Commentary on Commentary: The "Elevated Horror" Conversation
It’s weird offering commentary on commentary. Like, who am I to further analyze an analysis? For decades, by the very nature of what editorials are, we allowed them to be the cry in the night that they are. A personal, biased declaration of your thoughts and feelings. But in a world where thoughts and feelings are hollowly scattered among the fallen by those put in public positions of power, we take a further critical eye to our own opinions as if our opinions are the only thing guiding our societies scarily shifting moral compass. But also, opinions on opinions is the way to further our cultural conversations in the Twitter era. We're a reactionary society after all, where the thought of someone having words to say about the words we wrote feels like a sentence of conflict and stress. And as little tufted balls of a million and one anxieties, can you blame us for feeling this way? As our privacy is digitally stripped from us, many believe that all we have left is our opinions. It’s what separates man from machine after all, right? One would hope.
April Wolfe, the writer and mad genius behind the podcast Switchblade Sisters as well numerous bylines spanning from The Atlantic to McSweeney’s, has had the term “Elevated Horror” on the mind recently. Sprung from the release of A Quiet Place, and more specifically an interview that Director/Star John Krasinski gave where he admitted to not being a horror fan before the rise of (his words) “elevated horror”.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, Ms. Wolfe thoughtfully lays out why the term is some straight up bullshit. We’ve seen versions of the term touted before, typically once a year when the Cinema Police dub a horror film worthy of their time. That’s when the bewildering terms like “Post Horror” or “Psychological Thriller” get bandied about. This subset prefer their tastes to be viewed as pure and intellectual, above the lowest common cinematic denominator: the horror film. Ms. Wolfe absolutely crushes why this frame of mind is less pure, bur rather puerile, connecting “Haute Cinema” back to their genre roots. It’s great, and just one of the many think pieces that have sprouted from this moment that horror is so thankfully having.
Three words, but my brain went on fire! As card carrying members of the Horror Community, how do we stand up for our beloved genre without becoming Cultural Gatekeepers: telling someone they aren't allowed to like something unless it meets arbitrary requirements. We are miffed by Krasinski and the public’s acceptance of the “elevated horror” movement, and rightly so. Horror is different because of its connection to its audience through visceral emotion. At its core, horror are the only films that categorically are made to make us feel.
“But Jacob!” you may ask, “You can’t be so small minded, don’t all films make you feel?”
And yes, you're right, but for every Sophie’s Choice or Amour (both arguably horror films, but ya get me), there is a litany of films that leave us empty after the curtain. But with horror, even the most mundane, will illicit something in someone. That’s part of the awesome power of horror: it’ll always get us.
Which is why horror never dies, and why we’re so attached. Most horror fans came to the genre as introverted kids who gravitated towards things that actively dismantled preconceived notions of taste. Why do you think so many horror fans also love punk rock and professional wrestling (Editors Note: No one told THIS horror fan that apparently we were also into wrestling so, frankly, I don’t get it. I mean I GET IT, but...I don’t get it.) All three are boundary pushing, but ultimately have this rebellious childlike streak to them that is infectious and fun. But this designation is also why people are getting upset about these “Elevated Horror” terms: because they spit in the face of 99% of the genre. Or so that’s what they feel.
We know that the tapestry of horror’s cinematic history is wide and varied, but you know who doesn’t know that? People that just got into the genre. Case in point: I love the San Antonio Spurs basketball team because my fiancée is an ardent home town supporter (and there ain’t no one like Gregg Popovich), but when I was watching my first games with her how was I supposed to know how important past players like Bruce Bowen and George Gervin were to the team today unless she clued me in? I didn’t watch my first game and then miraculously know about Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker's wonderfully strange commercial for the NBA finals. I had to come to that. Just like I had to come to Brian Yuzna’s From Beyond, Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, or Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond.
What is the best way for us to stay fans and not become cultural gatekeepers? First, we got to breath and take some emotional inventory. Why are we upset? Is it because we feel like major works are being disregarded? Do we feel like it is a slap in the face? Or do these terms make us worry that our closely cultivated commune of like minded cinephiles is going to be invaded and ruined by the power of the studio system or too much of a good thing?
If we feel the glut of the genre is being disregarded, rather than puffing up our chests to declare “Well you just don’t know what horror is!”, why don’t we try to listen first? If A Quiet Place and It Follows are the crème de la crème for a movie goer, recommend something. You may laugh and think about how much better Sole Survivor (1984) is, but I guarantee the person you are talking with doesn’t know that. And I bet they would like to. The internet lets us laugh at our anxiety about making connections, but if horror is what helped us break from our adolescent shells, can’t it also bridge nervous divides today? Why can’t we share what brings us life?
But let’s be frank: a lot of people just feel like horror is being taken from them, whether they know it or not. But in reality the short answer is: fuck no, nothing’s being “taken”, but that thinking is the crux of Cultural Gatekeeper mentality and the toxic personalities that still swim around the comment sections of the largest horror news sites. “Oh, you just got into horror? Back of the line ‘cause YA BASIC.”
But if this all sounds strangely familiar to you, it’s because it should: Cultural Gatekeeper mentality rubs shoulders with toxic masculinity. As we slowly attempt to dismantle this patriarchal society, we are seeing this snapback of anger and frustration from men who feel they never got a chance to cash in on their white male privilege. They reach their arms out far and wide, trying to protect all of these antiquated ideals at once, afraid of losing it forever. They root themselves in their ways. And that’s happening now, both as men are called out on their shitty behavior, and as horror, to put it mildly, “goes mainstream”. Horror fans fear that there will be a proliferation of a genre that for decades we got to wildly call our own because we cared first, we know the history, and we know how important and smart these films are. But our narrow focus fails to recognize that our pursuit to find these treasured gems of 42nd Street Cinema is uncommon. We mentally collect and catalogue these cinematic rarities, and within our Horror Home we share the keys to these vaults with regularity. I watched Blood Rage (1987) not to hold dear to my chest, but rather to get everyone on board with the brand of lunacy that Louise Lasser (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) is selling that is unmatched to this day. No one utters the line “Garbage Day!” just once. But when someone like Krasinski says that they weren’t horror fans before making a horror film, we lose our ever loving minds. “How can he make what he categorically does not know?” But I then ask you, “How can he know what he does not know?”
Alexandra West subtly, succinctly hit the nail on the head by saying ‘“fans” or “gatekeepers”’ in regards to the WaPo article. When April Wolfe asked if the acceptance of “elevated horror” will alienate fans, the answer is no. But it will alienate Cultural Gatekeepers like the New Boys Club in The Simpsons:
The OG horror fans though, like April and Alexandra, or you and me, that try to make this community so vibrant and accepting: let's make it known that we are “Gate Openers”. A little sentimental, but apt. We see this long queue forming for horror cinema and we find it electrifying. Let's have our first words to every new fan be, “We have such sights to show you.”