In 2002 the movie "The Ring" came out in theaters. Up until then, I had never seen a real horror movie. The movie generated a lot of buzz when it came out and after hearing how scary it was from a lot of friends, I decided to go see it. To this day, I don't think a movie has ever scared me as much as "The Ring" did.
Since then (and largely because of how much I enjoyed "The Ring") I have become absolutely hooked on horror movies. Up until a few days ago, I assumed horror movies were so appealing to me because of their originality as a genre. Fans of horror movies love being scared. We go to a horror film hoping that it's going to give us a sort of rush without subjecting ourselves to any real physical danger. A horror movie isn't going to give you the warm and fuzzies like a romantic comedy; it's not going to get you pumped like an action movie; it's not going to make you feel exhilarated like an adventure movie. A horror movie is (hopefully) going to scare the crap out of you. And that's how the fans like it. Or that's what I thought. Then, a few days ago, (don't ask me why) I was thinking if there wasn't something beyond just being scared that would bring so many fans to this genre. And then I thought of it- Schadenfreude.
By now, I'm pretty sure almost everyone knows what schadenfreude is- taking pleasure from the misfortunes of others. We've always loved this, even if it only recently became part of most of our vocabularies. Think of "America's Funniest Home Videos." Growing up, I loved watching AFHV. There were literally not enough ways for guys to get kicked in the balls and for people to light themselves on fire to keep me entertained.
What do AFHV and the genre of horror have in common? More than you'd think. For one, there's almost always the perception that the person who is getting hurt or embarrassed (or killed in the movies) "deserved" it. If someone is walking in front of the camera and another person runs in and kicks them in the balls, it may be funny to some (the "Jackass" crowd), but usually not to people who watch AFHV. However, if someone is about to do something that everyone knows is a bad idea (and especially if they say something like "Hey guys, watch this!" first), and it results in them getting hit in the balls, then it's funny.
In horror movies, you have things that I like to call "the givens." Pretty much, if you do one of these during the course of a horror movie, you're toast.
1. Leaving the main group- There is literally nothing that "the killer" loves better than picking off people when they're stupid enough to wander off.
2. Saying "I'll be right back"-...no you won't.
3. Having sex- Hope it was good because you're probably not ever doing that again.
4. Dropping your keys when you're trying to get into a car- Just never a good idea.
5. Getting a flat tire- This is almost always going to lead into something that isn't going to go well for you.
6. Being Paris Hilton- If you saw "House of Wax," you know that it can be tough being Paris.
7. Being a bully- I have a theory that most horror writers were bullied and/or always picked last in their P.E. classes and that their scripts are really just their ongoing fantasies about what they would do to their aggressors if they were given the chance.
8. Being the romantic interest of the protagonist- You may think you’re a Casanova, but chances are, you’re about to be Casa-ovah. Ok, bad joke. But seriously, if the main character falls in love with you, chances are, you’re done for.
9. Taking a shower- Think “Psycho” or “The Grudge.” Usually when a pretty girl goes into a shower in a horror film, she doesn’t come out looking quite as “pretty”.
10. Being a minority- I’ll be honest, I wasn’t going to include this one. However, when I was thinking of the “givens” I couldn’t help but notice that nearly every minority in American horror films gets killed off. Usually, they make the mistake of committing one of the other “givens” first, so the director has “reason” to kill them off. Still, kind of strange that I can’t remember the last American horror movie where a minority made it all the way to the credits.
So what do the givens mean as far as “schadenfreude” goes? Whether we like to admit it or not, we like to judge, and horror movies are the perfect arena for it. If a character does something stupid, then we as an audience blame them for their idiocy and infer that they “deserved to die.” This leads to “schadenfruede”- A character who is clearly an idiot or jerk gets killed off in a gruesome way and we subconsciously laugh because he/she “deserved” it. If we want to hear about people getting killed who did nothing wrong we can turn on the news. If we want to see people get killed who “deserve” it, we watch a horror movie. Now, in reality do these people really deserve to die? Simply put, no. You decide if this type of logic makes any sense. Here are some examples of things horror fans would say to the characters who get killed off in a horror film if they could:
“Well maybe if you and Miss March didn’t have sex in an abandoned barn, you wouldn’t both be hanging from meat hooks right now.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t pantsed the main character in the opening scene you wouldn’t be eating your own entrails right now.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t gotten a flat tire you wouldn’t be in six pieces.”
Alright, stop. I’m not condoning sex in abandoned barns or pantsing at all, but if I saw someone do these things, my first instinct wouldn’t be to kill them. What does it really come down to then? Here’s my theory. The biggest reason we go to the movies is to be entertained. While we love a story that intrigues us and makes us think, with 10 movies coming out a week, we’ve lowered our expectations. And what’s the next best thing to a good plot? Characters that are relatable. I think that what our reasoning really boils down to is a need to relate to the killer. If we can get the tiniest glimpse of reasoning behind the killer’s actions, we can have enough justification to watch them wreak havoc on (fill in the name of a bland sounding tiny town) for an hour and a half.
Recently, there has been a stretch of horror films where the killer’s actions have absolutely no justification. For the most part, these are the kind of horror movies that I don’t really like. Though this may go back as far as movies like "The Exorcist," if I had to pick a film that started the trend in the mainstream, it would probably be “Saw.” In “Saw,” the killer kidnaps people who lead lifestyles of addiction and tries to get them to realize the value of life through a sick game in which they will die if they lose. The story behind “Saw” was definitely interesting, but “Saw” is far from the fun feel that horror movies like “Scream” have. The last movie I saw that didn’t justify the killer’s actions was one called “The Strangers.” The plot of “The Strangers” is basically three villains picking a house at random to terrorize. The inhabitants of the house (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) have done absolutely nothing wrong and probably behave exactly as any of us would have in their situation. Perhaps the appeal of movies like this is how real they are (the strangers is actually based on a true story). But maybe that’s not the best direction for the genre to go. It seems that the horror genre has split into two camps- one which likes pure horror with nothing in the way, and one which likes some entertainment and humor thrown in along the way.
For me, and for most other people who like “schadenfreude,” horror is a genre that is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Funny” and “scary” don’t seem like things that should go together, but they couldn’t be more important to a good horror movie. We need the humor to lighten the mood and settle our nerves until the director is ready to scare us again. Whether you’re a member of the “schadenfreude” horror camp (like me) or the pure terror camp, I think we can all agree that horror is an important and overlooked genre. And even if we can’t agree on whether or not “the givens” should be included in new horror films, I think we can agree that there’s one thing that horror films can do without: Paris Hilton.