This October I enthusiastically got into the spirit of the holidays by catching up on highly-acclaimed art horror films that have been released within the last decade. These included “The Babadook” (2014), “It Follows” (2015) and “The Witch” (2015). But there was one problem: these scary movies weren’t really that scary. Disappointed by this revelation, I looked up movie reviews of these films and was surprised to find out they were all belittled as “not scary” by people on the Internet when they first came out. It made me wonder what I expected from scary movies in the first place that made these otherwise excellent films disappoint me.
The main issue was jump scares. I had always considered myself a refined movie goer who could stand the lengthy plot development that puts my parents to sleep. But the 90 minutes that these three films clock in at don’t live up to the anticipation I had when I started watching them. In all three cases, we are given a horrific illustration of the antagonist’s evil powers right at the beginning that captures your attention immediately. But little information about these supernatural creatures is then given. The main characters are then left to debate about whether or not these monsters even exist as they confront fate and encounter these evil forces. This puts the viewer in an awkward position. We see the witch use baby Samuel for his blood. We see the Babadook worm his way inside the mother’s body. We see “it”, in a shocking turn of events, follow.
And yet the movie suffers from not letting the monster at the center breathe life into the plot by rearing their ugly head. You cannot deny how real and scary the threat posed by the antagonists in these films are. You know that the main characters are wrong to shake it off. And yet their false hopes that nothing is out of the ordinary carries weight. They have not yet encountered their demons head on, and since we see what they see we can understand why they would not consider the possibility they are being haunting by the supernatural. By not including jump scares to make the antagonists’ constant threat palpable, these movies force you to focus on the character development as the conflict fueling the plot comes to a climax.
The antagonist always returns at the end of the film, proving the dread that I felt the entire time I was watching these movies was valid. This confrontation at the end allows for the protagonist to unlock their true power, concluding with the main characters overcoming obstacles in making peace with their flaws that sparked the antagonists’ haunting in the first place. Thomasin in “The Witch” dives in to her lack of faith, only to become capable of supporting herself when her struggling family is unable to. The mother and son in “The Babadook” learn to coexist with the grief manifested in the Babadook. Jaime brazenly ignores “it” following her at the end of “It Follows” when she walks with her arms linked with Paul, demonstrating a sense of strength that comes from feeling supported by people who care about you. These endings may have left me unsatisfied as a horror fan. What’s the point of spending the entire movie with the protagonists defending themselves from the monsters if they are unsuccessful anyway? And yet by making the plots of these horror movies more nuanced, it allows film to depict deeply human emotions in a creative way.
I support the trend of these art horror films resisting cheap scares to further develop their characters and their struggles instead. While it may take away from the visceral roller coaster of emotions you have while watching a horror movie, the quieter, more intimate moments of human emotion that are being tapped into make it worth it.