Sinking Our Teeth Into Horror Movies

In 1976, a wired Steven Spielberg ushered an entire camera crew into a small room to capture  his reaction to what he then thought would be the happiest moment of his young career. The 29-year-old recently directed the now classic Jaws that filled up theaters and essentially set the precedent for summer blockbusters in the years following. Though the film snagged several nominations, including best picture (which they went on to lose to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), it was still a devastating blow to Spielberg to not even be considered.


Jaws is now regarded as one of the great classics. Audiences were so taken with the film, it cleared beaches in the summer of 1975. The film redirected horror from otherworldly creatures to the monsters we can name here on earth. This movie--released over the summer--was a marketing pioneer, as most crews capitalized off the Christmas season. Jaws, however, cleverly released it with the tagline: “See it before you go swimming!”. Before that terrifying summer, Hollywood dismissed the idea that people would see a movie when they could be outside.


Despite setting trends that we still see in present-day Hollywood, Jaws wasn’t considered with the same gravity as other films. Even its best picture nomination seemed to be no more than a nod to its popularity, rather than a statement of the quality of the film. Spielberg, though good-natured at the time, was undoubtedly rattled by the evident snub. What more could a film do than disprove age-old marketing techniques and fill theaters to the brim? Horror movies must do more than simply be frightening; in order to be taken seriously, critics demand that these films are groundbreaking pieces of cinema.


In 1999, a movie called The Blair Witch Project graced the screen of the Sundance Festival for the first time. Despite having a tiny budget at only $35,000, the movie absolutely terrified audiences. Pioneering the “found-footage” movement that inspired several spin-offs (including the Paranormal Activity saga), this technique made the feature film appear to be made entirely on small, hand-held cameras by the characters. This technique was so effective, audience members from around the world had to second guess whether it was real or not. The filmmakers--armed with a minuscule budget--developed not only a well-rounded plot but also an entire legend around a completely fictitious creature.


Critics did give The Blair Witch Project fair enough marks, but it still did not resonate with them as a landmark film. This, unlike Jaws, will not be renowned as a classic except by niche film buffs because The Blair Witch Project is strictly horror. While Jaws can be put into other categories to legitimize it to the general public, Blair Witch’s main intent is to truly scare audiences. Utilizing an unheard of technique made the film truly haunting, but since it can be shoved exclusively into a tiny box that we reserve for horror films, it won’t get the credit the movie truly deserves.


In more recent terms, the film Get Out was only the fifth or sixth horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture. Get Out was groundbreaking in a multitude of ways: from Jordan Peele’s historical nomination--only the fifth black man to be nominated for Best Director, to the content of the film. Dealing with the ever-contentious subject of race, Jordan Peele created a film that was filled with both pointed criticisms of the modern political sphere and bloodcurdling suspense. Without sacrificing the integrity of the horror, Peele tackled the complex issue of white liberalism and race in America better than many dramas.


Even with all of these accomplishments, this film, too, just wasn’t seen as Oscar-worthy to many. Some members of the Academy, in fact, refused to even watch the film. Though they claimed it was because it just wasn’t on par with the other films, some suggested this was due to the racial overtones not usually seen at the award show. While this movie is perhaps more taboo than a film about a giant shark, its classification as a horror film made it easier for voters to dismiss it as a pop-culture fad rather than a serious contender. Without the added hurdle of being classified as a horror film, the dismissal of Get Out would be (correctly) viewed as an overt form of racism.


Though horror movies can be truly, truly awful (see Chucky or a myriad of Lifetime originals), the good ones are incredibly inventive; these are often the films that stick with audience members long after they’ve left the theater. Film critic Jeffery Lyons told CNN about Jaws, “It preys upon a fear that millions of people suppress when they go in the ocean. I told Spielberg I have never gone in the ocean since.” Horror movies have the power to influence audiences’ lives more than they ever realize. Whether it’s a recurring nightmare or a subtly changed habit, these films are so moving in a way that’s still unrecognized by critics.


While dramas can be overly complex and seemingly unreachable to audiences (despite their obvious merit, of course), a good horror movie is so accessible because it preys on general, universal fears of humans. Sometimes, critics must wipe away the layers of blood and gore to see that horror films have the power to drive conversations. Some, like Get Out, make mainstream audiences delve into their own relationship with the deeply polarizing issue of race. Others, like Jaws or The Blair Witch Project, make huge creative strides for the industry--both for content and marketing. Without the work horror films have done, Hollywood wouldn’t be where it is today. It’s time these films are given the credit they deserve.


If you’re looking for your next fix of horror, here are the ten best horror movies of 2018 and of all time according to RollingStone Magazine.