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Fearing for Fear Itself

By Zachary Finch

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Sweaty, jumpy, whispering to the characters onscreen and holding his breath at the same time – the guy next to you in the theater looks like he’s going to get in your lap the second we see the monster. We’ve all been there, but I used to be that guy.

I didn’t always enjoy horror films because I didn’t ‘get it’ – the thrill of leaping involuntarily from the couch or the laughter following that pitiful cry of terror – and so sitting through all the jumps, scares and stomach-turning special effects never seemed worth it to me, until about three years ago. Thanks to the unlikely combination of my passions for zombies and unorthodox cinematography, I was finally reeled in and began making my rounds, devouring seasons of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, and surviving through classics like The Ring (2002) and Paranormal Activity (2007). Once I had watched most of the greats recommended to me and felt a bit caught up after years of disinterest, I turned my exploration to new releases and contemporary hits, and was surprised by what I saw.

Fans of contemporary horror films and television like myself have been nearly overwhelmed as of late – we’ve been allowed to choose between a slough of films and television shows centering around vampires, zombies and the paranormal in general  – as well as a number of adaptations, revivals and parts 3’s and 4’s that have steadily flowed into theaters over the past couple of years. I’ve been a happy (and scared) camper looking through listings late at night, but recently through my viewings I’ve come to realize and must admit that content seems to be getting a little played out. Recently I’ve seen some original films that have been downright terrifying (The Conjuring [2013], Grave Encounters [2011]), and these are the films that have helped make me a fan of the genre. But it seems that films like World War Z (2013) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), and shows like The Vampire Diaries, Bitten and The Originals, – all spin-offs, remakes or sequels that contribute very little new content or form to horror cinema – have seen much more media attention and overall commercial success in the recent past.

World War Z, Marc Forster’s adaptation of the eponymous Max Brooks novel, reached a number two position just below Jaws for Top Grossing US Horror Title last yearaccording to the Internet Movie Database, an impressive (and totally undeserved, in my opinion) feat on its own despite the moderate success of the book and Brad Pitt’s leading role in the film. The novel’s intriguing 1st-person account style was largely thrown to the wind, a mere vessel for CGI zombie hordes and the dazzle of a long-haired Pitt dashing ‘round the world to save humanity. However, it saddens me to admit that next to films like Warm Bodies, – a zom-rom-com from early 2013 – World War Z is definitely one of the better zombie films of the year.

The Paranormal Activity and Insidious series’ both released sequels in 2013, and with continued additions to both franchises slated for 2014/15 releases, and it looks like we can expect more of the same with only slight variation in the future. Matched up against James Wan’s The Conjuring – a run-of-the-mill haunting story that was shot and produced with attention and deliberation to the formal tropes of horror – these sequels are clearly just that – expansions on a story that don’t really take us anywhere new. Viewers have some choices when it comes time to pick a ghost story, but the tropes of the genre are becoming as see-through as their ghostly antagonists with each rendition, and it really comes down to detail when stacking these films up against each other. As far as Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Insidious: Chapter 3 are concerned I can’t help but think of the Saw franchise and its astoundingly redundant series of six sequels, and hope these films don’t follow the same path.

On the other hand, popular network series aren’t giving me much hope either. The primetime giants that began my trek through horror, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, have topped charts since their inception and have made dramatic motions to keep their stories new and fresh – killing off characters we thought safe, changing locations frequently, bringing in guest stars like Stevie Nicks – but a massive torrent of popular shows focusing on teenage vampires, werewolves, witches, and similarly gifted and/or misunderstood adolescents have sprung up to capitalize on the feeding frenzy Twilight started back in 2008. I shy away from the likes of Teen Wolf and Vampire Academy – and perhaps I should investigate before condemning these look-alikes to redundancy as well – but I can almost see the dollar signs in the eyes of directors working on shows like these. The math is too visible – after the success of Twilight, True Blood and others, who wouldn’t want to cash in? There have always been and always will be spin-offs to accompany the truly great renditions of horror mythology, but I’m taken aback seeing these thinly-veiled copies sucked up so ravenously like so much watered-down blood.

American Horror Story has, for two glorious seasons, been my relief in the face of frustrations such as these. We’ve seen zombies, witches, aliens, mutants, Nazi surgeons, naughty nuns, Satan, homicidal jazz musicians and latex-wearing murder-ghosts over the course of the show, and one can’t help but applaud heartily (while holding down one’s dinner) at the dizzying and disorienting cinematography and editing employed in the show. This wonderful series’ latest season, however, took a major turn towards its second half, and even – dare I say it – ended on a quaintly positive note, leaving some viewers, myself included, confused and unsure about its future. Without spoiling anything for those yet to view, I will say that laid alongside endings from Seasons 1 and 2, American Horror Story: Coven was downright tame – yes many of the familiar faces we’ve grown to love over the course of the show met their demise in the ending episodes, but these deaths felt too forced – loose ends tied up hurriedly as if the finale took its makers by surprise – and were not, in my opinion, worthy of the Horror Story moniker. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help worrying that this may signify the birth of American Teen Witch Drama Story.

Perhaps a fresher set of eyes is more harsh on the field than need be – I don’t have enough critical history behind my enjoyment of the genre to understand fully the twists and turns horror has undergone throughout its many modern iterations – but few can deny the rampant trending of sequels and fanged protagonists, of dark sex appeal and retro remakes in chilling, thrilling 3D. I still have high hopes for the genre’s future, but it definitely seems like originality is harder to come by now than it was when I began enjoying my own fear.

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