Why Is Supernatural Horror So Hard To Get Right?

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One of my favorite horror movies from last year was James Wan’s The Conjuring. I just watched it for the third time this weekend, showing it to someone who had yet to see it, and I was surprised by how easy it was for me to reinvest in the film. Especially since it can flatly be categorized among my least favorite of the horror subgenres – the supernatural thriller.

Sure, you’ve got classics like The Exorcist and Kubrick’s take on The Shining but those rise so far above the bar I’m not sure I’d include them in the genre. Analytically, of course they belong. But I have to work really hard to even remind myself of that because the bulk of movies where “things go bump in the night” (and it may be the total absence of such a trope that helps elevate the Exorcist and Shining for me) are flat out f*cking boring. Even the ones that work for me generally have very little replay value. Something like 2001′s The Others, I remember how amazing Nicole Kidman was in it – I remember the twist ending – and I remember being fairly engaged by the whole thing. Yet, 13 years later, I have absolutely zero desire to spend another 2 hours wandering around that house being quiet with her family. Will I ever watch The Grudge again? Nope. What about Mama? Probably not.

And those are the really good ones! We get a lot of screeners at the site and the vast majority of them seem to be leaning towards supernatural these days. I’m talking a lot of low budget stuff that makes dreck like The Haunting In Connecticut 2: The Ghosts Of Georgia – one of the most painfully dull “respectable” movies in recent memory – seem like Terminator 2. There are only a handful of greats like Poltergeist, and for every one of them there are thousands of barely watchable forays into the unknown.

“But every genre is like that,” you say. And you’re right. The main difference is almost every other genre has some narrative thrust. Their stories are required to move. Not supernatural horror, which is a genre predicated on being as slow and methodical as possible. Except most times the filmmakers leave out the “methodical” part and concentrate solely on the “slow” aspect. This usually means we get to spend the running length of any given supernatural entry watching the director spin their wheels, setting up long shots with zero significance, lulling us to sleep and expecting us to be thankful the minute something even remotely kinetic happens – like a match blowing out, an occurrence that in relation to the rest of the film is practically the third act of a Michael Bay movie.

Even the very worst slashers, replete with stalk and slash scenarios that never pay off, have more to offer. At the very least they have brighter lighting and the internal obligation to kill off a few characters. Supernatural horror often aims for stately, deliberate and classy pleasures – and falls short on every count. I’d rather watch something incompetent and obnoxious than a polite bore any day of the week. Which sort of dovetails into my new cardinal rule, “don’t be boring.” Even if your movie has ghosts, even if it’s about things that go bump in the night, even if it’s a “slow burn” – it doesn’t have to be dull.

What makes The Conjuring work is the fact that it has a story to tell and it goes through the effort of drawing and developing its characters into three dimensional beings. We invest as an audience, and therefore we care about the peril that is created (it also doesn’t hurt that Wan is a master of making otherwise banal moments suspenseful and terrifying). That’s what makes Poltergeist, The Exorcist and The Shining work as well. They have actual stories to tell. That’s it, really.

If you have enough story for a movie, make it. If you don’t, make a short.

 
  • woodchuck

    I feel like I watched a version of The Conjuring from an alternate universe or something because I seem to be the only person who thought it was nothing but another dull, played out supernatural thriller just like the ones we see all the time. I don’t see why it’s so well received, I thought it was just another run of the mill haunted house movie about a vengeful ghost.

    • Necrocrypt

      It’s nice to see someone else thinks The Conjuring is dross.It felt really one dimensiona, like Wan went, “We need to write another ghost/possession story”. “How about…..em, insidious in the …em,70′s?”. Horror light to me. The militant in me want to tell anyone who thinks it’s good to, “leave horror to the adults”. HA ha. What was hard to understand, was that most of the horror sites were putting it in their best of 2013. WTF! So you work/write for a site dedicated to horror with access to some of the best/original underground horror kicking about and The Conjuring is in your top 10 or even No.1?

  • Bumper1

    Surely supernatural is the heart of horror, isn’t ghosts & ghouls what it’s all about.

    I think there are too many films masked as horror just because they have abit of violence in them, especially at genre festivals.

    More effort should be put in too make more supernatural movie too the standard of poltergeist & the conjuring.

  • K-Dogg

    I freaking loved The Conjuring….One thing I think they did so well is make you care about the characters, so that when the shit hit the fan, you felt for them so much. Vera Farmiga rules and Patrick Wilson was excellent as well, really helping the film.

    • EvanDickson

      Loved it too.

  • pyrepunk

    I loved The Conjuring for it’s atmosphere, I didn’t like the ending though. Supernatural films all seem to try and spit out the same thing again and again while saying oh look our version of this that has been done 20 times before is scarier than this one. Something original is direly in need when it comes to supernatural horror films which isn’t going to happen with the way big movie companies are running things, they’re gonna make a quick buck not a good film.

  • djblack1313

    for me the most overt thing missing in supernatural/ghost/etc (and horror movies in general) is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere!! movies like THE CHANGELING, Carpenter’s THE FOG, even SILENT HILL (the 1st movie), etc, have excellent atmosphere and that atmosphere sets a palpable, effective tone/vibe.

    and STOP WITH THE FUCKING STUPID/TAKES NO TALENT TO CREATE JUMP SCARES!! i’m sorry but the Paranormal Activity movies are the prime examples of how horrible and nearly ruined supernatural/ghost stories are these days.

    also, a strong, non-bland music score (no rock band songs please) that fits that movie it’s in is ESSENTIAL. imagine how less effective John Carpenter’s earlier movies (THE THING, THE FOG, HALLOWEEN, etc) would have been without those respective scores.

    oh and did i mention ENOUGH WITH THE HACK/NO TALENT TO CREATE JUMP SCARES? lol.

    • http://mitchmacready.blogspot.com/ Zombie-Killa

      @djblack1313 Excellent post!!!!!!!! And I agree 100% with jump scares & Paranormal Activity, especially Paranormal Activity! lol.

  • Jasonicus

    You lost me at Mama being one of the really good ones. That movie was laughably bad.

    • EvanDickson

      It’s good compared to a lot of the junk I watch.

  • dpcraig

    Evan, everything you desire is exactly why the bulk of scripts filmed don’t deliver. There are formulas many producers want to hold to, many of them want an opening/hook scene with gore or jumps and most don’t understand suspense very well, either. They think to be in suspense is to be bored because they are “waiting” in their seat for something to happen. I kid you not. I’ve had these conversations. I don’t subscribe so well to the formulas, and so, I will remain mostly a ghostwriter/script doctor you never really hear about and/or that guy that sometimes someone does an original from. Oh, and even worse…the distributors out there aren’t helping, either.

  • Cezseldher

    “If you have enough story for a movie, make it. If you don’t, make a short.” -> THIS.

    One of the big problems I have with movies that, had to do with a family dealing with something supernatural, is that the story sometimes it’s full with “noise”. Stuff like parents getting a divorce, bad relationships between parents and children, bad relationships between the siblings. And these situations would actually be great if they were trying to make some character develop in the film, but, no, usually I feel like they push these situations to make the film longer. At the end of the day, they don’t make sense and don’t add anything to the story.

    What I mean is that, some movies dealing with something supernatural, make you feel like that’s the second plot on the movie, not the most important one. That’s what I like about The Conjuring, it didn’t lose the perspective of “We are telling a haunted house story”.

  • http://mitchmacready.blogspot.com/ Zombie-Killa

    Yeah, I enjoyed Mama the first time around, but man oh man it was a CHORE to sit through on the second watch.

    That’s a BIG problem with the vast majority of mainstream horror films now a days: there’s no rewatch value, at all. Paranormal Activity is the worst example, because they rely on jump scares for 85% of the movie, so when you watch the movie a second time, there’s no shock value whatsoever.

    And for the love of all things holy can we stop with the constant barrage of possession/exorcism horror films every year?

    It feels like a cliche now, because year after year (Devil’s Due in January for this year, although I didn’t hate the movie as much as a I thought I would. But it’s a Rosemary’s Baby clone, and it’s almost impossible to ignore the similarities ) we get the SAME movie: usually it’s a woman, girl, or some creepy little kid, who’s possessed by a demon or an evil entity. A bunch of weird, supernatural shit happens throughout the movie. Family and friends can’t figure out what’s going on, and to end the movie, they figure out the solution to the problem…..an exorcism! It’s the same tired formula EVERY year.

    Speaking of exorcisms, I’ll laugh of my ass off if Paranormal Activity concludes with an exorcism as a solution to ALL the problems with Katie, Kristi, and the coven of witches. Imagine that, waiting for a payoff after five or six films and a spin-off to see an exorcism as the solution. It’ll be the greatest troll job of all time. lol.

    • Evan3

      @Zombie-killa …. are there actually people waiting for a payoff to Paranormal Activity?

      • http://mitchmacready.blogspot.com/ Zombie-Killa

        Ha. Yeah, I guess, the group of twenty something hardcore fans they have left are waiting for some real answers. lol.

  • Evan3

    @EvanDickson

    I agree with you that a lot of the stuff in this sub-genre is a boring mess with little waiting at the end of the tunnel. But come on man, you gotta show some love for Devil’s Backbone! It’s up there with Exorcist and Shining in the quality department, wouldn’t you agree?

  • tjodalv666

    I agree. I am sick to death of the 3rd rate so called ‘supernatural horror’ films that have been coming forth out of Hollywood. The reason why they do it is because the younger generation eat it up like it’s the best treat in the world. They get a jolt and then they laugh about it. There is one movie that no one has mentioned from what I perused in these comments and it’s the fact that there is one supernatural film, in my opinion happens to be one of the most terrifying of all. Not The Exorcist and certainly not The Shining, but I am referring to 1981′s The Entity starring Barbera Hershey. That is the ONE film that touches on the paranormal subject that will set one on edge. If you watch this alone at night in the dark, it literally sucks you into it. I will be the first to admit the ending is a kind of let down, but all events leading up to it are rather tense.
    Another thing I feel I must point out is the fact that in all these new films, they always dole out the same rigamaro about’orbs and evp’ and such and they kind of play a repetitiveness. It’s unnerving.
    I feel someone needs to step up to the plate and get back to basics…SIMPLE ghost story telling. Stop relying on such big budget special effects to cause a simple scare. What we don’t see is what scares us the most. It’s what leaves us thinking and wondering at the end. It shouldn’t end with people coming out of the movie and saying ‘Oh wow, those special effects were sooo scary!.’ It should be where people come out and say to themselves or one another ‘What is really going on in our world?’
    Sorry for the long post. ><

  • LuJr81

    Well let me start off by saying I am a gorehound, so I generally stay away from PG-13 supernatural films cause as you addressed in the article they can be pretty fucking boring. But The Conjuring was great(although not PG13)IMO and I also enjoyed Insidious, James Wan is truly a gifted director.But I must say I thought Insidious 2 is one of his worst films, that film really disappointed me, it just didn’t have the atmosphere of the original. And now they’re gonna make another, I hope he comes back strong.I also loved Sinister, that shot with Mr.Boogie in the pool was just creepy as hell. Other than that I can’t say I like any other new supernatural films. So I guess Ill stick to my gorefests for the most part lol

    • horrorking95

      Sinister is disgustingly underrated! Where is the love for that film? It’s one of the best modern supernatural films. I think it’s much better than The Conjuring. The atmosphere, acting and story are all top notch. I find it very unsettling and the twist is sent shivers up my spine! Love it!

      • joeshmo447

        Yeah man in all honesty I love sinister! For me that’s the best recent horror movie made, the atmosphere and tension was great and when he watched the tapes you held your breath!

  • joeshmo447

    You won’t watch the grudge?? The only reason I won’t watch it is because it scarred the shit outta me! It’s such a dark disturbing movie tht gives me the creeps every time. And true the supernatural horror is pretty hard to get but it’s not like people haven’t done good with it. A good one you should defiantly check out is The Pact on netflix

  • aphroditeboy

    Really this “article” is just an opinion piece and should be forwarded as such. I don’t dislike reading things I disagree with necessarily, but I do dislike reading a personal blog post presented as an article. I too have seen ‘The Conjuring,’ and thought very little of it’s rather uninspired repetition of genre tropes. Jump scares and decent (not great) acting aside, it really doesn’t add anything to the supernatural horror sub-genre or present us with anything new that we haven’t ever seen before. And everything that it does, has been done with superior caliber in other films. Even ‘The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh’ (which is not a great film by any means) has stronger atmospheric tension than ‘The Conjuring.’ Wan’s strongest film remains the first ‘Insidious,’ as the sequel did basically what he did with ‘The Conjuring’ – just took as many tropes as he could and tried to string them all together with dental floss. Yes, his films have been successful, but there is nothing about them that screams ‘modern classic’ and the stories he tells, although stronger than some C or D list films, are not particularly engaging or complex. Instead of being consistent, his stories usually suffer from several tangential strands that are nether fully developed nor particularly relevant to the overall conclusion. So regardless of whether or not you want to watch ‘The Others’ again because you did not feel as invested in the storyline or the ‘three-dimensionality’ of the characters, and even repeating ‘The Sixth Sense’ plot twist, I abhor the idea that it should be thought of as inferior to something as mundane and common-place as ‘The Conjuring.’

  • dosgtr

    That’s just like, your opinion, man