I recently saw a great article from Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee. Ryan confessed his inherent aversion to the horror genre, and mentioned his desire to sample more of the genre to expand his tastes. As you probably know, my love of horror is so deep that it’s frightening (GET IT? Ok, dumb joke, let’s move on). And while I’m not as knowledgeable about the genre as some, I do like to think of myself as a wannabe Johnny Horrorseed. Any interest I can inspire in the genre makes me really happy. All of that is what prompted me to compile this list of steps a viewer should follow to learn to love the genre.
Step 1. Meet the monsters.
The classic monsters are the most basic element of a horror lover’s appreciation of the genre. As such, you should try to watch at least one film featuring vampires, zombies, re-animated monsters (preferably featuring Frankenstein), werewolves, ghosts and/or haunted houses, Satan and/or demons, and aliens. Those are the basic food groups of horror.
Step 2. Don’t forget the slashers.
While a lot of horror fans grew up with the monsters of the genre, many others cut their teeth watching slashers cut other people’s teeth and faces and arms and legs and everything else. Try at least one film featuring a classic slasher- Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Ghostface, or Pinhead.
Step 3. Learn about the major horror film movements.
Tackle at least one film from the major horror movements. Universal has their creature features. Hammer Films made a slew of excellent horrors, mostly from the 1950s through the early 1970s. Toho in Japan carved a niche with humongous nuclear monsters in the 1950s and 60s. Four decades later, Japan was at it again with J-horror. Italy will always be known for giallo. The French put their stamp on the genre with the New French Extremity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both the US and the UK have done well with anthology horror movies. In many ways, German expressionism is the genesis of the genre, and silence is often far creepier than you could ever imagine. One of these genres should resonate with you.
Step 4. Don’t neglect Aunt B.
And by Aunt B, I mean B-movie horror films. Lower budgets might sound like a turn-off but the reality is that the lower the budget, the more creative a director must be to make their film effective. Even when they’re not effective in scaring you, their pure enthusiasm in making their respective films is infectious. The obvious example is Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). Other examples include The Blob (1958), anything made by Roger Corman, especially anything produced or written by Val Lewton, and even Ed Wood. If you really want to drown in some infectious fun, check out the extremely enthusiastic films of William Castle. There’s no denying that they’ll seem hokey at times, but the fun Castle had is palpable.
Step 5. Go to the art house.
If steps 1 through 4 haven’t convinced you, and you’re a fan of something more high brow, art house films offer a bevy of horror films for you to try. A lot of them come from Japan. To name a few, Ugetsu (1953), Kwaidan (1964), and Kuroneko (1968) are all top-shelf Japanese horror films in the art house genre. If you want to stick with the Criterion releases, Vampyr (1931) and Häxan (1922) are hallmarks of the genre, and Peeping Tom (1960) is the twin Freudian brother of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is also a great art house selection.
Step 6. Take the direct(orial) route.
Because the genre isn’t always taken seriously, horror directors aren’t afforded the same street cred as directors in other genres. But rest assured, just like any other genre, there are some shining stars. The most obvious is Alfred Hitchcock, with the caveat that Hitchcock is more mystery and suspense than anything else. David Cronenberg is certainly another name to know. John Carpenter forged a name for himself in the 70s and 80s. Dario Argento and Mario Bava have legions of followers, as does Wes Craven. James Whale did a great job with classic horror. There’s at least one director you can grab onto and enjoy the ride through their filmography.
Step 7. Become a sociologist.
Put aside your fears when watching horror films and dig a little deeper. Few other genres offer as much insight into a society as the horror genre does. Horror films are a sociologist’s dream. They’re snapshots of what a society fears at the time. A list of occasions in which the popularity of the horror genre reflects society would be endless.
Step 8. Embrace the weirdness.
A lot of people who dislike horror films are turned off by the outlandishness of the films. But that misses the point. Horror isn’t about the 99% of plausible things that you see in most movies. It’s about the 1% of completely implausible things that make up our nightmares. And a lot of these things will be weird. So when you see a chainsaw-wielding maniac in a pig mask, a human centipede, or a Nazi zombie, embrace it.
Step 9. Stay current.
This is the last step for a reason. Primarily, so much of what constitutes good horror today is based on twisting the conventions that you learn throughout steps 1 through 8, which is mostly constituted of films made pre-1990. But understanding steps 1 through 8, and following through on step 9, will lead you to one of the greatest joys I know as a cinephile. Namely, there’s not much better than finding a great horror film that flies under the radar. And the best way to find those films is to stay current with the better young filmmakers in the horror genre. Trust me. You’ll know them when you see them.
There you have it. If you can wade through those nine steps, you’re bound to find some horror that you like. And you’ll have a well-rounded appreciation of the genre.