Guide to Horror Movies

by William Teav and Guest Writer Angel Sierra

What’s your favorite scary movie? Don’t have one? Scary movies just too scary for you? No worries! Just grab some snacks and maybe a pillow to hide behind and we’ll show you what the horror genre has to offer.

Now the horror genre is broken down into subgenres: slasher, monster, paranormal, gore, psychological, and for our sakes, we’ll consider horror movies outside of American release as its own category, foreign. Each subgenre has its own tropes and ways of scaring you, so if lots of blood is a turn off for you, stay away from gorey horror, but if monsters aren’t such a big deal for you, try something from the monster subgenre.

Slasher films are categorized for their antagonist – someone who experiences some sort of past trauma that encourages them to go out and commit these stalk and kill moments that are central to the subgenre. Stalk and kill moments are usually shown from the perspective of the killer and shows them following a victim, then murdering them. Now the naming of the subgenre is a bit misleading because the antagonist of the story doesn’t necessarily have to be some blade wielding psychopath. It can be some stuntman psychopath driving a car. That’s why a movie like Death Proof (2007), a movie where the antagonist murders his victims in his death proof (get it?) car, can be considered a slasher film. It has these scenes of the troubled antagonist stalking and killing his victims.

Slasher movies are actually a good place to start for horror movie beginners. Gore and violence might be something to tolerate, but usually not extensively. I suggest beginners watch Psycho (1960), a classic movie, that by today’s standards would be considered pretty tame. This movie did, however, establish much of what slasher films were to be. Approaching this movie as something more of a murder/mystery would even put you in a proper mindset to watch the movie. If you’re looking for something a bit more intense, I feel obligated to recommend the Scream series. Wes Craven was a master horror story teller of the slasher subgenre. I Know What you did Last Summer (1997) is another classic slasher film worth the watch.

Monster movies are unique in that there are original monsters referred to as Universal Classic Monsters. These include Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Mummy, and Wolfman to name a few. There are also sub subgenres for monster movies such as giant monster movies – think Godzilla (1954) and Cloverfield (2008), and zombie movies – think Night of the Living Dead (1964) and Re-Animator (1985). The definition of “monster” is also fairly loose, so movies like Cujo (1983) where a rabid dog terrorizes a family can be considered a monster movie. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers are all supernatural beings, so it would be easy to categorize their respective movies into the monster subgenre, but they also play out stalk and kill moments in their movies iconic in slasher movies, so that subgenre would also fit their movies. The lines separating subgenres are blurry, so there exists an intersectionality between the subgenres where one film can belong to different subgenres.

For beginners wanting to watch something in the monster subgenre of horror, there are plenty of different starting points to choose from. Steven Spielberg movies are always well made and are often meant for the whole family to watch, so watching Jaws (1975) or Jurassic Park (1990) with friends would be a fun start, before transitioning to some heavier stuff. Gremlins (1984) is another fun place to start. Fuzzy little mogwais that turn into troublesome gremlins that kill and get killed in a comedy filled movie should be an easy-going time. For something a bit more intense, I would recommend any horror movie from the 80’s. Movies of that time strived for realistic use of practical effects and some of them do an excellent job such. The Thing (1982) showcases the talents of director John Carpenter in a movie about a shape shifting alien wreaking havoc on a team of scientists in the Arctic. The Blob (1988) is just what it sounds – a giant blob blobbing around town, dissolving people in its corrosive goo. Straying away from the 80’s, Jeepers Creepers (2001) is a personal favorite. A brother and his sister find themselves being stalked by some malevolent creature after stumbling upon place of hiding. The creature is a grade-A creep to look at, and that tune will stay with you long after the movie ends.

I think that paranormal horror is the kind of horror that a lot of people are more aware of, especially with recent movie franchises like the Paranormal Activity (2007) and The Conjuring (2013) being so successful. Paranormal horror introduces more of the supernatural elements of horror, and it’s here where you’ll deal with your ghosts, demons, and possessions. I don’t think there is much to mention about this subgenre, other than it is often associated with religious connotations and that subject matter may be more sensitive to some than others.

For beginners, and really anybody, if you haven’t seen Ghostbusters (1984), you need to get on top of that. The movie is just a fun time to watch, and it really is just a comedy with elements of horror. A step above that would be something like Poltergeist (1982), another Spielberg film. This time, a family moves into a haunted house and troubles ensue. This movie was given an MPAA rating of PG, but I would argue it being more of PG-13 film due to some frightening images that would pop up. I think though, that this movie is a healthy medium between not scary and too scary. I personally believe that if you just want to scare the pants off of yourself, that paranormal horror is the best to watch alone. I have made the mistake of watching The Conjuring (2013) alone in my room with earbuds, and if you want similar experiences, try watching The Blair Witch Project (1999) alone. That movie is about friends getting lost in a forest, trying to figure out the curse of the Blair Witch, and the movie is really what set off the popularity of found handheld footage, but it did so effectively. It’s after these movies though, when you’ll begin to question the source of the creaking you hear before you fall asleep.

Psychological horror will like to stay with you long after watching the movie. These movies are often characterized by some sort of unreliability from either the plot, the characters, or some part of the film. I tend to think of these kind of movies as ones where there is more of a sense of being uncomfortable than being scared. Often movies will go a long way in creating this feeling of discomfort. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining (1980) had characters make turns in hallways that would normally make characters circle their way back to the beginning, but somehow made them arrive somewhere new to using color schemes in every frame that would evoke some sense of uneasiness from the audience.

These sort of movies might be a little bit more difficult for beginners because often when the time is spent to make specifically a psychological horror, effort is really put into making the audience feeling uneasy. A safe bet would be Get Out (2017) from director Jordan Peele. The social commentary in the film takes a front seat with the overall creepy sensation that resonates from the film, so there would be something to bring you out of the horror aspect of the film. Other than that, I would recommend psychological thrillers as a leeway towards the more intense stuff. Donnie Darko (2001) has a young Jake Gyllenhaal figuring out the meaning of a  sort of end of the world prophecy that’s all very unsettling by the end. The Butterfly Effect (2004) explores the consequences of different decisions during times of importance in one’s life via time travel. I would associate both films with similar feelings of discomfort that come from psychological horror movies. For people looking for something more uncomfortable, The Shining (1980) is never a bad choice. Unsane (2018) is a unique pick in that it was made entirely using an iPhone by director Steven Soderbergh. There is a constant feeling of uneasiness in this film as a woman being stalked by a man is forced to spend time in the same mental facility as her stalker works at. It Follows (2014) is a gorgeous film that, like The Shining, toys with the audience subliminally. In this movie, a woman contracts a paranormal STD of sorts and must face the consequences.

If you can withstand blood and guts, perhaps watch a splatter film. Splatter films tend to focus on the destruction on the human body, often through unconventional means. “Do you want to play a game?” is a phrase associated with Jigsaw, the main antagonist of the Saw series. Those unfortunate enough to be participating in one of Jigsaw’s challenges must perform a series of complicated tasks or meet a brutal end. Final Destination (2000) centers around a group of individuals destined to die. Essentially the film incarnation of television show 1000 Ways to Die, Final Destination focuses on the protagonists attempt to dodge their untimely demises. Interestingly, neither of these last two films started off as gore films. The original Saw (2004) much better fits the subgenre psychological horror, where a crime mystery serves as the main plotline, and the first Final Destination (2000) movie is more of a slasher movie where Death stalks and kills survivors of a freak accident they were meant to perish in. Hostel (2005) is a shining example of a splatter film that’s grounded in reality. A pair of college students traveling through Europe in search of a good time. Little do they know that their itenary is about to change for the worse. Would You Rather (2012) centers around a woman attending a dinner party hoping to save her ailing brother’s life. However, she must play a twisted version of “would you rather” with real, deadly consequences.

Horror is a theme transcending nations and cultures. Several excellent horror films have been created by foreign producers. Raw (2016) tells the tale of a vegan college student who, upon being forced to consume meat, embarks on a terrible journey of self-discovery. Two women, victims of childhood abuse, embark on a bloody quest for revenge in Martyrs (2008). In REC (2007), Firefighters enter an apartment building only to battle something far more sinister than fire. Inside (2007) chronicles the struggle of a pregnant woman to fend off a home invader intent on killing her for her unborn child. In Goodnight Mommy (2014) two boys notice something is amiss after their mother returns from facial surgery.  

Note that there weren’t really any recommendations for beginners when it came to gore and foreign horror. These films are often too intense for even some scary movie fanatics. Gore horror relies more on graphic violence to scare the audience than anything, and foreign films have the language barrier that will often discourage average moviegoers from watching it.

Scary movies can be a difficult thing for beginners to get into, but they can very much be worth the trial and tribulation. There’s something gratifying after watching a scary movie that you feel that just can’t be attained elsewhere. Whether with friends, family, or by yourself, a scary movie is always fun to watch. Try a few that we recommend and maybe you’ll be a horror fanatic yet.

‘Tis the season for screams and scares. Watch a horror movie, if you dare.

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