The role of the horror movie audience has drastically changed. During the '70s and '80s, horror film audiences took on a role of initiation. Horror movie rules were established and the virgin became a horror movie staple for years, but the virgin no longer exists in horror movies. Why is this? It’s quite simple: There are no longer any virgin viewers. By this I mean that viewers are no longer innocent spectators; they're educated, they've seen everything there is to see because they can now handle it. At a certain point, horror movie audiences abandoned the role of initiation and took on the role of endurance. The virgin has disappeared from the horror genre because the audience no longer sees itself as innocent, but is now educated.
The issue I come across in horror movies today is that innocence shouldn’t be mistaken for education. Audiences seem to think you’re speaking down to them when you fall back on the classic horror movie rules that brought the genre to where it is today. Audience members now want to be rewarded for knowing the genre rules instead of participating in them. This is my issue with the much beloved The Cabin In The Woods (2012). It’s a movie that plays upon the rules that have been missing for years in the horror genre. The Cabin In The Woods is a movie that was released 10 years too late. It’s a fantastic movie, but its effect is lost among the new norm of horror. Slasher movies were dead in the water by the time Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s film was released. Movies like Saw, Hostel, Paranormal Activity and Insidious have become the new standard, utilizing new rules. The audience doesn’t want to see the same clichés, but they do want to be tested.
As I was watching Katie Aselton’s Black Rock, this theme of tests became clear. Aselton presents a scenario that represents how the audience views the horror genre today. Black Rock is noted on many 2013 top-10 horror movie lists for a reason. There are oftentimes when the audience is represented by a character in the film. There are scenarios where the characters are forced to watch the torturing of friends, to see how much they can endure. The audience takes on the persona of these characters, forced to watch the torture, being tortured themselves, and trying to survive the film.
The horrible truth about the movie industry is that once something seems to work, then that’s the well they drink from until it seems to dry up. Horror movies tend to go through these stages more noticeably. There was the '30s, with the classic monster movies; the '70s with the occult and psychological; the '80s trend that began the slasher phenomena; the 2000s with torture films (and matters of the spiritual came back into the genre), and now we continue on the occult path and a persistence for survival.
What does this say about us? Why do we go through these phases? Does it represent our culture? I would like to think so. In a world full of remakes and certain repeating motifs showing up in each movie, the film industry is giving audiences what they want. Some of us yearn for the days of old, turning up to see the A Nightmare On Elm Street reboot; some of us ask the spiritual questions when seeing The Conjuring; and then some of us just want to be pushed to our limits to survive, like in The Purge: Anarchy.
The audience’s role is whatever the audience wants it to be. There’s nothing wrong with returning to that innocence and becoming the virgin viewer again. It’s OK for us to suspend our disbelief again. I for one am tired of the "realism" that is expected of film today. Most horror movies that are presented to audiences tend to have evil to overcome, so is that what we as society expect from life? Does evil always triumph over good? I would like to think that it’s not always the case.
The virgin no longer exists in horror movies because we don’t want her to. Our innocence as an audience is lost because we know the rules; we’re educated about how the genre works, but who’s to say there can’t be new rules? The virgin represented the virgin viewer, the unknowing and innocent conqueror. It would just be nice to see the viewer conquering again. It seems that 2016 will see the release of a decent variety of horror movies. We have a few reboots with Amityville: The Awakening, and Cabin Fever. There are some series continuing with The Conjuring 2, Rings, The Purge: Election Year, and a possible prequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then we have the newcomers with The Witch, The Other Side Of The Door, The Invitation and Before I Wake. Whichever of these movies pulls in the audiences will possibly dictate what the horror genre is continuing to say about our society. Hopefully we can return to an era where we can see ourselves as conquerors instead of being defeated by the villains. Sometimes the good ones just need to survive.