Screaming With Fright

While watching Netflix, odds are you’ve noticed the alerts that pop up in your screen’s top left corner. Maybe you’ve even read the words, ‘violence’, ‘nudity’, and ‘gore’, or laughed because why would you need to have a warning for something as inconsequential as ‘some frightening images’? While watching something a bit more dense, you’ve probably seen the extreme warnings and have thus prepared yourself to see a hideously bloody scene… only to find that there’s nothing gag-worthy whatsoever about what you’ve just watched.

It is important to have warnings on shows for a multitude of reasons, but rating a movie ‘TV MA’ for something that a majority of younger viewers aren’t affected by seems excessive.

Similarly, there are probably scary movies that your parents have told you not to watch because they remember the movie as being completely petrifying when they first saw it as a teenager. You go into it with a mental guard up, readying yourself for the worst, trusting your parents’ opinion. And then find out that the scariest thing in the movie was the main character’s poor decision making skills.

One of the better examples of this can be seen in old horror movies that seem to exist before caller ID. AKA: slashers.

Slashers from the 1980s and 90s have become a genre within themselves. From Halloween to I Know What You Did Last Summer, every movie of its kind follows a mostly similar storyline. It’s a large part of why the movie Scream’s fourth-wall-breaking ‘horror movie dos and don’ts’ speech is so iconic.

Yet over time these horror movies have turned into something different than what they were set out to be. Horror movies are meant to incite disgust or feelings of fear in viewers. Slashers on the other hand are movies in which a group of people are brutally murdered by a stalker. There’s a clear overlap in that slashers can also be horrors. When classifying movies, however, one is generally more obvious over the other.

The slasher epidemic of the 90s fits the category in that just about each one features a main cast being hunted down by a masked serial killer who wields some type of violent weapon. In modern times we would call such a movie a slasher. But in Scream all movies of this type, including Scream itself, hence the meta moment, are defined as horror films. 

The differences seem slight, since both genres involve similar aspects. The final decision really comes down to how an audience views it.

The supposed ‘horror movies’ of the ‘90s might have been fear inducing at one point. But there’s a reason why yelling at old scary movies is a common occurrence. The movies that were once viewed with fear are now watched as comedies and seen as campy. Some of it does have to do with the fact that special effects now are much better than they used to be. But that doesn’t explain all of why the new generation has become desensitized to such gruesome feats. A serial killer on the loose is threatening no matter what decade you’re in.

Desensitization comes from prolonged exposure. In this case, that exposure is to gorey imagery. While much of this comes from the viewing of violence, it doesn’t explain the why behind the newfound obsession with dark media.

Perhaps it’s that the tones of the present environment are different than the ones in older movies. If a main character runs by a perfectly open door in favor of going up a flight of stairs that leads to no escape path whatsoever, then an audience is going to justly berate them for their stupidity. There was a problem that could have easily been solved, but the answer was ignored, so the character probably got what was coming for them. The latter is a common trope in old slashers, and it’s a large part of why they’re essentially comedies to today’s teens who have grown up with no patience for mistakes in a culture that values efficiency over just about everything else.

On the other hand, consider a movie where the main characters are being held against their will and are forced to commit terrible acts or risk their own deaths. In this scenario the main characters may have made some thoughtless choices (what horror movie exists without them?), but overall they were smart and just happened to be the victims of merciless circumstances. This type of film is more psychological thriller than horror, which appeals to a younger generation. It’s because of this that the majority of newer scary movies to come out have been thrillers in addition to their horror aspects. Thrillers rely on a sense of spooking the audience so that they themselves feel the stress of the main character as they hide from the killer in a storage closet. Conversely, horror movies simply target common fears without delving too much into how the characters are dealing with facing them.

Society’s morbid interest might also come from the fact that we simply have bigger things to worry about. In this new generation, danger is more prevalent than ever. The first two decades of the 21st century have seen more school shootings than the years 1870 through 1999 combined. Crimes against minority groups and women have gone up in recent years, making for an incredibly unsafe environment for many citizens of the United States. Given that all of this is true, a horror movie in which a high school stereotype makes some bad choices and gets killed with a fake-looking knife is something that’s easy to laugh at. It’s easier to focus on the ridiculousness of a fictional killer somehow not dying after being thrown down many flights of stairs than it is to turn on the news.

The cliche of old slashers is something that feels comfortable. They can be relied upon to always stay the same. In times that are filled with such stress and uncertainty, movies that were once violent have become commonplace. They are easy to digest because viewers have a deep awareness that the events of a film are fake, unlike the true horrors of what have now become everyday occurrences.So the next time you pause a particularly disturbing scene of Squid Game to ponder just how broken your moral compass is, remember that you aren’t alone or secretly a psychopath. After all, it’s a simple matter of supply and demand: if society’s response to horror changes, so must the media.

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