Horror Genre Conventions Genre conventions in media fall into 6 different categories; settings, technical code, iconography, narrative structure, character types and themes. Each different convention changes according to the piece of media. In terms of the horror film genre here are the main concepts of each convention.
One of the main features of horror in the shape of settings is the fact that they are mainly based in small communities or isolated places. This offers more opportunities for a sense of isolation, or for a small community to hold a secret. Very often in horror films there will be some place where there is a 'past' connected to it, such as an abandoned hospital/mental asylum. In horror films there is more chance of houses/buildings having attics and basements. It sounds basic however this also offer the producer another isolated setting to add spook to the film. Another one of the perhaps more basic film settings that emphasizes the horror genre is night-time rather than broad daylight. It is quite obvious that a lot more can happen behind the light in the dark rather than during the day so it adds a lot of horror to a film. Finally, it is also common in horror films for the exploration of other religions and cultures. The majority of us in the West (US and Western Europe) lack knowledge about Eastern countries and their cultures. This leaves a space for producers to explore some of these concepts that are unknown to us and add a horrific twist to them for our entertainment. Something is more horrific if you know less about it. To add to this could be the concepts of possession, demons and psychosis as well as dreams and the unconscious mind.
The second genre convention to look at is technical code. In some ways this conventions can be one of the most important in presenting horror in media texts. To start with, camerawork is expressive rather than naturalistic. There can commonly be weird high and low angles as well as canted and disorientating camerawork. All of this together adds horrific effects that are sly yet work well with the other conventions of horror. Extreme Close Up shots are also used very effectively for several different reasons. When the is an ECU of a victim it promotes the terror they are going through, whilst an ECU shot can also cut everything else out of the shot giving a sense of mystery to what is outside the shot in the near distance. ECU's can also work in favour of the monsters/villains, this type of shot can help connote an invasion of our personal space.
In a lot of horror movies we experience POV shooting. This involves subjective and hand-held camerawork and is very important in revealing a sense of being there with the victims from the audienceâ€™s point of view. A common example of a horror movie with this type of camerawork is the Paranormal Activity series. This again can also be used from the monsters point of view - putting the audience in the monsters eyes. Clover argues that this type of camerawork usually switches from killer to victim as the film progresses and this raises issues about false identification. Depth of frame is not a very common feature as oppose to other aspects of technical code however in horror films
the depth of field is commonly used with the protagonist in the foreground unaware of the monster emerging in the background.
In terms of editing within horror movies, it may create unsettled jumps from Long Shots to Close Ups, rather than a smooth use of Medium Shots. This again has a specific effect on the audience, the film is more 'jumpy'. The pace of editing may also be used to create suspense whilst sudden increases in pace when there is no apparent threat creates feelings of jumpiness and puts the audience on the edge about whatâ€™s going to happen next. Finally, sound can also be a very important aspect of horror films. Ambient sound is used for atmosphere, footsteps and heartbeats.
The next convention to talk about in relation to horror is iconography. Visual signifiers of genre are apparent most of the time, the colours black and red being a very common representation of horror. Connotations of these colours include darkness, evil, blood and danger. Lighting, like camerawork, is very expressive and non-naturalistic. Motivated, low key, high contrast and chiaroscuro are all features used to emphasise terror and violence. Lighting can also be shown from different and unexpected angles to create unfamiliar shadowing and connote hell and primitive instincts rather than natural room light and sunlight. In terms of mis-en-scene there can be a whole list of different items related to the horror genre including; weapons, blood, masks, ghosts and crucifixes etc. Another common feature of iconography in horror films is innocence. This is often portrayed through the use of dolls, playgrounds, clowns and childrenâ€™s songs. All of these features although innocent can be related to horror in some way or another through the constant use of them in horror films.
The narrative structure in horror films is often very different to narrative structure in different genres. Firstly Todorov's 'classic Hollywood' narrative theory in an array of horror films. The basic concept of this theory is an equilibrium followed by a disequilibrium followed by a new equilibrium. Todorov's studies shows that this is a common structure in most Hollywood films hence the title
'classic Hollywood'. However, there are two reasons why a horror film may not follow this structure; firstly to suggest mythic quality of the monster and secondly to enable a sequel. The clear, unambiguous hero of the classic Hollywood narrative is somewhat problematic in many horrors. The hero in a classic horror tends to be a victim as well as a hero, usually a female character. This concept is more complicated than many other genres.
The narrative of one horror sub-genre is very specific. In 'slasher' films the plot goes something like; a psychopath killer returns to his hometown on the anniversary of a killing and hunts down/kills a group of innocent teenagers until there is one female survivor at the end of the plot.
Barthes' and Levi Strauss' are both structuralist narrative analysts who came up with the idea that films have particular underlying structures. These are also known as 'binary oppositions' and they apply well to horror films. Most commonly the pairing of innocence and evil is shown in horror films. Horror uses this to a great advantage when creating sinister atmospheres knowing that the audience is aware of innocence being completely out of context to evil.
There are various different types of character types within the horror genre. As already explained, the main protagonist is usually a victim/hero or victim turn hero. This character is often a female, which again portrays innocence through the use of gender. The killer/monster often holds a hidden secret or is made psychotic by an earlier event. An example of this is the character of Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre - his past is the reason he is how he is. Likewise Mike Myers in Halloween who killed his sister when he was younger, this event links to his return and further murders. Horror films often also involve stupid, 'immoral' teenagers who often get killed and also children which
again links into innocence. Another typical character is the 'have a go' hero who will get killed. This character tries too hard to be the hero. Finally, there is always a character or a set of characters who refuse to believe the abnormality, such as in the Final Destination sequels.
The final genre convention to discuss is themes. The main themes in horror films include; the hidden evil inside, science out of control and binary oppositions namely natural vs. unnatural and good vs. evil. This can be seen to be portrayed in all horror films over the years, from the very first such as Frankenstein to the very modern such as Paranormal Activity.