Part I: Stop Trying To Be So Respectable

In May, New York magazine ran an article titled “The Zombies at AMC’s Doorstep,” arguing that the popular series The Walking Dead threatened the channel’s reputation for serious programming. “Simply a TV show about zombies,” sneered the author, comparing the series unfavorably to Mad Men.“It wasn’t even meant to be great. There wouldn’t be think pieces about it in The New York Review of Books.”

Wanna bet?

Later that month there were long think pieces in the New York Times Magazine andthe Wall Street Journal about werewolves and supernatural literature, respectively. As for the New York Review of Books, it covered zombies five years ago. Horror isn’t just for perverts and lowbrows anymore. Whether the undead pose a threat to serious art is unclear. What I’m more concerned about is the danger serious art poses to the undead.

My new book Shock Value: How a few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror,explores how horror went mainstream by revisiting the golden age that began in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead and reached its zenith in the 1970s with movies like Halloween and Alien. Today the genre is bigger, more diverse, and more lucrative than it was back then, but its films rarely shock or inspire as they once did. There are many good new scary movies, but few great ones. It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why every day this week I will offer a modest proposal to help build a better horror movie, starting today with this simple piece of advice: Stop trying to be so damn respectable!

Hollywood occasionally produces a trashy good time such as the 3-D remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Piranha, and HBO has scored big with the guilty pleasures of True Blood. Cinematic taboos are still challenged in the small-scale extreme horror subgenre populated by envelope-pushers like A Serbian Film and Human Centipede. But these movies, which have limited releases, are so ghettoized that the audiences who seek them out expect to be shocked, often responding with as many smirks as squirms. Mainstream horror movies are bloodier than ever but less inventive and thus less shocking.

No scene from a horror movie today is as startling as the act of violence against an innocent child in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 was in 1976.

It’s no surprise that the 2005 remake cut this scene out. In the golden era, films went for the throat and then worked their way down. Part of the strategy was to tap into potent fears about random urban crime, war, the Manson killings, and the other topical concerns. We have our own phobias today, and if anything they’re even more deeply felt in an era when criminals and terrorists are only as far away as the nearest cable news channel, but the horror genre hasn’t caught up with the times. Why hasn’t a movie made us as petrified of the Internet as Jaws did of the ocean? Where is the great horror movie about Sept. 11? Is that in bad taste? Perhaps. But audiences don’t see horror movies for moral improvement. They go to be scared out of their wits.

It’s an old saw that horror movies reflect the anxieties of the era in which they were made, and every work of art is, to some degree, a product of its time. Today, however, the point applies less to horror than it does to other genres. Recent low-budget hits ( Insidious, Paranormal Activity 2) play on old tropes (kids in danger, haunted houses), and the highest grossing monster movie of the year, Super 8, not only is set in the late ‘70s but includes nostalgic tributes to the early work of George Romero and John Carpenter.

The success of those pioneering artists is partly to blame for the genre’s timidity. Directors making scary movies today, even modest ones, can realistically imagine that their films will reach a huge cross-over audience. That can make a director more conservative, wary of deviating too far from the formula that has spelled past success. But something else has infected horror that is far more worrying: a creeping—and not-at-all creepy—pretentiousness.

In Glen Duncan’s new novel The Last Werewolf, which Knopf will publish later this month, the monster muses on a poem by Tennyson as he devours a young man. Last year’s studio-made sleep-inducer The Wolf Man imagines the title character as an actor who played Hamlet. Contra New York, the makers of The Walking Dead desperately want to be considered worthy by readers of the New York Review of Books. You can tell by the show’s sober pace and dedication to character development. The show constantly congratulates itself on the mundane fact that its focus is about survival rather than killing. In his introduction to the graphic novel on which the series is based, Robert Kirkman * proudly claims that his goal is not to scare anyone, as if that’s somehow beneath him, and then announces that this is the “most serious piece of work I’ve done so far in my career.”

Good zombies movies, Kirkman explains, are not about violence; they are about social commentary and character. “Give me Dawn of the Dead over Return of the Living Dead any day,” he writes. This comment makes me wish that Dan O’Bannon, who directed the latter cult classic, could return from the dead, disembowel Kirkman, rip off his limbs, and use the spare parts in a bloody game of baseball. Kirkman assumes he is making a critical distinction, but both of these movies delight in extreme violence (and irresistible camp humor). Dawn just happens to have a political message, too. Horror can certainly be discreet and cerebral and deeply moral. But it’s more at home being impolite and gross and borderline unethical. We needn’t be embarrassed if we prefer the movies that favor splatter over politics or poetry. What matters—what keeps us coming back for more—is fear, a pleasure as old as the game of peek-a-boo. Maybe we like horror movies of questionable taste because we get a perverse thrill out of something debased. Maybe it’s just because we are so addicted to goose bumps that we’ll see anything to get that feeling again. Straining to be respectable not only misjudges the nature of the genre; it robs us of one of the most potent scares you can have at the theater: the horror of realizing you love horror.

Correction, July 5, 2011: The article originally misidentified Robert Kirkman as Robert Kirkland. (Return to the corrected sentence.)