5 Horror Movie Sub-Genres That Just Won't Die
What would you say is the greatest horror movie of all time that doesn't involve post-2010 Mel Gibson in a starring role? Is it about sharks? Nazis? Flying sharks? Nazis riding flying sharks? Those are all scary things, to be sure. So why does horror spend so much time on things that aren't scary at all? Things like ...
Thanks to Stephen King's It, and then some years later Stephen King's Other It, and then 2019's It Again, no one likes goddamn clowns. It's not just It, but It didn't help. There's a pretty long tradition of clowns in horror. Sid Haig's unhygienic Captain Spaulding is a major part of Rob Zombie's trilogy of terror which started with House Of 1,000 Corpses. Three From Hell includes even more clowns. And Zombie took a detour from that series to make 2016's 31, which is again all about murder clowns. The guy really likes clowns. Or hates them.
So what's the deal with clowns, anyway? In 2016, clown sightings blew up, as if they were somehow not a real thing and spotting one was a newsworthy event. The phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page. But who the hell is legitimately afraid of clowns? Not just "doesn't like clowns," but is afraid of them? I don't like clowns because I'm not a bonny lad from 1836 with an oversized lolly and nothing but cholera to play with. Of course I don't like clowns. Movies love the goddamn things, though.
Yeah, that's a movie about a tornado full of cannibal clowns. That sound you hear is Oscar buzz.
Sharks, zombies, and vampires were never traditionally hired for birthday parties, so their place in horror is easy to wrap your head around. Clowns? Well that's just silly.
If there's one thing horror loves, it's perverting the innocent into something evil. That's likely part of the reason for so many clowns, it's part of the reason people keep making movies about sinister children, and it's why we can't seem to escape sinister dolls. No matter how hard we beat this genre with the shovel of overexposure, those dolls keep getting back up, and we keep paying to see them. Even when the doll does literally nothing.
Child's Play is clearly the most famous movie in this category. Its resultant franchise is so popular that it broke history in a way no other movie ever has. Child's Play, as far as anyone can tell, is the first and only series to ever be rebooted while the original is still going. That means there are two Child's Play timelines now going on -- the original with Brad Dourif as Chucky, and the reboot with Mark Hamill. And good for those franchises, because f*ck that doll. Little shit. But at least Chucky's the big gun, and if anyone were to kill the evil doll movie, it should have been him and his overalls.
Instead the genre blossomed like a kombucha SCOBY, all rancid and weird. Annabelle spun off from the Conjuring movies, by now one of the most popular horror franchises ever. The first two Annabelle films alone pulled in nearly $200 million. You'll notice that in those two movies, and the Conjuring movie in which she first appears, the doll itself never actually does anything. That's a conscious choice by the filmmakers, sure, and we know why it's evil still and all that jazz, but that doll could be a log of bologna and it wouldn't change the story in any way.
Dolls have killed their way through Demonic Toys and the massive Puppet Master franchise, the cleverly named '80s horror Dolls, Dead Silence, Dolly Dearest, and this classic nugget:
But no doll movie is more worthy of a stern and perplexed head shake than The Boy -- which is actually in this article twice because it somehow screws up two different sub-genres at once. The doll in The Boy gets a solid 85 minutes of screen time to convince you it's haunted, and then shits on that with the reveal that it was only a regular doll the entire time. It had no powers, no ghost, no demon, no curse, not even a family of rats inside it making its legs twitch. It's just a doll. And in 2019, the movie gets a sequel with the same goddamn doll which was never haunted in the first place.
If we've gotten to the point where the dolls aren't even unnaturally animated killing machines, then what the hell are we making doll movies for? You know what a non-killing doll is? Just a doll. We have those already. You can find them at Walmart. You don't need to have movies about them.
This is as good a time as any to point out that this whole list isn't dumping on "bad" horror. Some of these are great movies. But isn't it weird that we still make movies like The Witch or the Suspiria remake, ones that use evil magic women as a focal point? When's the last time you ran afoul of a witch?
Now, you could say "Well, when's the last time you ran afoul of a zombeaver?" And I would agree with that, while touting how delightful the movie Zombeavers is. But unlike a zombeaver, as far as I know, witches were real. Witches are real. And also as a society, we sort of murdered and persecuted witches mercilessly for many a year. (As well as regular women whom people decided were witches to justify torture and killing.)
I can't think of another genre that takes what's generally regarded as a black spot in history, during which innocent people were slaughtered, and says "Yeah, that seems about right" and runs with it. The old Western trope of cowboys killing Natives has largely been abandoned for that reason. And when we make movies about World War II, they don't typically take the Nazis' side. But we seem to really like the idea that witches are totally evil, and it's a good thing we kill the shit out of them.
Someone once told me to not use the term "hillbilly" in my writing, because it's pejorative and insulting to the people of rural Appalachia. Well, two things about that: 1) I never presumed to only be talking about rural Appalachia, and 2) When you're discussing the hillbilly horror sub-genre, it seems clear that the least insulting part of this whole thing is the name. Somewhat more off-putting is the pervasive idea that people in the country are waiting for you to get lost on a road trip so they can eat your goddamn legs.
Hillbilly horror is remarkably popular, with Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most prominent example. Of course, there's also The Hills Have Eyes, the Wrong Turn franchise, and House Of 1,000 Corpses again. What do all of those movies have in common? Goddamn cannibals. And you'd think people in rural communities are less likely to be cannibals, since they have all that farmland around. Coupled with the actual scarcity of tasty city folks, it all falls apart. You can't just eat all your neighbors and then rely on tasty tourists; it's not a sustainable way to feed.
The other thing the hillbilly genre brings to the table is incest. There's a lot of it in these movies, either explicit or implied. That's born from the somewhat common insult that people in rural areas are prone to that sort of thing, by now an old cliche. So again, we're treading in witch-like territory, where this genre exploits a really worn, insulting stereotype for the sake of creeping out suburban audiences. Look at the country folk! They'll f*ck their brothers and then eat your face off!
Again, not shitting on the actual movies here. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a classic, and The Hills Have Eyes is highly underrated. It's just weird that for about 30 years now, there's been such a strong market for cousin-porking cannibals with severe social issues, right?
No one likes the idea of a stranger in their home, because that's where you're most comfortable pooping. The whole "The call is coming from inside the house!" thing, which dates all the way back to 1979's When A Stranger Calls, kind of makes sense. We still have home invasions, right? But it truly gets weird when this genre focuses in on elaborate ghost squatters.
As far as I know, when you have a stranger actively living in your house, they do tend to try to stay hidden. This is a real thing that happens sometimes, and boy howdy is that crazy as hell. But any good horror story has to take reality and make it weirder, so instead of just a hobo in your attic who creeps out at night to eat your canned beans, you get movies like Housebound or Netflix's infuriatingly awful Open House, which spend their full run time convincing you there's actually a ghost in the house, then it turns out it's just some rando. This is a pretty solid bait and switch that you'll see frequently.
The Boy spends its run time assuring us that Brahms, an entirely preposterous doll that a woman is hired to babysit as if it were a real boy, is in fact a real boy. Or rather, possessed by the ghost of a real boy. The real Brahms died years ago, his parents kept this doll and treat it like it's 100% alive, and spooky shit ensues. It's implied that the doll is not only evil, but weirdly in love with and/or going to murder his babysitter. Well, that's fine. Except up yours audience, it's not true. At the end we find out Brahms never died; he's just eating fish heads in the attic.
All the ghostly hullabaloo in the movie was from a real and clearly off-his-rocker fellow living in the walls for ... reasons? I feel like maybe the movie tried to explain it, but my brain expunged it immediately, like a tissue mismatch during a transplant. Whatever the backstory, there he is. A guy squatting in his own goddamn house, apparently for years. And they made a sequel! The first movie exposes the doll as a fake, reveals the nutter in the walls, and then also murders him. Part Two must be the most amazing story ever told, and I can't wait to see it.
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