In the Horror/Thriller Issue, We See Why "Black Swan" was Scarier than "A Quiet Place"
I have never understood the fascination with A Quiet Place (2018). So many people raved about it when it first came out, and just recently, some friends told me that we had to watch it because someone had told them it was super scary. My response was, firstly, how have people still not seen this movie? Secondly, how do people still find it scary?
I watched A Quiet Place several years ago, when I was still terrified of horror movies. Even so, at the time, I found it to be pretty underwhelming in the scares department. It seemed like I spent the whole movie just waiting for something scary to happen, but whenever there was actually a creepy moment, it didn’t feel like enough payoff for the super long buildup. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good movie—I actually found the concept pretty interesting. I just didn’t think it was particularly scary.
Now that I watch scary movies a lot, I’ve found that I still don’t love horror films like A Quiet Place, where so much of the viewer’s time is spent just waiting around. I’m really a fan of jump scares and visually unsettling ghosts—call me old-fashioned, but I want to feel visceral fear watching a movie that purports to be part of the horror genre. I want to really be scared when I go to bed after it ends. So often these days, I don’t!
A fair amount of horror movies in recent years seem to have a formula very similar to A Quiet Place—there’s some unknown or relatively unseen entity causing trouble, and the characters have to creep around in constant fear, trying not to make a mistake that will cause their entire lives to fall into complete and utter ruin. That’s the whole story. The whole movie is just the constant winding up of suspense. There are not that many really big reveals and the scares are pretty minimal. Most of it just consists of people… well, creeping. That’s the best word I can use to describe the quiet state of constant anxiety that pervades movies like Bird Box (2018), The Lodge (2019), and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016).
Yes, these movies might be creepy, or thought-provoking, or “stressful,” as some of my family members put it when describing A Quiet Place, but the problem for me is that they’re not very viscerally frightening, so I always wonder why they’re marketed as horror movies instead of, say, thrillers. Isn’t the point of a thriller to keep you on edge? In my eyes, these movies, for the most part, would make sense in the thriller genre. I think maybe they just get lumped in with horror movies because they deal with stories that are somewhat morbid, gory, or supernatural. Or… I thought that. Until I saw Black Swan (2010) the other day.
Black Swan is somewhat similar to these movies—it kept me on edge, left me wondering what was going on, and stressed me out. However, it was marketed as a thriller, so I really began to freak out when the movie started to throw in jump scares, gory close ups, and creepy silhouettes! I finished the film wondering to myself why Black Swan hadn’t been labeled a scary movie, because I’d found that creepy woman standing in the kitchen much scarier than anything in A Quiet Place or I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. A similar thing happened when I started watching the CW series Nancy Drew (2019—), which initially seemed like a mystery show, but started throwing in supernatural elements as the plot progressed. I was extra shocked by the presence of a moving corpse in the attic because I hadn’t expected any sort of horror aspect, and I loved that moment of real fright that came from not having a clue what was even going on!
Watching Black Swan and Nancy Drew, I realized that the formula of an ultra-suspenseful plot with minor scares is actually super scary and works very well… when the content in question is labeled as a thriller. When I’m not expecting to be scared at all, the small scares seem huge and draw me into the world, making me wonder what other surprising and frightening moments lie just around the corner. On the other hand, when I hear that a movie is a horror movie, I’m expecting blood, guts, and evil little girls coming through the television. If I get nothing more than a bunch of people creeping around the screen for two hours, punctuated by two jump scares, I’m disappointed.
The thriller label, when it’s mixed with well-timed uses of typical horror conventions, actually creates a totally freaky experience (one that is suited to movies like A Quiet Place). That’s because once I’ve gotten that initial shock from the first unexpected scare, I’m left in limbo. I have no way to know what’s coming, and I’m constantly wondering whether or not the content is going to take a terrifying turn and snowball into some supernatural or psychological kill-fest (Nancy Drew would be the former, Black Swan the latter). The thriller delivers on the promise of suspense by leaving the horrific events undisclosed until we’re in the theater; the horror tells us beforehand exactly what we’re going to get, and in doing so, accidentally takes the wind out of its own sails.
My verdict? I think we ought to start calling a lot more things thrillers, because it will make them that much scarier when we suddenly realize they’re trying to scare us—not just stress us out—after all. But then, I guess we’d all figure out that formula eventually, too, and so we’d have to rework it sooner or later to keep everyone surprised. If that’s the case, then consider this article a celebration of the ways that movies like Black Swan and shows like Nancy Drew have broken the mold and inventively scared me when I least expected it. Now go watch them with a friend who doesn’t know what’s coming. And, if you haven’t watched A Quiet Place, then check that out, too…
Check out the trailer for “A Quiet Place” … Horror or Thriller???