What Is Horror?

No, I'm not getting existential on you. But I wanted to address the fact that some of the films I’ve reviewed (such as yesterday’s The Clown Murders) are not really horror films in the traditional sense. See, in this case, that’s not my fault - the DVD was made to look like a horror film (and even calls it one on the back). So just in case some folks were wondering what criteria I use for whether or not I can consider a film “horror”, here is a list, fairly complete. A film only has to meet one of these criteria for me to count it (I have no end date in sight for this thing, I can’t be too choosy!).

1. The IMDb lists it as a horror film. It’s the web’s most exhaustive and (nowadays) accurate encyclopedia for films, so I sort of trust their judgment.
2. The film was covered extensively on sites like Bloody, Shock, DreadCentral, etc. I’m not saying they just reviewed it - Bloody reviewed T4 for Christ’s sake - but if interviews with cast or crew were posted, or writers from the site(s) were invited to the set, then it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s OK to count it among horror films.
3. The filmmakers or studio try to sell it as one. Case in point - Perfect Getaway. I saw the film at a test screening, and the invite called it a horror film, and pointed out the horror credits of its stars in lieu of ones that would draw in a more general crowd (i.e. “Timothy Olyphant (Scream 2)” as opposed to “Timothy Olyphant (Die Hard 4)”. But without that in my head, I would have just thought it was an action-thriller. I’ve always counted thrillers, but I mean thriller in a Fatal Attraction or Duel type way, not chase/fighting types.
4. It was suggested by site readers. A good example would be Gozu. I didn’t think that movie was a horror film at all, but when 3 or 4 readers went out of their way to suggest it for HORROR MOVIE A DAY, I had to take their word for it. Either that, or you folks are trying to break my streak.
5. It can easily fit into one of my established sub-genres. For example, Monsters vs. Aliens - well, shit, the title is two genres right there (plus a 3rd, for animated). Yeah it’s a kid’s movie and it’s a comedy, but it’s still a monster movie, no matter how you slice it, and a lot of the humor stemmed from parodying or referencing legit horror films like Them or whatever. Which leads us to...
6. It is of primary interest to horror fans. There was a movie called Brutal Massacre that I watched about a year ago, and it was a mockumentary about the hapless crew of a low budget horror movie. Only die hard horror fans would appreciate the humor in a number of scenes (in fact, most of them were only funny if you knew the story behind director Steven Mena’s film Malevolence), and the cast was largely made up of horror icons like Gunnar Hansen and Ken Foree. So while Fangoria fans would eat this shit up, someone like my mom, who wouldn’t know John Carpenter from John Kramer, couldn’t possibly appreciate the bulk of the film’s humor.
7. This one ties into six, but if it’s ABOUT horror, it can count. Rob Zombie’s 4.5 hr Halloween documentary, for example - there’s no way I’d ever have the time to watch that thing plus an actual horror movie for the day, And even though it doesn’t qualify because I’ve seen it a million times, something like Ed Wood would be an acceptable entry, I think.

Anyway, I hope this helps... hopefully I’ve provided a valid excuse for any questionable entry you might have encountered over the past 2+ years. One time a director found his review here after he had been reading the site just as a fan, and was surprised as he didn’t think it was a horror movie (it was about a serial killer. I guess that would be reason 8 - if your movie’s about a serial killer I think it’s reasonable to call it a horror film), and since then I’ve considered doing something like this.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. Thanks for this post. I tend to have a broader concept of "what is horror?" than most. Half of the thrillers are really just softcore horror films. I always joke that there is a conspiracy against the horror genre, so that whenever a horror film has good actors in it, it becomes a thriller or a suspense drama. Like Silence of the Lambs or something.

  2. I've written a shortish essay entitled 'Horror: the genre that isn't' on my blog which sort of covers the similar ground, You or your readers (of which I am a regular) might find it interesting.

  3. Great list.... But funny how there is nothing about how the film makes you feel. To me, that's a must, although you only know AFTER you have seen the film. A psychological thriller can be damn scary without much in terms of traditional horror trademarks (monsters, blood etc...). I think South Korea has made some pretty edgy thrillers/dramas such as Scarlet Letter, which made me feel quite uncomfortable, although Scarlet Letter has its fair dose of buckets of blood at the end.

    And since you mention recommendations from your readers... I can't help but suggest the short film Aftermath (Spain, 1994). Have you seen it? Brilliant.

  4. I think it should also qualify if it ends with "The horror... the horror..."


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