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[Year End] What Counts As “Horror”?

Oh hey, I didn’t see you there!

What is horror? What counts as horror? You guys might have noticed a few films in my “Best And Worst” that don’t necessarily fit the conventionally accepted mold for a genre film. Chronicle and The Grey for example, are two movies that more than likely would not be filed on the “Horror” shelf at Blockbuster or under the “Horror” tab in iTunes.

The reason they’re featured here? Sometimes it’s fun to write about movies that, while they have horror elements, stretch the scope of the content we feature on the site. It’s fun to have more colors to play with and, more importantly, it’s fun to expose you guys to this stuff. I like talking to the readers about it, conversing with you in the comments about what does or doesn’t turn you on about any given film. It’s not for hits, believe me. If you think something like The Grey pulls in more traffic than Maniac or Texas Chainsaw 3D you’re wrong. I feel that discussing films that might seem tertiary to the genre improves the quality of the overall conversation. It provides a better context in which to discuss the nuts and bolts of the pure horror films that drive 95% of our “movies” page.

It’s also incredibly entertaining to talk about movies that skirt genres rather than embrace them wholeheartedly, since it allows us to look at the very criteria we use to define those genres. Let’s talk more inside (spoilers within)…

A few days ago I was having a debate with a couple of my good friends on Twitter. One of them I know in real life, Brian Collins. As a BD alum and the creator of HMAD (along with Collins’ Crypt at Badass Digest), you probably already follow him and respect his opinion. If not, get on it – he’s a great writer with a great voice. The other participant was Matt Serafini, who writes for Dread Central. I only know him online and by reputation but I also like him, respect his opinion and have had nothing but positive interactions with him (even when we disagree).

They were discussing year-end horror Top 10’s that included stuff like Chronicle, and – I’m paraphrasing here – why they felt there was no place for a movie like that on one of these lists. Now, I can sort of see their point.* Like I said, depending on who you are you might not file that movie under the “Horror” section of Blockbuster. At one point during the discussion, Brian wondered why I just didn’t include The Avengers on my list, seeing as both films are “superhero movies” and that The Avengers is a superior piece of work.**

It’s certainly a worthwhile question so I figured I’d examine my own motives here, and I came to the conclusion that I don’t particularly think of Chronicle as a superhero movie at all. Sure it has some superhero tropes, chief among them being the fact that the three leads acquire telekinesis. They can move things with their minds and eventually they learn to fly. Fine. I’ll also grant that it covers more than a few “origin story” beats. But I’d still argue that any relation Chronicle has to the superhero genre is far more tenuous than its connection to horror. For starters, the three leads don’t do anything remotely heroic. They don’t save anybody, they don’t team up to fight a greater villain, and they don’t seem particularly interested in using their powers for anything other than furthering their own interests. They’re not even that good at flying seeing as one of them gets struck by lightning and killed while pretty much doing nothing. This is a film where our protagonist/antagonist uses his powers to pull teeth out of a bully’s face. Where his inner torment combined with his new abilities enable him to exact revenge on those who have tormented him. By the end of the film Dane DeHaan’s Andrew is a bloodied monster hellbent on destroying anybody who gets in his way.

Where’s the line between something like this and Carrie? Tone? I’ll grant that while both films end in mass telekinetic carnage induced by a severely troubled outsider with an unstable home environment, Carrie introduces its foreboding tone right at the start, while Chronicle descends into its character’s madness. Fine. But don’t tell me that a slow burn precludes something from the genre since Chronicle spends a greater percentage of its runtime dealing with horrific concerns than something like The Innkeepers (which I included on my best of ’11). Even if this doesn’t tonally feel like a horror movie during much of its runtime, it feels even less like a superhero movie.

Is it scale? Is Chronicle a superhero movie because of the destruction wrought upon Seattle during the finale? If so, then is Carrie a superhero? In the book she destroys the whole town. If Brian DePalma had kept the scale of the book would his film have been a superhero movie? Of course not. Or do we judge horror movies because of the elements contained within them? ParaNorman is on a lot of year-end horror lists. Rightfully so, it’s a movie with zombies and a witch so it’s absolutely fair game. But it also lacks a sense of menace and isn’t scary. If we’re going by what would be filed under “Horror” at Blockbuster, I don’t think ParaNorman belongs there either. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong on your list if you want it there.

When it comes to something like The Grey, I feel like the answer is a bit more simple. It’s a film about the unflinchingly punishing nature of the universe, where death is literally around every corner. A movie where our characters are subjected to the horrors of winter and are hunted and torn apart by wolves. Is The Grey not horror just because it stars Liam Neeson? If so, is Frozen horror just because Adam Green directed it? Because one could argue they have more than a few things in common. 

All of this being said, I’m not fighting for Chronicle or The Grey to be classified as 100% horror. I’m fine with them filed under whatever genre pleases you. I recognize that this is an inherently messy argument, one with no winners. But there are also no losers. That’s the great thing about film discussion. It’s always messy. And we carry on within that messiness because the conversation, rightfully, never ends.

*It should be noted that Serafini argued that he hates seeing a slot wasted when legitimate horror films are struggling for attention. I see where he’s coming from, but I also don’t think there were a lot of “legitimate horror” films this year that were top 10 material. If anything, I would have put Sinister on my Top 10 in lieu of Chronicle. Neither of those films really “needs” my attention.

**I don’t want to put words in Brian’s mouth here, it’s more than possible he made the analogy as an offhand comparison that wasn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. Still, it’s what got me thinking abut this piece in the first place.



  • Aaron Emery

    Thanks Evan, very nice piece. I couldn’t agree more with both if those titles. THE GREY was dark, atmospheric, suspenseful, and intense. Lets face it, it was a movie about people being eaten alive by wolves, that’s pretty horrifying.
    I saw CHRONICLE more as a character study rather than a superhero/ origin story. It showed the slow destruction of the mind after these powers were acquired and ended with complete mayhem.
    I had the same argument about the film WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, which is a shockingly realistic and disturbing story told in the style of a drama film, but does that make the content any less unsettling/ scary? There is so many ways to utilize other genres while telling a basic horror story, it’s definitely something worth discussing rather than putting out a definitive answer. Thanks again Evan! 🙂

  • EvanDickson


  • anezka

    I have a database I add all films I have, with some film information, as director and runtime, and personal opinion if I liked the film or not. One of the things I have to fill is genre and it didn’t take long for me to create an “undefined” category. Sometimes is just too difficult to classify in one genre. And sometimes you know that you are classifying in the “main genre” but it has many elements of others.
    In my opinion, genre is a very personal classification. A drama might have scared the hell out of you for some reason, so is it wrong to classify as horror just because it didn’t scare all viewers?

  • Ray-Pye

    yeah, how many “pure horror” films can you come up with actually? most films are genre hybrids: horror-thriller, horror-comedy etc.

  • joesey

    I can see grey as being a survivalist horror movie, but chronicle is not horror. it’s scifi perhaps or action but not horror-I wasn’t scared or creeped out by this movie and neither was anyone that I know who’s seen this film. I hope you’re not comparing this to Carrie at least with Carrie, the tone was set, the atmosphere and what she went through was way more than the kid in chronicle and at least you can have sympathy with the characters in Carrie. Chronicle felt like a bunch of whiny teenagers who gain powers. I felt nothing towards these characters and whether it was the acting or the script or both, it just became annoying after awhile. It’s not a horror movie, it’s barely a thriller

  • EvanDickson

    @joesey I compare elements of it to CARRIE, but yes – tonally CARRIE “feels” more horror for sure.

  • joesey

    glad to see someone mentioning The Road, the ghost car alone was pretty creepy.

  • WalkingDeadGuy

    I always appreciate when you guys cover films that may not be “straight horror”. You’re never going to make everyone happy. I think you guys have been pretty spot-on with what you choose to cover. I say, if your gut tells you some of your viewers might enjoy it, showcase it 🙂

    If not for you guys, I may have not watched ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’, which appears to be a drama at first glance, but its one of the most intriguingly suspenseful character studies I’ve seen in a while.

    • Aaron Emery

      This site is the only site that brough MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE to my attention! Very grateful for that!

  • EvanDickson

    Thanks very much guys!

  • Seal_Clubber

    One older movie that I think highlights the problem with defining most movies in a single genre is Trainspotting. One of the most terrible, horrifying moments that I have ever experienced in any movie is the scene where they walk into the babys room and find the child, lying on its side, grey and dead. My stomach still drops just thinking of it. That movie is a horror movie

  • undertaker78

    I feel horror needs to be highlighted, regardless if you feel it had enough attention. There is no way Chronicle should take a slot that should go to something like Sinister (assuming you liked it).

    Can you imagine a horror list consisting of films like: Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Contraband and Battleship? Just because people die doesn’t make it horror.

    If horror isn’t the main genre, or a very close second, then it doesn’t belong on a horror list. I say if you didn’t even like 10 horror movies then only include the amount you feel deserves mentioning.

    • WalkingDeadGuy

      That’s the point of the article, defining something as “horror” can be very subjective at times, therefore, they must have felt it did have some horror elements.

      I also think ‘Chronicle’ should have made the list, it’s hard to pinpoint what it is that makes me categorize it as a genre film, but it’s different than any other superhero movie in that its main focus is not on action/adventure and saving innocent people from villains who want to take over the world, but more on how this bullied kid handles his new powers while trying to grip with his inner demons (as mentioned above, very similar to Carrie).

  • ThunderDragoon

    Thanks so much for writing Chronicle into this article. It’s definitely in my top 3 films of 2012 and I love it so much. And I would definitely consider it as a genre film. Great article, man.

  • My own definition of horror: when a movie, in an effectively unsettling way, exploits the inner demons of nature, man and the unknown. There is the traditional sense of the word, of course. But aren’t there any horrors in life besides slashers, zombies, monsters and ghosts? I thought so.

  • Melissa

    I hate the term thriller. Hollywood tries to classify films in many different ways to the audience but in the end it is confusing. It should be simplified
    Comedy-Is all out comedy. Hybrid’s are not allowed. If it’s an action flick that has comedy it’s an Action flick. Let’s face it. You watch it because it’s action not that it’s a comedy. Same goes for Horror Comedies.
    Mystery/suspense-Non-violent murder mystery stories or suspense stories where there is something that needs uncovered or conspiracy. More of slow burning not action packed.
    Action-Does there need to be an explanation? Action is something where there is a lot of action. It has to be on earth or in water. It can also be versus normal nature not super natural or nature going crazy that’s horror.
    Adventure/fantasy-Adventure and Fantasy should be mythology, non horror supernatural, super hero’s etc..
    Sci-fi-If it is in space it is sci fi. If it is an alien on earth it’s sci-fi. End of story.
    Drama/Romance-If it is a serious film that’s just touching then it’s drama. Drama should be possible real life situations. Romance will also go here only because with romance there is always drama. If it is a drama/comedy it still becomes a drama. Plus the ladies who love their chick flicks can go to the same place for all their movies and I know I can just avoid the section all together.
    Horror-Giallo films (Violent murder mystery)Hollywood managed to take this and spin it into week teen slashers which fall into horror not thriller, Supernatural horror, serial killers, ghosts, demons, with craft, zombies, etc. I think we know the rules.

    Movies that fall into the grey area only fall there due to way too many categories. We try to put it in a area that will seem more appealing.

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