I got into a discussion about horror films the other day when the NY Times published the list of horror films that disturbed even the horror film directors themselves. There are many of the usual suspects in there, The Exorcist, The Thing, Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All of these movies, any one would expect. And I’ve seen all of these films, and yes, they are pretty damn terrifying. I remember watching the director’s cut of The Exorcist as a midnight movie at the University of Washington right when I first arrived on campus. At 3:00 a.m. I had to go back to my basement apartment, with my black refrigerator, with the image of that white skull burned into my eyes. I couldn’t sleep. I saw it always on the door of the refrigerator (because it was a studio basement, my bed pointed right at it). If I rolled over I could still feel the eyes on my back. It was a restless night to say the least.
But all of these I could brush aside as fantastical things that could never really happen. The film that disturbed me far more than any of these was Heavenly Creatures. This is the story of two young girls, who become fast friends. Some would say they were lovers, as there is certainly that element to it. The relationship that they have is swollen with fantasy, and they share an incredibly tight bond. However, when one girl’s mother decides they must be separated from each other, for the sake of propriety, the girls hatch a plot to murder her. The final scene of this film just left me completely traumatized. The knowing dread, the shock of the act itself, the brutality of it, and the culmination of the girls running out of the garden screaming about the death as if someone else had done it. It was probably the most shocked I’d ever felt in a theater (at least until I saw Brokeback Mountain, which was a different thing entirely).
So I wrote about this on my Facebook and I got some flack from my friends about it. The major consensus was that, while shocking, this isn’t a “horror” movie per se. It’s more of a True Crime film or a Thriller. And this got me to thinking. What actually constitutes “horror?”
Of all the films listed in the NY Times piece the majority of them involve some kind of supernatural element, such as demons, vampires, aliens, ghosts, etc. But there is a section of those films that focuses on the horror that only people can make, like serial killers and deranged people, e.g. Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Henry.
The Horror Writer’s Association Wiki also has a list of some common topics of horror novels. Again there, the vast majority are creatures, demons, aliens, etc. But they also have a section that focuses on psychological horror. Among the novels they list in there they reference Cujo. That is a really interesting choice, because there’s nothing supernatural about it at all. Cujo is just a rabid dog, and this is the story of a mother and child trapped in a hot car, with no gas and a rabid dog penning them in for days. So, is it psychological horror in that the people in the story are traumatized, clearly that’s happening in Cujo and The Pit and the Pendulum. Or does it also count if the reader/film viewer is traumatized?
Wikipedia has a great little tidbit from 19th century Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe about the difference between terror and horror.
In 1826, the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe published an essay distinguishing two elements of horror fiction, “terror” and “horror.” Whereas terror is a feeling of dread that takes place before an event happens, horror is a feeling of revulsion or disgust after an event has happened. Radcliffe describes terror as that which “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” whereas horror is described as that which “freezes and nearly annihilates them.”
So let’s look back at Heavenly Creatures. The story does not involve any kind of supernatural antagonist, it is purely human. The terror of the story is primarily focused around the end of the film where we experience the shift from happy childhood friendship/romance to calculating murder. It is not something that is throughout, though I would argue that this shift makes the final act all the more horrific. The horror, as Radcliffe would describe it, is solely in the climax of the film. In many horror movies and novels this is spread out over the course of the entire narrative. The horror in this story is that the viewer has developed an empathy for the girls over the course of the film, and when they begin diverging from our empathy is when everything goes off the rails. In that sense I feel like there is a sort of psychological horror to this film, though it is something that takes place in the viewer, not to the characters themselves.
One may say that this is more of a Thriller than a horror story. It could easily be compared to the kind of drama that Hitchcock would have created, like in the film Rope. Even though Rope opens with the murder, and it occurs on screen in front of the viewer, it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional tension and revulsion that the viewer experiences with the climax of Heavenly Creatures.
I don’t really know the answer, but I’ve written to Roger Ebert, the movie answer man, in the hopes that he may respond to talking about the difference between horror and thriller, and I specifically brought up Heavenly Creatures, which he reviewed when it came out in 1994. I would love to see what he has to say.