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Scary Stories

I really like action films.  Specifically, I really like very silly action films with absurd premises and outlandish heroes, like the one starring Nicholas Cage about the demon that escapes from hell to haunt evildoers on his flaming motorcycle.  Or the one with Christian Bale leading a band of ragged survivors in a postapocalyptic wasteland ravaged by dragons which were unleashed from the centre of the earth in a mining operation gone wrong.  Or a fairly recent Korean film about ‘an undisciplined womanizing Taoist from the Joseon era’ finding himself in contemporary Korea wreaking havoc through honest-to-goodness magic.  (There’s demons in that one too.)  My housemate and I have a habit of watching these on rainy evenings and chuckling over the antics of the protagonists (yes, exactly like the two old guys from the Muppets, thank you for noticing.)

For this reason, the other night when we saw a description for a movie with John Cusack starring as Edgar Allen Poe hunting down a copycat serial killer who is staging his murders to resemble the plots of Poe’s short stories, we decided to settle in for some film-heckling fun.  Surely, given Cusack’s starring role, this would be a bit like a slightly darker and gorier and raven-ier Grosse Pointe Blank?

There were plenty of almost-intentionally-humorous moments in The Raven which is exactly what I like.  But it was definitely a horror rather than an action film.  The whole tenor of the movie was just too dark for it to sit comfortably after we finished watching.

As a rule I never watch horror films because I find they prey on my mind too much after seeing them.  Even ones which aren’t that scary (this one wasn’t that bad, really) leave me tense and unable to relax.  Things might be fine all day but the second I turn off the light I’m like a panther alert on the hunt, tracking every tiny sound or nearby shift of light.

I try different things to calm myself: reading a boring book, browsing my friends’ facebook feeds for funny and upbeat updates, mindfulness meditation exercises… all of it works just fine and I calm myself down.  Then when I feel I’m ready to finally drift off to sleep, the second I switch off the light again I’m just as alert (pantherlike!) as I was the first time.  One of my favourite techniques when I can’t sleep because I keep envisioning The Bad Guys coming to get me is to visualize all the people who are on MY team.  Evil serial killer from Poe trying to sneak up on me in the dark?  Fine.  The Three Musketeers will fight on my team.  And Alsan.  And the crew of the Enterprise.  And Falcor the LuckDragon from Neverending Story.  And all those singing critters from The Labyrinth.  And Yoda.  And Kermit the Frog.  Take that, Bad Guys!

But this time I still couldn’t sleep.

So I decided to do a little research into movie genres.  Knowledge is power—sometimes it’s the power to use knowledge to influence events or people, and sometimes it’s simply the power to categorize and therefore diminish the nameless terror of an unknown entity.  So what, I wanted to know, are the main differences between action and horror films?

It turns out there are a number of resources, mainly for screenwriters, on the distinctions between horror and thriller films, but (lucky for me) there are a couple of sites dedicated to the horror vs action genres (such as this excellent point-by-point summary by Marian Henderson.) According to these the main difference is not onscreen gore, suspense-building, or the nature of the villains, but rather the attitude of the hero in the face of fear.

Action movie heroes demonstrate stoicity or bravery in the face of adversity—it might frighten them but they don’t run away (or if they do, it’s to regroup and find another more effective way of confronting the villain.)  Horror film protagonists, on the other hand, are visibly frightened and spend most of the film trying to escape danger until the final conflict where they can’t avoid the antagonist anymore and there is some kind of reckoning.

After reading this it occurred to me that one way of looking at it is that action films represent our desired perception by others—wouldn’t we all want to be heroes, to make the noble choice, to face danger with confidence and aplomb and skill?  In contrast horror films represent our realistic or shameful views of how we face danger: by crying and running away.  (Oh, come on.  You don’t have superpowers.  If a Bad Guy came to get you, you’d be hiding under the bed trying not to panic-breathe too loudly just like the rest of us.)

There were some other genre-distinguishing characteristics suggested by the material that I read, like in horror films the protagonist’s companions tend to get picked off through the film, where in action films they tend to (mostly) stay alive through the skillful intervention of the hero.  Another difference that occurred to me is that the antagonist or villain in an action film generally has fairly wide ambitions: they may target the hero/hero’s loved ones/hero’s favourite toy as a part of their villainy, but that’s usually only because the hero is in the way of their larger plans for world domination/universal destruction/lots of money/etc.  In a horror film, the villain often (though not always) has very specific designs on the protagonist for one reason or another.  Sometimes they also want world domination or its equivalents too, but mostly, they get their kicks just from antagonizing the hero.  World domination is more a perk than a goal in horror films, I think.

There is plenty of good literature around why humans get a kick out of scaring themselves with films.  Sometimes it’s about comprehending archetypal fears that are facing an entire population. Sometimes it’s about the excitation transfer process, in which the lingering physiological arousal from a horror film can be transferred into intensified emotions (positive or negative) experienced after the film is over.  Sometimes it’s about experiencing real fear in a safe, controlled environment.  But for lots of people just like me, the whole horror genre is just so overstimulating that it isn’t worth it.

So I’ll be sticking firmly to the action films from now on: more heckling the steely gazes, clenched jaws, and implausible comeback lines, less snapping the light on every five minutes just to check, one more time, that there really are no Bad Guys hiding in the shadow behind the bookshelf.  Oh look, Jackie Chan’s The Medallion is on later…

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