology come from, and do we really need to play complicated semantic games just to express admiration for a horror movie?

Get Out

It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…

Jordan Peele’s racially charged chiller Get Out is a prime example of this kind of genre apologism. It’s been a massive success: it took around $150 million at the US box office, with a production budget of only around $4.5 million, and reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes shows it’s been a critical hit, too, with a 99% fresh rating. It’s even set a new record: it’s the highest grossing debut film based on an original screenplay ever made. That should be good news for everyone, from Peele and Blumhouse Productions to anyone who wants to see more bold, original, intelligent movies getting made.

But much of the praise it received came with caveats. A lot of people seemed keen to avoid the h-word. Even Peele himself, an avowed horror fan, has been calling it a “social thriller” instead. (In his recent interview with SciFiNow, he used the phrase three times.) What’s going on?

“I think it’s a horror movie and a social thriller,” says Jason Blum, CEO of Blumhouse Productions. “Jordan is an incredibly talented visionary filmmaker who made a great movie, and that movie really touched a nerve in the culture. Not only did it scare the crap out of people, but it had something serious on its mind.”

Under The Shadow

This time, it’s personal

Does that “something serious” mean we need to invent a new ‘elevated’ category for Get Out, though? Blum doesn’t necessarily think so. “If it helps get more people to see horror movies who were previously reluctant to, than I am all for it,” he says. “That being said, I think horror has a long and distinguished history of combining entertainment with powerful social messages, whether it was Nightmare On Elm Street or Halloween or The Purge, which helped lay the groundwork for Get Out.”

Horror fans reading this are probably nodding their heads vigorously right now. And while Blum’s not particularly bothered by what people call his company’s films, it’s hard not to be a little bit frustrated by the way horror’s generally treated as an artistically invalid genre – until a great movie breaks through, at which point it’s treated as if it’s not really a horror movie at all.

Last year’s Under The Shadow is another example. It’s a horror movie that found admirers beyond genre fans, and got given some creative labels along the way. But director Babak Anvari shares Blum’s lack of concern over labels. “I’m happy to say it’s a horror film,” he says. “Though sometimes I’ll say it’s a psychological thriller, just to be diplomatic. It depends who you’re talking to. It’s funny, ever since the film came out, you’ll see people saying ‘it is a horror film, I got scared’ and I think ‘great, I love that!’ and then you see people comment saying ‘it’s not a genre film, it’s not a horror film, I think it’s a lot more than that,’ and I think, ‘cool’, I’m happy with that too. I just wanted to tell an exciting story.”

But when it’s an exciting story that involves a mother and child being chased out of their home by both the Iran-Iraq war and a shadowy djinn, why argue that it’s not a horror movie?

Similarly, in his recent interview with SciFiNow, Shults cited horror classics The Shining, The Thing and Night Of The Living Dead as the three key inspirations for It Comes At Night. It’s very clear how important those movies were in establishing the tones and themes of his horror film, so why reclassify it?


Be afraid, be very afraid

Strangely, horror’s bad reputation might be partly down to its own successes. Because it often is super successful, as least on a commercial level: before Get Out, the film that held the record for being the highest grossing directorial debut based on an original screenplay was The Blair Witch Project, while in terms of return-on-investment, Paranormal Activity is the most profitable film of all time. But commercial success and critical acclaim don’t always go hand in hand, and a market flooded with me-too cash-ins hasn’t improved horror’s reputation.

Indie horror producer Jennifer Handorf, who’s responsible for bringing us Prevenge, The Borderlands, and The Chamber, reckons that’s definitely part of the problem. “Horror filmmaking has long been the arena of the no-budget filmmaker,” she says. “You don’t have to have a budget [to make a successful horror film], you don’t have to have stars, and as prosumer filmmaking got bigger and bigger, that’s what a lot of people flocked to.

“So you’ve got a lot of these films being made, some of them very well, but a lot of them not very well. Sales agents needed a way to separate their product from all the other schlock that’s out there, so they’d say ‘no, don’t worry, it’s an elevated genre film’.” And as a producer, she’s noticed other problems with the way horror’s come to be regarded. “I think people are less happy to invest in a horror film,” she admits.

Blum agrees that horror’s unfairly stigmatised. “That stigma comes from people who don’t understand the genre,” he says. “People who don’t like horror movies think all they are is a bunch of jump scares with a bad story thrown around them. That’s why there are so many bad horror movies, because they’re made by people who don’t get it.”

It’s exactly what you think it is

Still, horror’s status as the under-loved, awkward relation is nothing new. Michael Blyth, who programs the BFI’s Cult strand, says it’s pretty much always been the case. “Look at The Exorcist,” he says. “If you read interviews with Linda Blair or William Peter Blatty, they say it’s not a horror film.

“Historically, horror movies don’t win awards, they don’t get that critical response or industry accolades that other genres do. The Exorcist did have that big critical moment, and it did get the award nominations, but it seems like there’s this idea that to have those successes, you have to move away from talking about the film as pure horror.”

He also sees that happening with Get Out, though he thinks it shouldn’t. “I think Get Out is a really interesting film, and I think it’s important that people talk about it as horror. Horror is the genre that’s best at mirroring society; it’s the best at reflecting social anxieties and political situations. Get Out is so rich in subtext – and it’s just text, a lot of the time, in terms of what it’s saying about race – so I think it’s important that people talk about that as horror and everyone is reminded how smart and socially adept horror can be.”

And trying to pretend these films are something other than they are can sometimes backfire. Blyth reckons being too coy in describing films can sometimes mean they struggle to find their audiences. “You can see the marketing cogs working sometimes, thinking ‘we’re gonna appeal to as many people as we can’, but as a horror fan, I love something to be presented to me as a horror movie,” he says. “Sometimes, in trying to cater to everyone, you cater to no-one.”


The next scream you hear may be your own

So how can audiences decide which movies to see, in an over-saturated market? Blyth sees it as his duty, when programming films for the BFI, to introduce people to new kinds of films: not by trying to trick them into seeing something they’re not interested in, but by putting them into a different context.

“It’s been interesting for me over the last few years to see the audience grow for these kinds of films at LFF, for people to come round to the idea that maybe LFF isn’t what they thought it was, and maybe you don’t have to go to Frightfest to see these films,” he says. “I think Frightfest is amazing and I don’t want to be in competition with them, but I think it’s important for genre work to be programmed in mainstream festivals as well, because I think it’s a way we can progress views on the genre. We can legitimise a maligned genre as a significant art form.”

Director Alice Lowe definitely appreciated having her film Prevenge shown at non-genre festivals. “When we got into Venice [Film Festival], we were really surprised. I think it was because it’s a mashup of themes, and there’s some quite serious themes in it; it’s got moments that are related to horror and then other moments that dip into social satire or realism or surrealism. Venice is a proper grownup festival that’s not known for genre or horror, so it was a big triumph for us. I thought, ‘this might mean something different for the film, maybe it’s got a wider reach than we though.’”

And she thinks there’s a way to work around the ‘horror’ problem: “You never want to pigeonhole yourself,” she explains. “What I feel is, horror shouldn’t be treated as a box. It should be a peg that you can hang onto, along with lots of other pegs. It’s something to be inspired by, rather than trapped by, really.”

It Comes At Night

Oh yes, there will be blood

Which brings us full circle, in a way. It’s clear that horror has got a reputation problem, and that a lot of people don’t think a horror movie can also be about something serious, or be considered a serious piece of art in its own right. But by making up new ways to describe them, by refusing to call horror movies, well, horror movies, that isn’t going to change. Instead, we need filmmakers to keep making great horror movies, and for us to call them horror movies while discussing what’s so interesting and worthwhile about them.

And Jason Blum, for one, seems to be on board with that. “I love horror movies, and have no interest in doing anything else but making them,” he says. “I know they aren’t for everyone, but that doesn’t bother me. The true horror fans understand how powerful the genre is as a storytelling platform.”

We have such sights to show you

If you’re not much of a horror fan, but went to see one of the recent critical hits based on the glowing reviews, figuring out what to watch next might seem a bit, well, scary. Let SciFiNow help…

If you liked Raw, then watch… Ginger Snaps (2000)

Like Raw, it’s about a pair of sisters navigating a difficult transition in life – it’s not as gory, but it’s got a similarly dark sense of humour.

If you liked Under The Shadow, then watch… Dark Water (2002)

Part of the J-horror wave, Dark Water sees a mother and her child move into a creepy apartment block, where something nasty’s lying in wait.

If you liked Prevenge, then watch… Orphan (2009)

Okay, so Orphan is about an adopted child, not an unborn one, but the anxiety around parenthood is similar, as is the sense of comedy-tinged heightened reality.

If you liked Get Out, then watch… Candyman (1992)

Another exploration of the relationship between racism and horror, Candyman sees a privileged grad student heading into a notoriously dangerous housing project to investigate an urban legend.

Get Out is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 24 July. Prevenge is available on Blu-ray and DVD now. Under The Shadow is available on DVD now.