At the end of “Scream 4,” the screen cuts away from the killer’s face to black, and Ida Maria’s “Bad Karma” starts to play: “You better believe in karma / Baby it’s gonna sting / The wheel of life’s gonna do you in / So I don’t really have to do a thing.” As a viewer, you smile and relish in the fact that the killer finally got their comeuppance. Sure, it came after two hours of meaningless deaths, cheap jump scares and gallons of fake blood, but justice has prevailed, and karma, along with it.
I wasn’t raised on horror movies and the gaps in my catalogue of films are extensive: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are all on my to-watch list. Rather, I started getting into them in late high school. I was sitting on a bed at my friend’s house, completely enthralled watching the first “Scream” movie, when I got my first college acceptance letter. My friends and I spent weekends in our senior year watching slasher and psychological horrors, shielding each other’s eyes from the goriness onscreen. My horror movie knowledge is much more based on watching contemporary horror flicks, like the “Purge” series, “Babadook” or “Cabin in the Woods.”
What is so appealing about horror movies, anyway? It’s the same storyline over and over again, merely switching locations between an abandoned campground or an asylum or the garage at the house party of the year. The killer inevitably reaches the teenagers who run up the stairs instead of out of the front door, or kids who think splitting up won’t result in getting picked off one-by-one. It’s a trope-filled genre and all new films are measured by whether they've created anything innovative or have fallen into the same old patterns. And since the first horror movie was released in the 1890s, it’s getting pretty hard to do anything new. Why else would we be getting an 11th “Halloween” installment?
Horror films seem to exist in an alternative universe, where good and evil are clearly defined and the killer is always defeated. A couple dozen people might get killed in the process, but the deaths never feel serious. When Michael Meyers stabs an unsuspecting babysitter with a kitchen knife, nobody sheds a tear. Even in the most realistic of horror flicks, when the killers aren’t reanimated, morality feels like a completely alien concept. You’re usually rooting for the killer at the beginning of the movie, but still cheer when they finally get what’s coming to them.
I recently saw “Creepshow” at the Carolina Theatre as a part of their Splatterflix film festival. It’s a series of five short films, all written by Stephen King, two adapted from short stories he had written. The film was entertaining for the exact opposite reason most movies succeed: You can’t identify with any of the characters and the plots are tenuous at best. At most, it’s an interesting look into an alien world, where anything and everything can happen — even if it involves thousands of cockroaches or an Arctic monster locked in a crate.
Perhaps the most popular trope of horror movies is the final girl. It’s been observed in movies from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to “Scream.” After the group is picked off one-by-one, the final girl confronts the killer and holds them off. The girl has to be left alive to tell the story, even if they’re going to be immediately killed or incapacitated in a sequel. It is unclear whether the final girl trope is a feminist concept or not. On one hand, a young teenage girl can hold off an older, usually male, villain, and prevails. However, a man usually shows up to finish the killer off and save the day. Carol J. Clover coined the term in 1992, and argued that viewers first identify with the killer, but then shift to sharing the perspective of the final girl.
Maybe horror movies have lasted so long because you always want the final girl to win. Even if she’s hopelessly outmatched, she gets through based on a cunning scheme and quite a bit of luck. You identify with her and want her to succeed, despite all odds.
In the horror movie universe, we can believe that right will always prevail over wrong — no matter what the cost — and sheer determination and wit can save you at the end.
That is, until someone wants to make a sequel.
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