Why Mainstream Horror is Still Dead: Part II

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By Zakary McGaha

This tiny article isn’t really a continuation of my last write-up on mainstream horror, because there won’t be many (if any) new points. It’s more of a response to an article debunking some Vogue piece, in which my article was referenced (in said debunking article; not the Vogue piece).

Anyway, it was said, incorrectly, that I claimed horror was dead. I was then excused for the claim which I didn’t make.

In Why Mainstream Horror is Dead, I said just that “mainstream” horror is dead. I mentioned that the indie front was awesome and wasn’t slowing down, and I said that mainstream horror movies are still being made, but I pointed out that the mid-list for horror fiction went belly-up forever ago.

I also said that the token blockbuster horror movies don’t signal prosperity for the genre as a whole, but, instead, show what little demand for it there is. Your typical theatergoer is apt to say, “Halloween, that was a good horror movie! But that’s enough for one year.”

Horror is kept alive by fans, these days, and is pretty much a niche genre. Sure, it’s giant compared to super niche genres, and it has many sub-genres, but it’s still not thriving like it was in the 70s, 80s, and early -90s when publishers were churning out mass-market horror left and right…by authors who weren’t just named Stephen King. Back then, you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing something Friday the 13th related or turn on the TV without seeing a ton of lesser-known horror movies that were still holding their own.

Perhaps there’s one thing I should clear up: by today’s standards, the lesser-known and indie horror books and movies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s were mainstream as hell. The audience was much larger; there was prosperity to be had for all. However, that changed once mass-market horror died. Sure, small things stayed around…niche presses, which pretty much describes the small-press scene today, kept the ball rolling for the people who wanted it kept rolling, but it was no longer EVERYWHERE. Horror went the way of Metallica; what was edgy way back when is “Dad Rock” today.

Another thing I should clear up: I thought the new Halloween ruled, and believe it’s the second best sequel of the franchise, and I’m well aware that it made tons of money, but I still think mainstream horror is dead because Halloween was the token horror movie of this year, along with The Nun.

What do they both have in common besides money? They were franchise flicks. The vast majority of original horror films were, as usual, direct to VOD and DVD. The other in-theater examples were the exceptions, but they deserve a look.

Hell Fest was awesome, but it wasn’t nearly as successful as Halloween or The Nun, nor was Strangers: Prey at Night, although it wasn’t necessarily a failure. As far as Overlord, it’s too early to tell. And I won’t even talk about The Meg, because it was awful and didn’t do the book justice.

Still, though: despite the movies listed above, we’re not seeing the plethora of awesome material genre fans were used to in the golden days, that have since gone on to become classics today. Instead, we’re still seeing continuations and reboots of those classics!

Most indie, direct-to-video horror today is clearly targeted at horror fans who need their appetites whetted, while the other in-theater horror films of the year were successful because of horror fans and the convenience of the theater, which drew some of the mainstream folks in (which is why they had smaller box-office numbers).

In other words, the token mainstream horror franchise films did well because everyone needs at least one bender a year, while the other ones achieved what they did only because of hardcore horror fans and their normal family members they drug to the theaters.

Just because there are a couple big, token hits along with some smaller, already-forgotten films isn’t enough to convince me that horror is thriving today. Am I saying this to be negative and all FUCK THE MAINSTREAM-like? Nope. I’ve been pleased with what the studios have given us this year, and I’ve been pleased with the indie stuff I’ve seen.

I’m not a hard horror fan to please, as I love it all.

However, I do feel that horror is not in a healthy state.

A Blumhouse sticker stuck over horror’s wound like a bandage isn’t going to keep it from bleeding out. If you recall, some of the highest-grossing horror films as of recent all have the same aforementioned production company: Get Out, Happy Death Day, HALLOWEEN, and The Purge.

I’m not gonna debate the quality of these films, because some of them I like and some of them I loathe, but the point is this: we’re seeing a lot of stuff from the same people, and not enough from new people, at least not in theaters. The indie front, however, is where it’s at. Too many examples of great films abound. If you know where to find the good stuff, stream it (or buy the DVD)!

There aren’t enough horror films in theaters from different people to justify mainstream horror being a thriving industry. Yes, certain people are thriving, but their “industry” is quite small, and the doors aren’t necessarily always open for new talent.

The people who saw Halloween aren’t going to fund legions of horror production companies, publishers, etc. They’re going to jump on whatever bandwagon comes along next, and that bandwagon is probably gonna be started by the same people.

Meanwhile, horror fans everywhere will gladly be enjoying a genre that is still very much alive, although it’s definitely not in a “boom” period. Its mainstream appeal lasts for all of about ten seconds at a time, while the indie front runs continuously in the background, with films like The Devil’s Candy, Hold the Dark (who some may classify as a thriller, but I say it’s horrifying as fuck, and it’s my favorite new movie as of recent), and Jug Face, as well as extreme flicks like American Guinea Pig: Song of Solomon keeping people satisfied.

Perhaps it’s not a popularity thing so much as a question of medium. I already mentioned streaming: long-form horror is on FIRE here, with shows like The Haunting of Hill House and Stranger Things dominating Netflix. Maybe that’s where the true “mainstream” horror lies these days, but one thing’s for sure: horror films are moving away from the big screen, and it seems to be getting worse each year. Maybe it’s a failure on theaters’ part (as in, specifically the venue, not Hollywood)? It would take statistics and whatnot to answer this question, which isn’t what this article is about.

This article is about taking notice of the culture. As someone who gorges on horror every day, I try to pay attention to everything: from indie to mainstream, new to old…and I can say with certainty that the majority of the “mainstream” stuff I get into is from years past, while the majority of new stuff is indie.

Mainstream horror today is dead, but horror is still as alive as it’s ever been: the way in which we consume horror is simply growing radically different, which is draining the blood from the concept of mainstream, theatrically-released horror.

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