In order for a horror film to be affecting it must accomplish an array of feats that manipulate its audience in a way that steers it toward a desired end, which is usually one of disenfranchisement, disgust, dismay, or paranoia. But one key element to effective horror that goes largely unmentioned is the importance of pity. When a horror film does not take seriously this pivotal aspect, or neglects it altogether, what usually results is a campy flick that allows, if not promotes an audience to react with disinterest or laughter instead of shock, terror, or other sorts of psychological distress. In order to properly convey the importance of a scary movie’s ability to make an audience pity we must first examine precisely what pity is and how it works to assist a movie’s efforts to jar its viewers. From doing this we can hopefully discover the major faults of modern American horror, and see what needs to be done to revive it.
The best definition of pity, and by that I mean the most explanatory, is the one offered by Aristotle. He defines it in his book, titled Rhetoric, as “a sense of pain at what we take to be an evil of a destructive or painful kind, which befalls one who does not deserve it.” It is vital to note that this definition specifies the concept as a sense of pain and not a type of pain. If it were a type of pain it could then be classified as an emotion, but this is incorrect. One feels pity to the extent that one senses it, but unlike anger, fear, joy or sorrow, it is not a feeling which mandates that a specific temperament result. Furthermore, what provokes pity is not limited to any particular array of prompts. One can feel pity for a boy who gets hit by a car, a girl who discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her, someone whose poor social skills lead to misery, the mentally ill, the handicapped, or someone who is about to die at the hands of a masked murderer. One may even pity someone who does not recognize themselves as being unhappy.
Pity by itself does not drive us toward any action or thought process. It is only when pity is connected with a specific emotion that we react, take action or reflect internally with appropriate contemplation, speculation, or ideation. One may pity a hypothetical homeless person begging for spare change, but it is only when gazing upon a person wearing tattered clothing and shivering in the cold – whether on the street, on television, or elsewhere – that any action (e.g. the donation of money) is liable to occur. This is because one’s natural emotional response (in this case sympathy) is prompted at the sight of another human being’s suffering. Emotions, by rule, need a stimulus; an experience of one sort or another in order to be actualized. Not only does one’s sense of pity not necessitate an emotion, but it can subsist latently for long periods without any conscious acknowledgement. (It is reasonable to suspect that this proclivity for going unnoticed is at least partly why the function of pity has not yet gotten the kind of attention that it warrants regarding horror cinema.)
In order for a horror movie to elicit pity, three key things must be thus. Firstly, an audience must find the protagonist(s), whether it be a teenage girl, a mother, a sheriff, or whomever, likable. It sounds simple, but if the protagonist is not likable then an audience is going to be neither willing nor interested in sympathizing with them. Likability can usually be achieved if the protagonist shows to be very much like the “average” person, or even exceptionally unexceptional (i.e. particularly vulnerable in some way). Also, it is common that, as part of this, they be shown experiencing some everyday hardship that most people can identify with, or at least recognize as being particularly difficult (a fruitless relationship, poor social status, familial issues, being lost, etc.). Basically, these things allow an audience to identify with a character, and a character that is identifiable, by and large, seems more real. Some genres can get away with a protagonist not being considerably identifiable in that they can be inhuman (such as comic book movies and science fiction), but in horror this trait is more or less crucial. One is typically not inclined to empathize with a character who fails to show he/she is worth attention, and, generally, the only characters in a horror story worth engrossment are the ones who most resemble actual people. Also, because the antagonist is almost always something that is by its nature more formidable than the protagonist (such as a powerful man, a supernatural entity, a predatory alien, or what have you), pity tends to partially set in due to the protagonist being at an obvious disadvantage. However, this recognition alone is not enough to elicit the level of pity that emotions need to build off of in order to reach a feeling of horror.
Secondly, the protagonist must not deserve the torment that he or she is suffering from. The torment can be warranted insofar as the protagonist may have done something in the past to merit proportionate punishment, or carry within them some notable character flaw, but any torment that is in effect a punishment must be in great excess of what would reasonably be considered compensatory. Otherwise, that protagonist’s tale turns out to be more about karma than frightening circumstance. A tale of karma is capable of being horrific, but the thing that is supposed to be frightening about horror, as a genre, is the unpredictability and irrationality of pain and suffering. Morality tales allow us to believe in a world that is based on reason and balance, but tales of horror tell us that such a world is a fallacy. We readily pity someone suffering unnecessarily because we recognize that such suffering is just as liable to fall upon us. This is not to say that we think we will, for instance, fall victim to a serial killer, but when we identify the senselessness of what we see on screen it is often enough to permit our appreciation of our own susceptibility to such senselessness.
Thirdly, the threat or torment being inflicted upon the protagonist must be as such that an audience can perceive it as being seriously dangerous to one’s body, mind, soul, society, or any combination thereof. If the threat is not established as being worth our anxiety toward it, or at least inherently worthy (like a knife or gun is), then there is nothing to fear and we have no real reason to pity. The threat or torment must be intrinsically alarming in that one would instinctually fear to have it befall themselves or someone they care for. (It should be said here that, with these conditions in mind, it is not unreasonable for a horror film to demand a suspension of disbelief. Otherwise, threats like aliens or anything supernatural would be out of bounds, which is clearly not the case.) As such, we can then say, in sum, that when a sufficiently grave danger that we reflexively react to trepidatiously due to it provoking us to appreciate our own vulnerability to nonsensical affliction threatens a protagonist we have come to like and identify with we are consequently meant to pity that person, and it is largely because of this pity that when that protagonist is shown to be actively suffering or in immediate jeopardy that we are prone to horror. In essence, pity enables us to fear for the victim – to experience their suffering vicariously.
Emotions, as in the ones caused by the various aspects of audio/visual storytelling and narrative modeling, are what build upon a properly justified sense of pity in order to cause the feeling of horror. Such emotions include, but are not limited to, sorrow, disgust, anger, anticipation, surprise, exasperation, disappointment, apprehension, and of course fear. While plenty of research has been done on how emotions register in the brain, much still remains largely enigmatic. What we do know, though, is that they can almost always be connected to physiology. Certain chemicals in the brain are released for any one or several reasons, which influence how we emotionally respond to something. For example, cortisol is released when one feels anxious or nervous, and the release of adrenaline can sometimes be traced to reactions of terror or self-preservation. The former is an emotion that often develops slowly enough that we can consciously think about it as it forms, while the latter is more reflexive. Much of the reason why a reflexive physiological reaction like the release of adrenaline can occur when watching a successful horror movie is because the viewer is able to vicariously experience the suffering and emotions of the protagonist.
The way horror movies typically work is they try to manipulate the viewer into a sustained feeling of uneasiness or anxiousness – due to our attachment to the protagonist and awareness that they are both vulnerable and in demonstrable danger (or approaching it) – and build this feeling to a head where at which point some type of reveal or revelation occurs with the purpose of igniting fright or shock. The promotion of these emotions is important, as it is the instance when the one progresses into the other and the two are experienced at the same time that the feeling of horror is achieved. The feeling of anxiousness makes us more alert and uncomfortable, priming us for the time when the threat appears most perilous; which tends to come about suddenly and (sometimes) not in the manner that we predicted. Such a combination, however, is hardly the only possibility, as others from the list above, like sorrow, disgust, and/or anger, can also be used as a base that a reveal or revelation can use to cause horror. The progression from anxiousness to horror is simply the most common pattern – so common in fact that one can feasibly make a case that it is actually the standard pattern, and the inclusion of other emotions like sorrow, disgust, etc., are what customize each horrifying instance.
It must be reiterated that all of this is meant to delineate a more or less successful horror film, not just any horror film (examples widely considered to be successes include Alien, Jaws, and The Exorcist). There are plenty of horror films that try to elicit the feeling of horror and do not succeed, and there are plenty that do not appear to even aspire to stimulate that emotion. The insufficiencies of these types of films in regards to their inability to provoke horror can almost always be traced back to the requisites of pity, and no other kind of film is perhaps more notorious for such failure than the slasher flick. Beginning with its remarkable penchant for formula, a viewer who is well versed in the genre can easily anticipate most, if not all of the moments intended to cause shock and/or exasperation (which are usually intended to boost one up to the feeling of horror, as explained above). Note to writers and directors: The feeling of anticipation is important – not the ability to anticipate. In addition to this, part of the slasher formula anymore is the distribution of expendability to each of the secondary characters. Since most slasher protagonists are teenage girls who, as such, try to earn a viewer’s pity by following the first two rules (being likable and undeserving of torment) it is exceedingly easy to point out exactly who it is we are meant to sympathize with. Likewise, for characters we know we aren’t encouraged to pity, many of which are simply stereotypes (the jerk, the promiscuous girl, etc.), no tension or apprehension exists because they are expected by process of elimination to have ill fates. Genuine anticipation is left by the wayside, and in its place lays only mild curiosity.
Also, seeing this same lead character type over and over again eventually takes a toll on seasoned viewers. In effect, we become tired of sympathizing for the same person under more or less the same conditions, doing more or less the same things. This fatigue is tied to the third requisite for pity. That we watch such a film with the confidence that the protagonist is going to survive no matter what threats he or she faces, regardless of whether or not we end up being correct, those threats never seem quite dangerous enough when we view them. On rare occasion the protagonist does in fact show to have a fate different from what we anticipated, but these occasions at best cause surprise – seldom horror. Because we did not build up a level of pity for the protagonist – because we didn’t find them likable enough and/or never believed they were in any real harm – we did not become emotionally invested, and without such investment no feeling of horror can be reached.
What many of these kinds of deficiencies ultimately boil down to is familiarity, and herein lies the built-in Achilles heel for the horror genre in general. In order to keep the genre from stagnating and audiences from becoming too tired and familiar with any one of its varieties, new subdivisions must periodically emerge. What becomes new might sometimes be a reimagining of what has grown to be familiar, and on occasion that can prove to be successfully horrifying (like with remakes of The Thing and The Fly). Such films, however, are often only stopgaps in an otherwise obligatory progression from one era to another. Horror started out gothic, which often accommodated fearsome creatures, which led to monster movies that leaned toward sci-fi, and from there it expanded into multiple divisions such as slasher, zombie, offspring (ex. Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive), home invasion, religious, existential, conspiracy, yuppie, urban legend, revenge, and so on. Fairly recent successes like The Blair Witch Project and the Saw series helped make “meta-horror” and torture films popular (again?), but the former has had a hard time shaking off parodies and the latter seems to have run its course in less than a decade.
Last year’s The Last Exorcism tried shaking things up by combining the handheld documentary style with the haunting subject matter of exorcism films, and even went to an old well by alluding to offspring horror. This combination was bold and unexpected, but nevertheless an amalgamation of several well-established subgenres. The same can also be said for Paranormal Activity (a documentary/haunting combination) even though it was considered by many to be genuinely horrifying. The goal of such films is to keep the audience guessing as to which set of expectations they should be keeping in mind, with the intent being to make the eventual answer to that question the final horror-inspiring moment. Again, though, such a film is a mere stopgap. As of today it would seem that American horror is facing yet another threshold where it must discover who it is that audiences can learn to pity, and to what end this should be so. Some might posit that horror audiences are too jaded and/or knowledgeable to be truly horrified anymore, but that same suggestion is heard every time this in-between period is faced. Those who cry out for more originality from filmmakers are justified in doing so, as it is only when such outcries become deafening that progress is liable to occur. But the question those people need to ask themselves is who is it they are ready to pity, and what new type of threat should those persons face that would promote a satisfyingly horrific experience.