True Horror is Born out of Empathy
We’ve all seen it in movies before — a group of shallow, unlikeable teenagers decide to venture someplace that they shouldn’t for a weekend of debauchery. From the very beginning, the movie is telling us “Oh yeah, you’re gonna love watching these people get murdered.”
Will we though?
There’s a mode of thinking when making a horror film that the prospective group of victims should be as unlikable as possible so that we enjoy seeing them suffer a horrific fate later in the movie. This reasoning seemed to gain particular popularity in the 80s when slasher films were at their peak. In the studios’ minds, audiences were showing up to see movies about characters named “Freddy” and “Jason” after all, and not the cast of disposable young people, so they may as well have the audience root for the killer, right?
Except for Friday the 13th Part 7 and Part 8 (which both feature the most insufferable supporting casts of the series and are also considered to be the worst of the Friday series), if you watch the previous six films in the franchise, there are some unlikeable characters, but for the most part, the cast of potential victims is generally pretty likable. You feel terror and dread for these people when the unseen killer stalks them from distance, and shock and revulsion when they meet their grisly end. This is a stark contrast to later entries in the franchise where it’s difficult to invest in anything happening in the movies because the filmmakers are trying so hard to make sure you don’t care about any of the characters.
By asking an audience to root for a character’s demise, a film foregoes one of the basic tenants of horror, which is empathy. We get scared because we’ve formed an attachment to a character that we want to see make it through a horror film, not because we want to see that character punished. Characters like Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween (1978) or Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979) endure because the audience has grown to like them and root for them to make it to the end credits in one piece. A film isn’t scary if it wants its audience to root for bad things to happen, and audiences don’t get invested if a film is asking them not to care about what happens to the characters.
There are even horror films that make us root for the characters even when they deserve the punishment coming to them, like in Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) or Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009). Audition is about a widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) who decides to hold a fake audition as a way of choosing a prospective girlfriend. During the audition, he meets and falls in love with Asami (Eihi Shiina), not knowing that she has a dark secret. In any other film, we would despise the widower character, yet we’re shown that he’s a good man at heart and a loving father, but his grief and loneliness get the better of him. Despite the dishonesty behind their introduction, our main character does genuinely does fall in love with Asami. In Drag Me to Hell, Christine wants to prove to her boss that she can make the tough decisions required of her job. When an old woman asks her for an extension on her loan, Christine’s instinct is to help at first, but her insecurity wins out and she denies it. Christine’s boss praises her for the decision she made, but she knows that she didn’t do the right thing and now has to fend off a gypsy curse in addition to her own guilty conscience.
Both Audition and Drag Me to Hell ask us to empathize with characters that make bad decisions because they act out of human emotion that we’ve all experienced. We’ve all suffered from crippling loneliness or had to make a hard decision at work that we weren’t proud of. It would have been all too easy for both of these films to portray their main characters as one-note and worthy of their looming punishment, but instead, these films want us to fear for these characters because they’re flawed human beings like the rest of us. The final torture scene in Audition is so hard to watch because we’ve spent an entire film getting to know and like our main character, that now we’re forced to watch him get mutilated by the woman he fell in love with. The ending of Drag Me to Hell is similarly tough because we’ve come to feel the relief, happiness, and newfound self-confidence that Christine experiences when she thinks that she’s lifted the curse, only to have the ground literally fall out from under her as she’s dragged down to Hell. Unlike the horror films that want us to enjoy watching the characters suffer, in these specific movies we know that the punishment is coming but still hope for these people to somehow avoid it. Actions have consequences though, and horror films always take that to the most extreme conclusion.
Of course, it’s not just the victims that horror films ask us to have empathy for, it’s the monsters as well. Many of the classic Universal Monsters films highlight the humanity in the horrifying, and a prime example is the Frankenstein Monster, a misunderstood creature searching for love and acceptance in a world that continually rejects him. In The Wolf Man (1941), Lawrence Talbot is plagued with guilt because of the curse that turns him into a bloodthirsty monster. Even later Dracula adaptations present the Count as a more sympathetic and tragic character than in the original novel and older adaptations. Both Jason Voorhees and his mother Pamela in the Friday the 13th franchise are some of the most popular cinematic slashers because they’re each motivated by grief and loss in their own way. The horror in these films shows the monsters are motivated by human emotions that we’re all familiar with in some way.
Storytelling is about empathy; it’s learning by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. One of the strengths of the horror genre is how freely it can explore the darker side of humanity, whether through its human characters or the “monsters” themselves. Characters like Jason Voorhees or The Frankenstein Monster have endured because films or books have invited us to get a look at what drives these characters, and it is through them we see our darkest impulses come to life. On the flip side of that, we also see shades of ourselves in the less monstrous of horror characters, be it as a single father coping with grief or a woman desperate to prove to herself in the workplace. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story about a group of teenagers going to the woods for a weekend of partying, but we want to see something human in the young people looking for a weekend getaway. We want to feel terror as someone flees from a machete-wielding maniac, elation as the final girl makes it to safety, and maybe, just for a moment, we also want to feel a pang of pity for the horrifying monster chasing them. Horror highlights the fact that people are complicated. People are capable of doing both good and bad, which is why we’ll revisit the films that make us feel empathy and fear over the ones that just want to show us punishment and death for the sake of it. 🩸
James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.
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