'Scariness' Is an Overrated Value for a Horror Film

The Witch
The Witch, a movie that should be getting more awards season buzz
February 22, 2016

At the risk of sounding like a mindless contrarian, allow me to suggest that judging a horror film solely by how often it makes you jump in your seat is a rather uninteresting way of assessing its quality. As Matt Zoller Seitz put it:

The best horror films aren't those that shock the prudes with their over-the-top sights and sounds. The best horror films are those that force you to consider what the characters themselves find horrifying. The best horror films disconcert and disturb you, take you out of your comfort zone, make you reconsider what you and the rest of the world find frightening.

I can hear the rebuttals forming: "We'd never say a comedy doesn't have to be funny or that a thriller doesn't need suspense, you're just saying this because you hate horror films." That last bit's not wrong, exactly! I certainly kind of hate what horror has become, with every month bringing a found footage Paranormal Activity knockoff or a jump-scare laden schlockfest in the vein of Sinister or The Conjuring. Some of these are done with more care and craft than others, but they're all kind of the same.

Which is why it's so nice when we get a movie like The Witch, one that stands out because its setting is different and its style is different and its acting is different (i.e., good). The Witch also appears to be a rather classic example of what I sometimes refer to as "interesting cinema"—that is, a movie that appeals to critics because it's a bit different than the usual stuff in the multiplexes but can annoy audiences for much the same reason. You can quantify just how "interesting" it is by comparing the film's Rotten Tomatoes score (a very good 88 percent fresh!) to its CinemaScore poll of opening weekend viewers (a very bad C-minus).

And you get a sense of why that disconnect has occurred by scanning Twitter for reactions from the hoi polloi. They were, simply, not scared.

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Mallory's complaint—not just that The Witch wasn't scary but that the only way you could have liked it is if you're a "pretentious douche who wants to appear intelligent"—is a relatively common one. Jason Coffman notes in an essay for Medium on the topic that "this is why we can't have nice things." As Coffman writes, The Witch isn't the only film from fans of the genre to be denigrated for not resorting to cheap scares; The Babadook and It Follows received similar drubbings. This sort of anti-intellectualism is not a good look for people who claim to enjoy horror films:

What makes this exceptionally frustrating is not the fact of dissent itself — anyone is entitled to their own opinion and feelings toward any film — but that these detractors have targeted three films that work within the genre but are also examples of how genre cinema can explore concepts and themes in ways that less fantastic stories cannot. In short, the rejection of these films appears to people outside of horror fandom as a rejection of cinema as an art form. Critics and cinephiles in general tend to dismiss genre cinema wholesale, and genre fans as well, and seeing members of the community react to these films with such violent negativity only reinforces their image of the "horror fan" as a slack-jawed dullard whose only interests are sex and gore.

The notion that The Witch isn't "scary" is a rather baffling one to me. Sure, it's low on gore and violence and the number of "BOO!" moments are few. But it is as tense a film as I've seen in some time. The family of Puritans who populate the picture are living on the literal edge of the world and suffering from attacks by a super-powered hell beast that they cannot see and think may be living under their own roof. If that isn't unsettling, I don't know what is.

If all it takes to scare you is geysers of blood and the camera alighting upon an unexpected sight whilst the score shrieks at you as if to say "hey, goober, this is a scary thing!" then I have to say I feel some pity for you. You're probably one of those people who feels no fear at the thought of setting foot in the Overlook Hotel and experiences no existential dread at the thought of a possessed child climbing the ceiling.

And you should probably skip The Witch. Don't worry. I'm sure there's another found footage flick hitting theaters soon.