In the book Danse Macabre, Stephen King defines three levels of emotion/feeling that can be inspired in the reader/viewer. From "lowest" to "highest" these are revulsion, horror, and terror. The emotion easiest to generate within the viewer/reader is Revulsion. Revulsion is the reaction to something acutely gross or disgusting, such as slimy guts, pools of blood, heads rolling down the hall, or flaps of necrotic skin. It's the sort of thing that if seen in real life would make almost anyone gag, barf, or pass out. Human revulsion to "body horror" is near universal, and based largely in physical reactions that all people share.
King's middle level is Horror. Horror is more challenging to generate within the audience, and it happens when the audience is confronted with something so unnatural or impossible that their minds struggle to make rational sense of it. Maybe it's giant snakes with seven heads, or walking carnivorous plants, or a dead friend suddenly appearing in your room at night. This is the moment of shock, when your brain short-circuits, and you are trapped in that moment of panic in fight, freeze, or flight. It therefore has both a physical/body component and a cerebral component. Horror by this definition is difficult because not everyone finds the same things to be unnatural, nor at the same level of implausibility. Also, if you are using a typical trope for the genre then the audience may not feel horror - it will be too "natural" to them; something they've seen so often that it no longer compels them to try to make sense of it.
For King, the finest level is that of Terror. Terror happens before the unnatural thing is fully revealed. It is the moment of suspense. It is the aching dread where your mind runs wild with ideas. In terror your imagination is your real enemy. You know something is wrong but have no other concrete information. You sense the rules of reality have changed, and for some reason you didn't get the memo. It is that deep sense that the universe is a hair's-breadth from devolving into utter chaos. Terror, more than anything, is what makes you leave the lights on after you watch a good horror flick. Your imagination is still running away with you. Terror is especially difficult to engender in the audience because it is entirely cerebral, and more dependent on culture, personality, and individual experience than the other two levels.
In my opinion, good horror has aspects of both Terror and Horror, with Revulsion being optional. I like the Horror level because I like monsters. Sometimes movies with too much Terror can bore me. I get emotionally saturated if the suspense does not ever resolve into Horror or Revulsion. But I've also seen a few good flicks that were merely gore-fests, so who knows?
With all this in mind, I'm going to take a look at the horror genre aspects of a few canonically non-horror films and see how/if those aspects are an integral, necessary part of the movie. Does it inspire the emotions of Revulsion, Horror, or Terror? Would the movie be as effective without these? Let's look ...
SPOILERS as always so watch before reading ...
16. Groundhog Day - 1993
No small credit goes to Murray's performance, where he has to play both protagonist and antagonist while convincingly undergoing a complete change of personality. At first it seems the conflict in the film is between Murray's character (named Phil, of course), and nature gone wild, but we quickly realize that that isn't the case. Nature, after all, hasn't gone wild, it has become utterly and completely predictable. This movie is about Phil versus himself, and how this constant sameness throws his narcissism into a relief so stark even he can't miss it anymore. Phil comes to realize that he, himself, is responsible for his misery, and that in spite of the inexorable sameness of the days, he still has the power to make the all of the choices that matter.
17. Hamlet - 1996
Considering Shakespeare's works as horror is not a new idea - after all the "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble" spell in MacBeth is recited by actual witches. As noted in the paper The Gothic in Hamlet " ... the use of ... horror leads to gothic catharsis. Gothic catharsis can be defined as a form of catharsis with the specific aim to create fear and awe in the audience ... which ... makes the audience ... feel relieved because the horrifying incidents did not happen to them." I note here three ways in which Hamlet specifically uses the elements of the horror genre to tell its story.
2. Madness. Hamlet ponders and pontificates, pretending to be going mad as a cover for
his odd behaviors. Perhaps he actually is going mad; his reality has shattered, and he can't rely on anything anymore, even himself and his own judgement. He is filled with confusion, rage, and despair, lashing out at everyone - most notably Ophelia. He cruelly rejects her, and then kills her father (thinking it is Claudius). Ophelia becomes unhinged herself and winds up drowning in a manner that is never confirmed. We sense the walls are crumbling around Hamlet and his world.
Elements of the horror genre underlie all of Hamlet. Without them, there is no dread, no tragedy, and ultimately no story of interest.
18. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - 1988
Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons' always understood the cartoon-equals-creepy factor. Bart and Lisa's favorite cartoon show is called "Itchy and
Scratchy." This cartoon within a
cartoon serves to highlight the whole bizarre idea that cartoons bashing one another is funny - Itchy and Scratchy commit
horrific acts of violence, and Bart and Lisa laugh uproariously. The series took the logical next step and created a yearly Halloween special called "Treehouse of Horror." In the ninth episode, Bart and Lisa get thrown into an actual Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, and the titular characters ask why seeing them get cut up and hurt is supposed to be funny. They then direct their violence towards Bart and Lisa to teach them a lesson. Super duper creepy.
So it's really no surprise that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is terrifying, and I'm not the only person who thinks that. Juxtaposing cartoons and people living side-by-side is a recipe for bloodcurdling chaos. The rules between reality and "toonality" are not compatible, and since you never know if a gag is being played for laughs or for suspense, you can't have fun with this movie. You are in a constant state of dread, unable to predict what the consequences of any action will be.
The judge himself is super terrifying, and when he starts to mentally unravel things get overwhelmingly nasty. His henchmen are killed by making them laugh themselves to death. Doom himself dies slowly and agonizingly in dip, thrashing about in torment.
This movie is entirely driven by elements of the horror genre, and the tone and mood are created by our own unease with cartoons juxtaposed with reality. Toon Town is supposed to be cheerful and fun, but it's definitely my version of Hell.
Image credits. "Medea killing her children" from the Princeton art collection. Dvd covers for each movie. Still frames or promo photos for each movie. Composites of promo photos.