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Why Real Horror Should Only Be Scary Once and Get a 12A Certificate

by Samuel Marlow. Published 8th May 2012

I had promised I wasn't going to do any work today, but this has been hanging over me for a while, and it's technically tomorrow now anyway.

Before writing my Id Monster article, I did a bit of research on Forbidden Planet. I found a documentary including Joe Dante. Having enjoyed several of Dante's earlier films, I looked him up, and saw his most recent film was The Hole.

Not the 2001 movie where Keira Knightley gets her nips out:

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The 2009 movie where Chris Massoglia gets his nips out:

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Soft nipple-porn aside there is more we can learn from comparing the two.

I didn't pay much attention to The Hole when it came out, largely because I thought the idea of creating a "family-friendly horror film" would de-fang what was already becoming a fairly pointless genre. However, that was before it had clicked that Dante had directed it.

Having watched The Hole, I have entirely changed my opinion.

It has been a long time since I have been disturbed by a horror film. Probably the last one was The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) (2001), and before that The Sixth Sense (1999). However, with both of these films, I only found them scary first time around. On a second and subsequent viewings, I realised both are actually quite gentle films. So it is with The Hole.

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With other films that are called "horror", they may succeed in making me jump, but I find the characters and scenarios too wantonly stupid to be deeply disturbing. I know films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street are all considered fairly ridiculous, but even supposed greats like The Shining, I actually find fairly tedious. Sacrilege, I know, but there it is.

The Freudian symbolism of The Hole is pretty clear - three kids find a hole to nowhere in the basement of their house. At least in terms of his dream interpretation, the hole in the basement is describing the unconscious. It is fitting, then, that it is from this hole that a parade of terrors climb from to terrorise the kids. Regardless of how much they try to seal the hole - pushing a heavy item of furniture over it, nailing it shut - once opened the hole cannot be closed.

What I liked about The Hole is that, rather lining up a set of stereotypes in a shooting gallery for the monster to take out, there is only one fatality in this movie, and that is more or less off screen. The movie is light on gore and violence, but not through careful use of editing. The horror simply didn't need it to be frightening.

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The fact that I wasn't working out which of the kids was going to die first in some overly elaborate way allowed me to settle into the movie, and become invested in the characters' well-being.

So why do we tell horror stories, and why should horror come with a kid-friendly rating?

Well, most children's first experience of formal storytelling is in horror. If we think of the works collected by the Grimm Brothers and their contemporaries, we see much of it is filled with horror content - children being eaten by witches, family members being eaten by wolves, girls being murdered by their adult husbands, disappearances, transformations.

Why terrify our children this way?

First of all, they lap it up. In general, people like being scared in a safe environment. If we assume, like play-fighting, this is a rehearsal for later life this makes sense.

Second, they act as cautionary and morality tales. "If you go off into the woods alone, you'll get eaten." "If you're a greedy or dishonest person, something bad will happen to you." This sort of moralising is alive and well in most modern horror films, and has become a bit of a joke.

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Of course, these days, a parent would be pretty negligent if they sent their pre-adolescent offspring off into the world alone, so the ages of the characters has increased to teenagers. In addition to avoiding accusations of child-endangerment, this also allows the characters more autonomy, a driver's license, and curiously maladjusted and/or puritanical writers to push the "sex is an evil, sinful thing that will absolutely lead to you dying in a strange and horrible way" agenda. Also, presumably, another reason for the inflated ratings.

Earlier I said true horror should only be scary once. This is because, if horror stories are indeed a rehearsal, they should have a cathartic ending. There is a resolution. Good horror should act like a vaccine - a small dose of something in a controlled environment that in a larger quantities would be very bad for you. Having seen the frightening scenes once, you are immune to them from then on.

This is why I think it is important that horror be accessible to younger audiences.

I think The Hole could have got away with a PG Certificate, as there is little blood or violence in the movie. What is scary are the ideas is presents. More adult content is handled sensitively and obliquely - it seems the reason mother and her two sons move so often is the boys' father is in prison for beating his family, culminating in the youngest son's arm being broken, and he has been sending threatening letters.

That the writer, Mark L. Smith, incorporated real-life horrors into his fantasy horror is one of several things I admire about the movie.

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The three young actors all manage their roles admirably. Elder brother Chris Massoglia has a wonderfully natural style, while younger brother Nathan Gamble has a great range for his age. The underplayed response of Haley Bennett to arguably the movie's most arresting scene in a public toilet, is in tone with how the horror was handled in general. Rather than the characters running around and splitting up, they stick together, their response to the frightening apparitions one of mute terror.

Ultimately the point I'm driving at is that, despite its poor reputation, I think horror can work at more than one level. What we tend to think of as modern horror films are in fact gory action films or thrillers. The emphasis on sex and violence feels designed to titillate rather than terrify. It also feels reductive and regressive, and encourages sloppy writing and poor characterisation, characters being forced to do stupid and illogical things to make the story advance. "I've got a good idea, let's split up" anyone?

While I find little entertaining in the slasher or "torture-porn" categories of horror, I have to accept they are popular. I have come to think, though, if we had more decent "proper" horror we could show younger children, the appeal of these slashers may have worn off by the time they are old enough to watch them.


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