Benjamin Wollmuth is a lover of literature who enjoys sharing his thoughts on everything from movies and video games to books and music.
Horror Through Imagery
I have been a horror fan for years. I can't precisely pinpoint exactly where the love for it sparked, but over the years I have grown to be very critical of the genre. I see potential in nearly every horror movie I see but rarely do I ever walk out thinking a horror movie is perfect. Then again, it's hard to make any film perfect.
However, I do know what I hate most about horror movies, and that is the overuse of the jump scare. Sometimes, a jump scare can be very effective in switching a scene from tense build-up to run-for-your-life action. Sometimes, a jump scare can show audiences just how much of a threat the movie's antagonist is. Oftentimes, though, I see jump scares being used as cheap ways of shouting to the audience "Don't forget this is a horror movie!" There will be a long, tense scene with slow music and movements that culminates in... a cat jumping out or another person abruptly turning the corner. I like to say I know why they do it: to give the protagonist a false sense of security. "Maybe the only thing I really need to worry about is my cat scaring me." But at the same time... I hate it. Because it's cheap. The person or thing doing the scaring isn't a threat. From what I have noticed, horror movies result to jump scares when their plot really isn't that scary––when it's overdone and everyone watching seems to know how it's going to end. As I said before, I think jump scares can be effective when used correctly. But if your audiences leave the theater remembering only the cat jumping out from around the corner, then I think you've done something wrong.
But why this long schpeel? Because out of all the things that make a horror movie––including atmosphere, tension, character development, and "Wow!" factor––I think the most important aspect is imagery. What specific images do you want your audience to remember? The haunting ones, I assume. The shots that linger––that are able to be remembered because they are seen for longer than just a jump-scare-length second or two.
When I think of images like this, my thoughts automatically go to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, specifically on the scene where the audience and protagonists learn that Norman's mother is actually dead. For years, that shot of the chair turning around to reveal a skeletal corpse has been labeled as one of the scariest jump scares of all time. I, however, refuse to call it a jump scare. It's too slow to make me jump, but it's creepy enough to make me go "wow." The slowness actually allows it to sink in more. It's what makes it memorable.
In all reality, the "wow" factor of horror movies can and should tie directly into the imagery. And one movie that really made me say "wow" was Brian Yuzna's Society, and it's all thanks to the imagery.
Society is a story about the high-class and how those within it feed off of those in the lower classes. Except in this film... they actually feed. You see, high-class members are actually part of a completely different species: a species that can change its shape at will and loves to take part in feeding ceremonies that turn very, very sexual. Our protagonist, Bill, was raised within that community of high-class beings, but being adopted meant he was never actually a part of it. After learning the truth, he must try to escape from the highly sexual (and incestual) creatures.
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From that description alone, I hope you can imagine how wild this film gets. And if you have seen it, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven't... well, I'd just look it up. Society isn't a great horror movie. It's riddled with cliches and includes some subpar acting at times. However, the film does boast an intriguing mystery and imagery that makes it stand out in the horror industry, and it's all thanks to its practical effects. When something looks real, it's easier to be scared by it. Practical effects allow for horrific imagery to look real. CGI can as well, but sometimes it just makes things look, well, computer-generated and fake. John Carpenter's The Thing is perfect proof of how effective practical effects can be. And now I've seen Society, which provided me with proof of the effectiveness of practical effects and of the necessity of imagery.
What makes Society so memorable is its use of practical effects. We see explicitly what these high-class creatures can do––and I mean explicitly. It's over-the-top. It's raunchy. It's controversial. It's disgusting, horrendous, horrifying, surreal, and any other word you can think of to describe what looks like aliens from The Thing having a giant orgy while also eating people. I've never seen anything like it. And as gross as it is to watch... I still loved it. Because it doesn't try to jump-scare you. It lingers on screen. It's in your face as the camera slowly moves from creature to creature, showing us what these things can do. That imagery is what makes this film memorable. Hell, I can't get those images out of my head. While the rest of the movie is pretty mediocre, it doesn't need to jump-scare you to remind you that it is a horror movie. It makes you wait until the end to see just what makes this movie stand out from the rest.
And it is successful. In my mind, it's because there are no jump scares. It's because the film takes its time to show you what it has been cooking. And it lets you look at it for a long time––over (what seems like) fifteen minutes straight. That is successful imagery. That is horror done right. That is what I prefer over jump scares. That is what makes horror horror.
But hey, that's just my opinion.
Now, let me restate: jump scares can be effective. But for me, it depends on what images are used to deliver that scare. I'm not going to remember that cat. Heck, I don't even think I'll remember a CGI demon face if it's so quick that I can't even see it. Successful jump scares give me time to analyze what is doing the scaring, and the thing doing the scaring has to be somewhat of a threat.
But I prefer lingering shots that deliver that "wow" factor. I prefer shots that I can remember. If your horror movie does not have horrifying and memorable imagery, there is a high chance that I won't remember your movie at all. I sadly don't see a film like Society ever happening again, and if it does, it will probably be one big CGI mess. However, I do hope people can look at Society––or even The Thing––as an example. The potential for good horror movies is high. Filmmakers just need to get it right.
And finally, I want to acknowledge that I know cool imagery does not automatically make a movie good. Plenty of movies with decent practical effects and imagery are plagued by terrible acting, writing, directing, cinematography, or all of the above. Yet, even if a horror movie is bad, at least the filmmakers can say they succeeded in at least one department. Because even if a horror movie is perceived as bad by the majority of audiences, that does not mean there are not any memorable shots. Society, as I said before, is far from perfect, and there are some cliched cringe-inducing scenes within it. But its imagery makes it memorable. And if I can remember that horror movie for its imagery, then I can least say the filmmakers were doing something right.
© 2021 Benjamin Wollmuth