When you think "horror," chances are that images of people being carved into tiny little slices like a Sunday roast ham jump into your mind's eye, but could the movies where nobody is sliced and diced be among the scariest in the genre?
Below is an investigation into whether death is really necessary to make a horror movie that will have you avoiding mirrors in the dark for weeks. Maybe, sometimes simply running from the monster is enough.
A Brief History Of Horror Movies Where Nobody Dies
Just how many critically acclaimed horror movies have there been where the entire cast has lived to enjoy a life of intense therapy? Below are five of the best known fright-flicks where nobody was mortally wounded to demonstrate just how terrifying these deathless horrors can be.
The very nature of this list means there are spoilers aplenty below for various iconic horror movies from 1979 to 2014. You have been warned.
1. The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Lutz family is dragged through a terrifying ordeal of unexplained, ghostly phenomena kicking and screaming, but they all emerge alive — albeit irretrievably traumatized.
Seeing as the entire plot is based on the true story of a family that survives a violent, unexplained haunting, it totally makes sense to let the entire Lutz clan live.
2. Poltergeist (1982)
One of my favorite classic horror movies might involve someone peeling their own face off, a brutal attack by a clown doll and a leisurely swim through a pool full of skeletal remains, but everyone lives to tell the unbelievable tale.
3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Packages of mysterious organs wrapped in leaves do not a death make and, although it implied that the Blair Witch is hungry for human life, nobody dies during the groundbreaking found-footage movie.
4. The Conjuring (2013)
Personally, being an enormous dog lover, I would class poor Sadie, the family pet, as a person (R.I.P.), but conventional wisdom doesn’t agree with me.
Despite the fact that it had a trailer so scary it made the more timid among us scream in the cinema, the evil spirits in The Conjuring don’t kill anyone, although it’s not for lack of trying.
5. The Babadook (2014)
After jumping out of the closet into a storm of popularity, The Babadook was one of the most talked about horror movies of 2014 thanks to the slow burning suspense and move away from predictable jump scares.
Although it is a heart-pounding ordeal for viewers thanks to the relentless psychological pressure they are put under, nobody is actually killed by the children’s book beastie come to life.
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Do We Really Watch Horror For Death In The First Place?
While death and a fear of death are obviously a huge driving force in horror movies, do we really watch horror to see people come to a gruesome end?
As you might imagine, theories about why people are drawn to the very things they’re hellbent to avoid in real life when it comes to movies are numerous and there is no real consensus on why humans voluntarily enter the realm of artificial terror. Although this is by no means a comprehensive account, here are some common theories below:
Primitive Fears - Nobuo Masataka
Japanese scientific researcher Masataka discovered that children as young as three years old are much more sensitive to images of snakes than flowers on a computer screen, provided that our primitive fears are still locked deep within us just waiting to burst forth.
Some people theorize that horror is simply playing on these ancient fears like a fine-tuned piano, which explains the genre’s preoccupation with dangerous spaces such as the dark forest and creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to devour us.
This idea also explains why the idea of something hunting us down like prey to devour is so prevalent, with super intelligent human predators such as the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter being particularly abhorrent.
Sigmund Freud - The Uncanny
The psychoanalytic community doesn’t think that horror is really about death at all. Instead, Freud posited that the potency of horror is thanks to conflict between our primitive id and civilized ego.
The uncanny is familiar, yet there is something not quite right about it. This leads to people being simultaneously attracted to, yet repulsed by an object and the cognitive dissonance is thought to lead to feelings of horror and foreboding.
While this is a greatly simplified version of the expansive and deeply complex psychological theory, it is possible to get a greater sense of what might be considered uncanny from Masahiro Mori’s chart below. If you want to delve a bit deeper, head over here!
If uncanny emblems such as the evil child, the deranged mother or the incongruous shadow are indeed key to horror, than no death is needed to hammer the fear deep into your core.
Excitation Transfer - Dr. Dolf Zillmann
In a kind of modern take on Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, Dr. Zillman argued that the fear and negativity we voluntarily immerse ourselves in when we watch horror movies can actually intensify the positive feelings when a would-be victim survives.
This theory obviously doesn’t explain why we still enjoy horror movies where our hero doesn’t make it out alive, but it’s hard to argue that you don’t feel more for the survivor when their ordeal has been particularly grim.
Seeing as nobody needs to die in order to create a relentless survival situation — although it can obviously help — “excitation transfer” is compatible with movies where all of the cast triumphs over evil.
Sensation Seeking Scale - Marvin Zuckerman
Sensation seeking is a personality trait that is defined by the search for experiences and feelings, that are "varied, novel, complex and intense.” Zuckerman hypothesizes that horror movies are simply a form of sensation seeking in their own right.
The Psychologist observed that people who scored high on his sensation seeking scale favored exciting activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping and horror movies. But, not everyone who likes horror movies also likes other stereotypical sensation seeking behavior.
As the section below will explain, sensation seekers are more likely to seek out movies that revolve around blood and gore, so flicks where nobody meets a brutal end might be unsatisfactory.
Are There Different Reasons To Watch Horror?
While the underlying reason we watch horror revolves around the thrill seeking of scaring ourselves shitless, it has been theorized that there are different reasons why people watch horror. This, in part, explains why some people love torture porn but can't handle paranormal flicks and vice versa.
In 1995 a scientist named Deirdre D. Johnston studied 220 high school students in an attempt to understand if there were a variety of motivations behind why they sought out scares. After questioning the students and observing them watching the movies, Johnston concluded there were four main motivations for watching horror:
Gore Orientated – Gore watchers are seeking physical violence and are often drawn to tales of revenge. The viewer is interested in how the victims are dying and the creativity of the kills. These viewers have a low level of empathy for the victims and have lowered levels of fear. They are also more likely to see revenge as a valid option in their own lives.
Thrill Seeking – These viewers were motivated by the suspense of the film and the sense of tension and excitement a horror movie can bring. The thrill seekers were characterized by high empathy and a desire to seek adventure and extreme experiences.
Independent Watching – Independent viewers see horror movies as a way to test their own metal and see how far they can push themselves. They are described as having low levels of empathy.
Problem Viewing – This kind of viewer watches horror because feelings of abandonment and anger drive them to turn their backs on their mundane lives. The seeking of excitement in the suffering of others has a strange twist here as the viewer often identifies with the victim as a way of exploring their own powerlessness.
While the gore orientated group's bloodlust probably wouldn't be sated by a horror movie where nobody died, all of the other types of scare-seeker could potentially be totally down with a movie where nobody dies. Especially the "Thrill Seeking" group who might just represent the new target audience the horror industry is eyeing.
Could The Immediate Future Of Horror Revolve Less Around Death?
Although it’s often seen as a maverick genre by its fans, horror follows popular trends just like the rest of Hollywood and, right now, the rivers of blood seem to be slowing to a mere trickle.
The slew of horror movies that have slayed both the minds of finicky critics and the box office this year all seem to have one thing in common: a focus on the psychological aspects of fear.
Of course there have been blood spattered slashers such as 2013’s Evil Dead that have cleaned up, but atmospheric fright fests such as The Witch, The Babadook and It Follows are totally dominating the scene.
The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were dominated by the grotesque gut splatter that was Final Destination and the stab-happy knifing of the Scream franchise, but this slasher tradition that leads all the way back to Halloween is taking a back seat.
Do you think horror movies need death to make them effective?