Why most horror movies are stupid

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From pastabagel.  Again, this is an email.

So I’ve decided to watch every horror movie that’s come out in the last ten years that’s supposed to be scary.  I’m through a lot of them, and none of them are scary.  But I have learned a few things:

Amityville Horror (the recent remake), The Conjuring, Insidious, and Haunting In Connecticut are all the same movie.  I don’t mean that they are scripted or even plotted the same–they aren’t.  They don’t share writers or studios, for the most part.  They are all about the haunted house with the newly added feature of the ghost hunters sent in to investigate.  And the great part is that all these movies have the same ghost hunters – Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were real “ghost hunters” who gained their notoriety investigating the Amityville horror house at the family’s request in the 70’s.

And the fact that these people are real, that they have made a living searching for the tooth fairy, tells you everything you need to know about the state of horror films in America.  These movies are massively popular and keep getting made for two reasons.

First, the vast majority of the American public believes in ghosts, hauntings, demons, the paranormal.  Yes, atheists too.  Maybe not consciously, but it’s there.

Second, the vast majority of the American public is functionally illiterate, and by extension, cripplingly inarticulate.

It’s important for you to understand that people are stupid.  Not lack of information, lack of interest in information.  Why is this like that?  I dunno…hee hee.  They love not knowing.  It’s funny to them. But they are really good at covering up.  They know how to act not-stupid.  If you ask people,” do you believe in ghosts?” they will never say yes.  Because they know that sounds stupid, and they don’t want to be laughed at.  No one believes in ESP, alien abduction, necromancy or witchcraft, or any of that stuff.  No one believes it, except for Big Data, judging by the occult section at Barnes & Noble.  Because their consumer data tells them to stock the occult section just as widely and deeply as the religion section (and right next to it, wink wink).  And if there is one remaining objective truth after postmodernism’s conquest of society, it’s that Big Data is never ever wrong.  Ever.  You can’t hide from Big Data.  Big Data knows what you read, what you watch, what you listen to, where you go, what you masturbate to, who you talk to, and how you spend your time.  So you like to read about ghosts and what Ghost Hunters, but deny you believe it to anyone who asks?  Don’t worry, your secret is safe with Big Data. Big Data is like Big Brother, only without the judgment.

Nobody believes in ghosts.  But put people in their own house alone at night in the dark with no TV or distractions, and they all believe.  Every creak is a serial killer’s step, every pile of crap in a dark corner is a ghost peering, every hiss is a demon’s breath.  And this is where I reiterate my rule:  No human can sleep alone at night without an audio or visual stimulus if their room is more than two doors and one flight of stairs from an exit.  Once you are that deep inside a dwelling, it’s like you’ve exited the normal world and now occupy a space in your own head.  This is why so many single people sleep, with the TV or radio on, or with guns, cocktails, or a half-empty package of Ambien on the night table.  They are worried about something that they stop worrying about almost completely the moment another person is sleeping next to them.  The belief you disavow in public but which governs your mood and behavior in private is your true belief.  “There is no God” is the same as “God is always with me”, because alone at night, no one ever thinks they heard God or Darwin in the downstairs closet.

And this is why all horror movies suck.  They are unrealistic.  Not because the characters are too quick to believe in the supernatural and call the ghost hunters, but because they aren’t quick enough.  Because if the audience was in The Conjuring, and they heard the clap from the closet in front of them and then saw the only other kid in the house come in from behind, they’d have lost their minds.  They would not have thrust their flabby arms into the closet to investigate.   Real people don’t investigate.  Real people panic, drink, and overcompensate, in that order.

You think that when people joke about audiences talking back to the screen yelling at the characters not to go into the dark basement it’s because the audience knows the genre so well?  No.  The reason audiences react like this to the screen is more simple and instinctive–they think you should never go into a dark basement.  Ever.  The people in the audience certainly don’t.

And because the filmmakers know that the audience is made up of closeted paranormal believers, they play with the typical paranormal movie tropes by piling on paranormal action.  It used to be the rule that you never show the ghost or the monster.  Now they all do it.  We’re beyond the idea that horror is “the thing not seen.”  If everyone already believes it’s there, seeing it doesn’t matter.  Is your inky-haired ghoulish woman in a nightgown and/or psycho in black really all that different from the hundreds we saw earlier this year?  No.  So by all means, show us the Red Demon in Insidious, the psycho death metal frontman in Sinister, the masked douchebag in The Purge.  Because the fact that a creepy thing is haunting the house isn’t scary, because every dim-witted organ donor in the audience already believes in it.  The horror now is in being unable to get rid of it (in the same way one can’t get rid of the fear in your own head.)  The way to deal with a haunting in the older movies was to leave the house.  You have two acts of all the adult men laughing about how hysterical their women are, and in the third act they realize the place is haunted, and they split, usually leaving the hysterical women behind.

Now, Insidious and the Conjuring start with a family that had already left one house where bad stuff happened to a new one (we now start movies by setting up prequels).  See, moving doesn’t get rid of it.  The scary bit now is that the thing sticks to you.  So now, exorcisms are the standard third act move in horror movies.  Ghoul in the attic?  Call ServiStar Exorcists for a free estimate. Exorcisms are to haunted house movies what car chases are to action movies.  Audiences expect them.  So much so that there are people in real life who make a living claiming to do exorcisms or spirit cleansings or whatever.  And it’s such a steady income that they are getting their kids into it.

For horror movies to get better would require people with enough insight that there are no ghosts or monsters or demons, especially at night and in the dark.  The evil creatures of the world are the other people in it.  Alone in the dark is the only place you’re safe from them.

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10 Responses to Why most horror movies are stupid

  1. JohnJ says:

    Try Look, Sinister, The Cabin in the Woods, and Let Me In. And I’d appreciate if someone could explain The Strangers to me. What was the point of that movie?

    I totally agree that you can tell a lot about a society from its culture, but I think you’re making an error here. You talk about looking specifically for horror, but then you (or Pastabagel) proceed to limit the discussion to only supernatural films (which is fine if that’s what you want to do, but you should make that limitation clear). So we have a selection bias issue in that the supernatural horror films are made for people who will pay to see a supernatural horror film. And while the Paranormal Activity films were very popular (as measured by profitability), probably the most profitable recent horror film is Shutter Island. If the point is social criticism, shouldn’t you look at the most popular films?

    • qubitman says:

      Shame on you for using a rhetorical question instead of building a proper thesis. It doesn’t make you smart or cool, it’s just annoying. It’s also a distraction and getting involved in the merits and semantics of your question is a waste of time, so let’s just skip that.


      There’s the wiki entry on shutter island. It’s about a dude who thinks he’s a US marshal who is actually a patient at a mental hospital or something. It’s by Scorsese and earned a bit more money internationally than domestically. I am not going to watch this movie, but there it is. The pirate bay’s suffix is now .sx, and qbittorrent is lightweight and has no advertisements.

  2. Lou says:

    The level of arrogance and pretense in this email is equaled only by how wrong it is. Horror movies are stupid because people are stupid? And people are stupid because they don’t want to know stuff? Give me a break. Horror movies are stupid and enormously popular because people want to escape for a little while. Paying a few bucks to see a mindless, silly movie and have some Milk Duds fits the bill. They want to escape things like bills they can’t pay because they got laid off, health problems and family problems they can’t solve that often won’t end well, and a host of other real-life problems that take up all of their emotional and intellectual energy. Under ideal circumstances, a lot of people would love the luxury of time and energy to put towards being better informed about “stuff.” I can think of things less important than making a horror movie for the Well Informed Asshole Who Is Interested In Knowing Stuff. But not many.

    • TheCoconutChef says:

      You know, if people “want to escape [reality]”, then it kinds of follow that they don’t “want to know”, so that your rebuttal is actually asserting the same thing as Pastabagel, only in a different form.


      As for Pastabagel’s e-mail itself, could it be that the change of focus from “something that is haunted” to “you yourself being haunted”, is a kind of variation on the theme of “the choosen one”, which is portrayed positively in this trailer but negatively in horror movies?

      The discovery of a secret magic world is always a plus when it happens to teenagers or pre-teens, but it turns to horror once the character go above 20.

      They get to keep some of it (the magic world) but they’re not permitted to enjoy it.

      Thinking aloud here, but the magic world of the movies involving younger protagonists is probably always an analogy for the kid’s inner strength, inner world, which he has to master and conquer. (Either that or the forces of his nascent sexuality, I don’t know. Doesn’t Harry Potter spend seven books trying to master the power of his wand and broom? And the moment he does succeds, does put these things to positive use, we fast forward a decade to see him sending his children to school. I know it’s easy to invent phallic symbolism but still…)

      But Harry Potter seems to be that developmental arc gone right. At the end both Harry and the audience are told how to move on, how to digest and integrate the fantasy. “Just because it’s imaginary, doesn’t mean it’s not real”, says Dumbeldore. (In the same vein, see also Spirited Away. The main character forgets everything that happened but it’s made fairly clear that something more fundamental stayed with her.)

      But horror stories are most definetely not about moving on. Or they’re about not moving on (grunges, what you did last summer, old indian cemetary, etc.). Not just within the fictional universe of the movie but for the franchise itself. I mean, they did made Jason X.

      Not really going anywhere with this.

  3. Or says:

    “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

    By the way, The Plan Will Always Fail Catastrophically is the only story I’ve read as an adult that has legitimately frightened me.

  4. dovahkiin says:

    I think you’re off base here. I think the reason people scream at the screen is not so much that the movie is predictable or that they “believe”, but because it’s one of the few instances in the modern world in which the people in the audience actually know the answer to a problem.

    If you take most problems that adults (I’m including 16+ in adults here) face, most of them are the opposite of what’s going on here. They face threats they cannot see, showing up in ways they cannot predict. Will the economy eat my job? Will inflation drive me into poverty? Will a random terrorist blow up me or something/someone I care about? And how to fix all the stuff we worry about? How do you fix having no idea whether your job is safe? How do you fix not knowing if you’re one diagnosis away from the poor house, or if inflation will force you into poverty? How do you fix middle eastern terrorism or the Syrian civil war or the NSA listening to every call you make?

    The reason people like supernatural horror is precisely because of the ways they are NOT horrifying. The characters make the same mistakes every time because it empowers the audience to helpfully yell at a screen and know precisely the right thing to yell. The ghost must be visible for the same reason — because unlike the real stuff that keeps an American up at night, you have to be able to see the ghost coming. The whole thing is made to be easy so the audience can, for once deal with the problem in a satisfying manner. It’s two-minute hate for people who need an outlet for their real, unnameable, unknowable, and unsolvable horrors. Being able to go through a haunted house or see a horror movie or ride a roller coaster (if you don’t like falling) is about the same thing — get it out of your system in a way that’s only superficially like the real thing so you can feel like you’ve done the real thing.

  5. ChiefJohn says:

    Generalizing too many people for any credibility. Horror movies feed off conditioning people and instincts, not widespread belief of ghosts. Of course people are going to be paranoid because horror movies shows us the monsters in the closet. This is called conditioning. It is not because we are stupid. If you were to get up to check the closet for a monster, then you would be stupid, but simply feeling fear and thinking about the monster is brought on by the conditioning. Also, being afraid of the dark is instinctive and conditioned. Conditioned part: I you sleep in the wild at night and know panther hunt the area at night, then you may be afraid. If you do not know that panthers exist, then you might not be as afraid. Instinctive part: People may instinctively be afraid of the dark because of attacks in the past. Additionally, we can’t see very well in the dark, which is a huge disadvantage if we were to get attacked.

  6. squid says:

    If your watching it, its for the person who wrote it for you, am i wrong?

  7. Nikto says:

    It’s hilarious watching the debate on this blog. I wish there were more posts so I had more material to mock.

  8. bc02732 says:

    While i don’t agree with the entirety of this, it deffinately makes some valid points.
    The majority of people who watch these types of films are not the cream of the crop intelligence wise. If you can be entertained over and over by ghosts and monsters and extemely shitty acting I doubt it is just because you desire some silly escape from the troubles of real life. It is because you are stupid and you enjoy things designed to entertain stupid people. Sort of how my roomates girlfriend cant sit though a single episode of futurama because “she doesnt get it” but can watch mind numbing game shows for hours on end. There are more stupid people than intelligent ones out there which creates a much larger target market for these films. The only scary movies worth watching are ones like halloween or silence of the lambs which show how the other people in this world and their dark intentions are whats truly scary, not some lame cgi ghost or monster.