As someone who enjoys horror but is incredibly susceptible to jump scares—and thus tends to enjoy horror On Her Own Time rather than in, for example, a move theatre—I feel this review of the Hereditary Wikipedia page, which I too have read, really speaks to me, y’know?
For the record: yes, as a kid I both used to read all the back covers of horror VHS tapes and the blurbs of all the horror novels in the bookstore. Nowadays I just read the horror novels outright (assuming I can find any), and I’ve since watched most of the “VHS classics” on Netflix (on the whole, I’ve not found any particularly scary). And the main thing I’ve discovered? Well… the reality of the works is almost never as scary as I’d imagined from reading the summaries.
Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door […] You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. “A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,” the audience thinks, “but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.” […]
What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself. And because of this, come the paradox: the artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time [but sooner or later] you have to open the door and show the audience what’s behind it. And if what happens to be behind it is a bug, not ten but a hundred feet tall, the audience heaves a sigh of relief (or utters a scream of relief) and thinks, “A bug a hundred feet tall is pretty horrible, but I can deal with that. I was afraid it might be a thousand feet tall.”
Incidentally, that quote is from an essay in Danse Macabre, published in 1981, and The Thing That Happened between now and 1981… well, there’ve been a few. But one of the big ones, particularly where horror is concerned, was the influence of Asian horror in the early ’00s. Things like The Ring and The Grudge and what have you. And the thing I think that kind of horror does extremely well—and the thing it brought in to Western horror cinema—was understatement. Think about something like A Tale of Two Sisters, which has both almost no conventional (Western) “bug reveals” and yet I found almost unwatchably oppressive and tense. Modern Western horror films, like It Follows or The Babadook or The Ritual, are the direct descendants of that influence.1 Compare and contrast, for example, The Void, a film made in a more “oldskool” style, which I enjoyed for the body horror (i.e. bug reveals) but found kinda meh, atmosphere-wise (at least it wasn’t a thousand foot bug!). Or even the TV show of The Exorcist, which has some great set-pieces—both of the grotesque and of the tense varieties—but that I never really felt hung together in any cohesive way.2
Tl;dr, horror is hard. And nothing you ever put on screen will ever be as terrifying as what a reader imagines from reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia. Go figure, I guess.
- For the record: I enjoyed-and-found scary The Babadook, was kinda meh on The Ritual, and actively dislike It Follows. Other entries on this list would be things like The Witch (meh) and Get Out (still on the to-be-watched pile). [↩]
- Particularly its demons. Its demons were all over the place, mostly because I think the show wanted too much have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too in the sense of having both “demons are incomprehensible grotesque corrupting horrors” and “demons are basically snobby rich people who enjoy participating in vaguely antisemitic-smelling conspiracy plots”. Which… fine. Except it was often the same demon acting in both roles, which… why would it do that? Why would arrogant an fallen angel who considers humans beneath it also spend time scrabbling through the mud eating raw seagulls? A little consistency, please! [↩]