I’ve developed an obsession with podcasts recently. Mostly, I listen to them while I’m out on a run; and my particular tastes tend to veer towards the macabre, the intriguing and the literary.
I was listening to Mark Kermode’s excellent Kermode on Film podcast this morning. The film being discussed was The Shining – a film I’ve always regarded as a bit of a horror classic.
Mark Kermode (who I’d like to emphasise I have enormous respect for) criticised the film, as he claimed it wasn’t scary, and that horror, by its very definition, should be.
But should it?
I just couldn’t work out if I agreed with this statement or not. Sure, some of the greatest horror books and movies are frightening as hell. But are there some out there that could still be categorised as horror, without making us hide behind our collective cushions in fear?
I recently read A House At the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman. Words cannot express how much I adored this book, which I’d certainly classify as a horror. However, nothing horrific happens. I don’t want to spoil this excellent story for you, but, while there are elements of the creepy, it’s essentially not frightening.
But does that make it less of a ‘horror’?
What makes something a horror, then?
This is the golden question, and one that I’m not sure I’ve figured out yet. After all, genres are slippery beasts at the best of times, and authors and directors frequently push the boundaries of what we expect them to consist of.
I’d say that a horror is something that:
- Plays on your mind in an unsettling manner
- Stays with you afterwards (perhaps making you more nervous / sensitive to the unusual etc.)
- Features something unpleasantly unnatural
To return to the example of The Shining – I feel it has all of those elements. There’s plenty of very unsettling images in it, and the sense of isolation and growing dread really does linger, long after the film is done. As for unnatural… lifts bursting with waves of blood tends to be about as unnatural as it gets!
Re-identifying what scary is
That’s not to say I didn’t think that Mark Kermode made some excellent points about the film. I’d always found the exposition about what ‘the shining’ is somewhat frustrating too – so I totally agreed with him there.
But I think it’s time to re-evaluate where horror, as a genre, is going. Film-makers and authors are increasingly taking risks with the genre, and forcing their audiences to re-assess what frightening actually means to them.
Likewise, other writers and directors are taking classic elements of horror and deliberately making them as non-scary as possible. The recent sitcom Ghosts springs to mind (though I must confess, I really wasn’t a fan of that one). I’ve had people get in touch before to tell me that my books aren’t frightening. That’s because they aren’t meant to be; though there are meant to be several nods to the genre, and some parts that might unsettle.
On the whole, I’m excited to see where the genre will journey to next. We’ve had horror merged with comedy (League of Gentlemen did it to perfection), horror merged with soap opera (essentially what Twin Peaks is), and horror merged with mystery (the most recent series of True Detective played upon this really well).
What will be the next step? Only time will tell. But to conclude – I personally think The Shining holds its own as a great horror film, regardless of the fact that it’s not actually that scary. Its ability to unsettle and unnerve (in my opinion) places it firmly in the genre.
Dr Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural – The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost, is available to buy – you can do so here (US) or here (UK). Also, the other Ribero books are available via Amazon, and my next book, The Hanged Man and the Fortune Teller will be coming out this September.