Courtesy of Disney.

October 24, 2022

Canons of Horror: Something Spooky

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If horror is a genre that burns the heart, giving one a burst of adrenaline to keep warm on chilly autumn nights, spooky fare is an embrace of that out-of-body chill, allowing the cold to act as a warm reprieve from the miserably hot and humid summer days. Each year, around this time, when the first icy breeze hits me, but I’m not quite ready to be shocked or frightened, I turn to spooky films and TV, allowing myself to settle in without being scared to fall asleep on a lonely night. As a kid, this is the farthest I ever got, with episodes of Gravity Falls and Tim Burton films being just scary enough to enthrall a kid, while clearly staying away from material that would cross any lines. 

Tim Burton is, with little doubt, the king of the spooky movie. In elementary school, the coolest teachers would put on Nightmare Before Christmas (produced, not directed by Burton) around Halloween. Even his action films, like the excellent Batman Returns, have a certain air of soft-core horror to them. 

Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd are interesting, because they center horror characters as outsiders, sapping the dramatic tension typically associated with horror and replacing it with a saccharine sweetness for Scissorhands and a nearly whimsical nihilism for Todd. Beetlejuice, on the other hand, is closer to a horror comedy, leaning on a larger than life performance from Michael Keaton. It’s perhaps closer to a kid-friendly version of Evil Dead than it is to any of Burton’s more delightfully dreary films. Burton achieves this spookiness in nearly all cases by adopting the aesthetics of a lighter horror film without that aspect of fear that often defines them. 

That said, other directors are able to achieve such an effect differently. My personal favorite producer of spooky films may be Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animation director whose work defines the iconic Studio Ghibli. His films, though not scary, do contain elements that can be legitimately unsettling. In Spirited Away, the action is set off by the protagonist’s parents being transformed into pigs. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a semi-fascistic war zone that provokes a certain anxiety. Rather than centering films on strange and scary characters as Burton does, Miyazaki often puts ordinary kids at the forefront of his films. This has a brilliant effect of defining frightful events, which could easily devolve into horror, with a sense of mixed wonder and anxiety that is necessarily childlike. 

Perhaps we find horror films so legitimately scary because of the baggage we bring with them as adults who can identify real horrors in the world. What Miyazaki does is strip us of our baggage and invite us to re-experience things not as wholly intimidating, but as a mix of fearful and fascinating. 

My favorite piece of spooky fall content, however, is not a movie at all: it’s the Cartoon Network limited series Over the Garden Wall. If you’ve never heard of it, its 12 episodes, each 10 to 15 minutes long, add up to a feature length animated journey of two brothers lost in the woods. This fantasyland incorporates pieces of what feels like an abandoned Americana, as well as supernatural beings, all undergirded by an overall autumnal atmosphere. Over the Garden Wall features both the weirdness and childlike wonder of Burton and Miyazaki through its two brothers. It then adds on a sense of nostalgic warmth as familiar images are emulated with a seasonal glow. This, melded with the spooky supernatural elements, elicits a wholly indescribable simultaneous sensation of slight unease and addictive attraction. 

There’s something brilliantly delicate about incorporating legitimately frightening ideas and aesthetics into a piece of art and then asking an audience to feel comfortable. It’s a difficult balance, and it can fail (the horrifying Coraline terrified  many children, including me). When it’s done right, however, it can be one of the most powerful expressions of pathos in art. I love spooky fare, and as the nights get colder and the days get grayer here in Ithaca, I can’t wait to settle in with a pumpkin spice latte and feel just a bit more warm in my embrace of the chill.

This is the first article in a series “Canons of Horror” about different Horror Genres.

Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].