“Horror” is a very broad term, housing under it sub-genre upon sub-genre, upon sub-genre. Comedy Horror, Sci-Fi Horror, Horror Romance, Creepy Kid, Gothic Horror, and Body Horror to name a few. Under that there’s Gore, Psychological, Killer, Monster, and Paranormal, which can be further broken down into specifics like Torture, Fanaticism, Slasher, Vampires, Haunted House, etc.* There are a lot of different ways to scare people, and you start to wonder what connects such disparate films as Saw, Psycho, Halloween, The Haunting, The Mummy, Alien, Videodrome, Black Swan, and ParaNorman. After all, that’s terror from beyond the stars, beyond the grave, inside the mind, and from the dregs of the soul. Death would be a good answer, as would fear, but I think the most important element they all have in common is history.
Whether it’s recent or ancient, private or public, fact or legend, the past is where all horror begins, and lies in wait. Part of what makes the past so scary is its ability to destroy the future. It is an undead thing, able to climb out of the ground and drag you away from your promise and prospects because of some earlier betrayal, mistake, or secret. The popular locales of horror reinforce this notion: graveyards, abandoned buildings, and the middle of the woods. Places with history, where order and humanity fell or could never get a foothold in the first place. The clichéd decor of spooky places epitomize long-ago defeat. Cobwebs, skulls, melted candles, weathered books, broken objects, all of it covered in a thick layer of dust. Scary things are aged, reminders of defeat.
Horror is also steeped in ancient tradition, no longer popular but still powerful because of its single-minded devotion. The most enduring aspect of the Lovecraft mythos are the Elder Gods, ancient and cruel beings older than rational thought, vanquished but ready to return and destroy us all when the time is right. “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Dracula is old school royalty, living in a castle high up on the mountain, taking sustenance from the very lives of the peasants below. Witches practice ancient magicks and honor nature, while Mr. Hyde represents the primal beast still lurking in the soul of civilized man.
In regards to that last monster, horror is often something we are drawn to and stumble upon. Every Mummy film begins with explorers excavating a sealed tomb, intending to bring the unearthed treasures back to a museum (which one might think of as a shrine to the past). Perhaps the real problem is that the previously mentioned fear of the past breeds contempt. We believe that we are past these old superstitions and primal forces, and so we tempt them. After all, Dracula is sought out by Jonathan Harker, the counselors of Friday the 13th series return to the storied Camp Crystal Lake, families move into haunted houses, and the force behind The Evil Dead (1981) is summoned whenever someone reads aloud from the Necronomicon. We want to prove that we’ve moved past the past, and we do so by poking it with a stick.
Sometimes we can know the origin of that horror, though it is not essential. The Mummy (1932) and Halloween (1978) feature a detailed flashback and prologue respectively, and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) took an entire film to explore the root of its series’ terrors. Others, like The Wolf Man (1941), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), or Scream (1996), offer spoken exposition. While some films offer no explanation at all, like Jaws (1975) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Yet no matter how much or how little is explained, it is certain that the evil has existed long before the current crop of victims showed up. (Consider Alien and The Thing, both of which feature their characters discovering evidence of the creature’s handiwork.)
Trying to learn what you’re up against can create a secondary source of tension in a narrative, giving the protagonist a sense of agency no matter how powerful their enemy is. A Nightmare On Elm Street used this to great effect, adding a touch of Nancy Drew to an already inventive slasher movie. ParaNorman walked a similar path to wildly different results, turning a classic good vs. evil confrontation into a highly emotional act of understanding and forgiveness. At the turn of the millennium Japanese horror was especially into this horror-mystery hybrid, as exemplified in Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), and Pulse (2001) to name a few.
Of course, understanding a horror doesn’t necessarily mean you can overcome it. Everyone in the Final Destination series knows that Death itself is out to get them, and the Saw series is all about forcing its victims to confront their transgressions, but just about everyone dies in those films anyway. This can be extended to postmodern horror, too, where even the most genre-savvy characters can meet a bad end. In fact, as far as that subset of the genre goes, postmodern horror films are even more entrenched in the past, throwing out allusions and references to prior horror films on top of whatever history haunts the protagonists. Perhaps the best example of this is The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which in addition to being a hilarious and scary movie is also a crash course in the history of the genre, tracing everything back to five primary archetypes. The past is ever-present, and we wouldn’t have a present without one.
With that in mind, horror’s greatest metaphor might just lie in its unkillable villains. Freddy, Jason, Michael, Dracula, Chucky, Leatherface, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, and everyone else who’s ever gone on a killing spree across multiple movies. They always die at the end of one movie and come back at the beginning of another. Whatever people have done in the past, it will somehow find a way to impact the present. History is alive, and there’s nothing to be done to stop it.
*This breakdown of Horror Genres and Sub-Genres taken from www.HorrorOnScreen.com/wiki-horror/horror-genres/