I just released a new book called Slasher, about a serial killer targeting slasher movie actresses in Hollywood, which could easily be described as meta in a number of ways, and it got me thinking. Why is it that the horror genre loves to go meta? And why does it work more often than not?
For me, the world of meta horror undoubtedly started with Scream (1996). It was an audacious and wildly successful big screen revival of the slasher genre, but why did it work so well? Sure, it was well cast, well directed, and had scares and laughs both, but what really made it a huge hit was how smart it was, and in fact still is, about the genre. It was as close to parody as possible without outright spoofing slashers. The characters knew the rules of the slasher genre, and Scream (in fact as an entire franchise) has really run with this. Movies within movies and savvy characters, openly playing with trends new and old.
Scream was not the first or only meta horror film however, so I had a look at a few other examples. Peeping Tom, released in 1962, is a clear mark in a start of this self referential trend. It featured a serial killer filming his kills, basically making his own slasher film. In a way, Scream 4 owes an awful lot to this film. It worked then because it was new, a novel twist. But audiences got hip to the game very quickly so being meta quickly became something different. Everything became that much more self referential.
The original The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) played very directly off real life incidents, to the point where the remake (2014) has doubled up on meta and references both the real life accounts and the original film within its own narrative.
A New Nightmare (1994) went a similar route. It treated all of the previous films as just that, films, and brought Freddy Krueger to the real world to terrorise the actress from the first film, actually playing herself. It's actually a little mind bending until it settles back into more familiar Freddy territory. Incidentally, it's interesting to note that this film came just two years before Scream, both Wes Craven films, both slashers, both blatantly and knowingly meta.
The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows (2000) tried to do the same as A New Nightmare, and actually could have worked if it had been in more capable hands. After all, the original film only became the monster hit it was because people thought it was real when it was first released. The sequel tried to play off this, and bad acting and bad writing pulled it down. A neat idea for a sequel though, given that the trick of the original would no doubt not have worked a second time.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) put slasher villains actually in the real world, in a way treating all slasher movies before it as real, and included the one and only Robert Englund to boot. It went for the mockumentary style and in many ways it worked remarkably well. Killer Movie (2008) also went this route, using a reality tv setup. It's less self referential, but definitely has some meta pinache, made evident from its title alone.
Then more recently Joss Whedon delivered the deliciously over the top The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Everything about it riffed off what we as audiences expect from horror films, and it threw a HUGE curveball in the final act and blew cinema goers worldwide away with a very clever concept that was also hugely entertaining (Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also rather meta - another collection of smart and savvy characters who loved pop culture references).
So why do they work? It's because they let us in on the trick. Everyone who has seen more than a handful of horror movies, particularly slasher movies, knows how they work. It's a genre more than any other (save for romantic comedies) where the audience knows the patterns, can often predict the scares, and often kind of know how a film will end even before it starts. Adding a dash of meta includes the audience in a very real way, questions openly what you would do if this were real and you were in the same situation as the characters on screen, and when done well, such films even play on these expectations and subvert them even further. No one could have predicted how The Cabin in the Woods would end and it was a big success as a result.
I've not yet seen the remake of The Town that Dreaded Sundown, but from the very fact that it exists it is clear that being meta in horror is an inviting and exciting style choice. I'm now keen to see where meta in horror will take us next!