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It Follows the Rules – Horror Movies and “the Rules”

As with all cinema, horror movies tend to reflect the era in which they were created.

There are any number of obvious examples. The b-movie horrors of the fifties fixated on atomic horrors as an expression of anxiety of the development of the nuclear bomb and fears about science gone mad. The haunted house became a fixture of horror in the seventies owing to economic uncertainty, while the zombie became a reflection of unchecked mindless consumerism. The late eighties gave way to body horror as the AIDS virus became an international crisis. In the nineties, knowing irony seemed to take over.

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Even in the first couple of years of the twenty-first century, the genre came to be dominated by supernatural monsters and found footage. Found footage offered a more grounded and realistic depiction of terror, reflecting the footage of real-life horrors captured on camcorders and mobile telephones for broadcast on the evening news. This dependence on found footage seemed to represent a logical extension of the ironic postmodernism of the nineties, a fear that the real world and the world of the horror were overlapping.

Indeed, it is quite easy to draw parallels between the War on Terror and the horror movies of the early twenty-first century. The found footage style recalls the images of 9/11 captured by citizen journalists and imprinted upon the public consciousness. The emphasis on torture in franchises like Saw and Hostel reflects contemporary political debates about how best to face the future. The renewed emphasis on foreign countries as inherently hostile in horrors like Hostel, The Ruins and Touristas.

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Recent horror movies have seen a bit of a shift away from those kinds of themes and stories, although there are still traces to be found; The Shallows is very much an “American tourist in hostile territory” film while The Girl With All the Gifts looks to be a clever twist on the zombie genre that is still going strong following a millennial resurgence. Still, recent years have seen modern horror become increasingly nostalgic and old-fashioned, a trend best demonstrated by the horrors produced by James Wan like The Conjuring.

However, there is something else interesting happening in the background. Perhaps an extension of the same postmodern irony thread threaded through late nineties films like Scream and then evolving into the blurred fiction of found footage, modern horror films seem increasingly fixated on the idea of the “rules.” more and more, it seems like horror films insist upon their monsters conforming to an internal logic that the protagonists and audience can deduce (and exploit) through observation and experimentation.

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Note: This post includes spoilers for It Follows and Lights Out. If you haven’t seen them yet, consider yourself warned.

To be fair, monster movies always had rules. Werewolves transform in the light of the full moon and can be killed by silver. Vampires cannot come out during the day. Zombies must be killed by destroying the brain. Freddie Krueger can (probably) only get you if you fall asleep. However, there was always a certain flexibility to these concepts. Some vampires were afraid of crucifixes, some were not; some could fly, some could not; some hated garlic, some were okay with it.

What was most remarkable about classic horror movie villains was their refusal to follow the rules that were set out. Michael Myers might have been just a kid with a butcher knife, but he never acted as though he were. Although not explicitly supernatural in his earliest appearances, Myers was unstoppable and capable of enduring beyond what the human body could conceivably withstand. Even when Nancy defeated Freddie Krueger at the climax of Nightmare on Elm Street, he somehow found a way to avoid destruction in spite of the “rules” of the film.

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The supernatural was typically explained in the most simple terms, monsters often relegated to a line or two of exposition rather than explained in intricate detail. This was perhaps most obvious in seventies horror, with classic films like The Shining or Don’t Look Now or Rosemary’s Baby remaining deliberately vague on key plot points. It is tempting to read this as trust in the audience, a willingness to let viewers reach their own conclusions about what is or is not happening. However, it also plays into the idea that the unknown is inherently scary.

In recent years, there has a been a conscious shift away from this style of ambiguous horror. Although supernatural horror has made a comeback since the turn of the millennium, horror films seem to be fascinated with the parametres within which the supernatural must operate. Conditions are laid out. Secret histories are explored. End games are set in motion. More likely than not, there is a secret cult involved in shenanigans of an occult nature. The internet is full of useful – and entirely accurate – information about the arcane.

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This is most notable in weaker and disposable modern horror films. Indeed, the somewhat forced nature of this exposition runs deliberately counter to the “found footage” premise of films like Devil’s Due. Films like Friend Request allow their protagonist to trace the monster backwards through an almost comical chain of horror movie tropes in order to justify a fairly generic horror film. Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot decides that it is more interested in spending time exploring how Michael Myers came to be than in watching him work.

In some ways, it is tempted to interpret this as a logical extension of the inevitable franchise drive in horror film making. Even when it came to classic horror monsters, it was customary (and logical) for the sequels to spend time developing the monster instead of investing time in an entirely new set of disposable characters lining up to take a seat on the meatgrinder express. Freddie Krueger evolved into a camp icon over the course of his franchise, as much a hero of the series as any of the teens standing in his way. The same is true of Jigsaw over the Saw films.

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However, the trend is still striking. Consider the Paranormal Activity series of films. The original was released in 2007, directed by Oren Peli. It became a horror movie sensation, breathing even more life into the low-budget found-footage horror genre. The film was ambiguous and mysterious, with its young family menaced by a demonic entity whose violence gradually escalated. The premise was fairly straightforward, and the tension was quite effective.

However, even in Paranormal Activity there was a yearning to explain the demon. There was exposition driven by research that conveniently brought the necessary information. There was a rather memorable sequence in which our heroes gingerly test their ghost, by laying out powder on the ground so that they might see its footprints. However, there was also some measure of mystery to its malevolence. The creature’s attachment to wife and child was all the more unsettling for its ambiguity.

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The success of the movie meant sequels. And those sequels inevitably sought to develop a mythology around the film. This led to a bizarre situation where Paranormal Activity 3 ended up as a found footage horror prequel set in 1988 in order to explain exactly how the demon from the first film came to be attached to Katie. There was an over-abundance of explanations, a clear attempt to impose structure and order on something that would be much scarier without that order imposed on it.

Again, it is tempting to look at this as part of a broader trend in film production. Film series no longer build to sequels, they build to entire fictional universes. This desire to build “mythologies” may logically have bled over into horror films. Certainly, other blockbuster tropes have. Paranormal Activity 4 ends with a post-credits teaser in the style of modern blockbuster comic movies, setting up Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. James Wan positioned The Conjuring as the centre of a weird shared horror universe including Annabelle and The Nun.

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Indeed, a large part of the charm of The Conjuring II lies in the way that director James Wan combines horrible movie tropes with a blockbuster sensibility; the climax of the film hinges on our heroes racing back to a haunted house from the train station in what is effectively a car chase sequence intercut with a haunted house confrontation. In all of these films, great care is taken to insist that the supernatural entities follow clear rules and have clearly defined origins. In fact, Wan even takes pains to hide the demon’s name in the background of earlier scenes.

This obsession with rules and back story is quite clear in Lights Out, which is a very effective old-school horror film with a great high concept. However, there is also a sense that the film is behove to contemporary trends in horror. At one point, the protagonist finds what is literally a box full of back story, documents and tape recordings that explain where the monster at the heart of the film came from and how she came to be. At least it is more elegant than the “exposition-by-old-lady” routine pulled by Insidious.

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However, there is also a sense that Lights Out is cleverly playing with the “rules” of its central monster. Diana can only appear in the shadows, she disappears in the light. A lot of the fun of the movie comes from playing with that idea; Diana lurking just outside a pool of light, or Diana appearing in the pulse of a strobe light, or a character desperately trying to turn on the car lights to save himself from the monster. At one point towards the end of the film, the characters attempt to “Diana-proof” the house. This ultimately leads Diana herself to set a clever trap.

There is an engaging curiosity to the way that Lights Out plays with its central concept. What light sources work against Diana? What don’t? Towards the end of the film, the characters find themselves playing with three different light sources, hoping to use them in conjunction to trap and defeat Diana. On paper, it all sounds very complicated, as if the monster came with a set of instructions. It is to the credit of director David Sandberg that it flows relatively smoothly and organically.

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However, Lights Out does brush up against the limitations of this approach. The movie’s final twist hinges on the “rules” as laid out earlier in the film. It turns out that Diana is anchored to Sophie, the mother of the film’s protagonist. Sophie is suffering from depression, and Diana has been exploiting that to needle her way back to reality. At the climax, Sophie follows that logical thread to its inevitable conclusion. She puts a gun to her head and kills herself, severing her connection to Diana and saving her children. Logic wise, it is a very clever ending.

The only problem is that Lights Out is not strictly logical. The horror is allegorical in many ways, with Diana representing Sophie’s depressive tendencies; a metaphorical (rather than a literal) monster lurking in the darkness. While the ending makes a great deal of sense logically, it does not work thematically. Lights Out seems to come dangerously close to suggesting that the only way to free a family from depression is through suicide, which would be an abhorrent closing sentiment.

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To be fair to director David Sandberg, this was not his intent at all. In fact, Sandberg had planned an ending in which Sophie’s sacrifice was cleverly undercut, in which Sophie’s suicide did not resolve the threat. In that ending, Diana refused to be bound by the rules imposed on her. She returned to menace the protagonist and her younger brother. Sandberg shot that ending, but it did not test well with audiences. It seems like modern audiences have little patience for a monster that will not follow the rules. Luckily though, the inevitable sequel shall undercut that ending.

Even the most indie-minded non-franchise films seemed to engage with the idea of horror films as a set of rules and structures to be solved. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods is a great example of this trend, one that riffs on classic horror films by drawing attention to and actively discussing the rules that govern typical horror films. The team working in the bunker might be manipulating those rules, but they are clearly bound by them. Breaking the rules leads to the destruction of the world. Which Cabin in the Woods endorses wholeheartedly.

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The same is true of Oculus. On the surface, Oculus is a very conventional supernatural horror about a cursed mirror that brings bad luck to all who own it. However, the film approaches that story in a very rigorous and logical manner. Kaylie Russell has herself constructed a very logical and rational plan to entrap and destroy the mirror. More than that, Kaylie has invested considerable time and effort to recording and documenting the mirror. Video cameras are set up to provide an objective monitor, while the environment is carefully and meticulously controlled.

It Follows is another example of how contemporary horror is very much engaged with the idea of monsters who are controlled by rules. The title of the film obviously applies to the monster in a very literal sense, a mysterious creature that slowly follows its intended victim no matter how far they might go. However, the title might also be said to apply to the logical approach that the protagonists take this creature. The young teenage characters repeatedly (and often misguidedly) attempt to force the monster to make sense.

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It Follows focuses on a monster that is intentionally and creepily ambiguous, drawn from a vivid nightmare of director David Robert Mitchell and operating by dream logic. However, it also very clearly follows the rules. The protagonist Jay Height is introduced to the monster by her boyfriend Hugh, in a sequence that very clearly and effectively demonstrates what the creature is and how it works. Hugh provides Jay with some advice and a number of guidelines, rules that impose some sense on something inherently nonsensical.

A large part of the joy of It Follows is the care that the film takes in having its protagonists deal with the creature. The film provides a lot of empirical evidence, treating the creature almost as some horrifying test subject. One teenager has set up glass bottles on strings, suggesting that the creature must always be corporeal and that alarms can be set up against it. Although the creature is only visible to its victims, it clearly has physical form. The climax of the film hinges on the central characters working from this assumption an setting up an ambush to kill it.

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It Follows cleverly sets up and subverts this idea that the supernatural can be explained or predicted or governed. The teens are able to lure the creature into a trap. They plan to electrocute it in a pool, but the creature outwits them. They ultimately settle for shooting it. These solutions assume that the creature makes sense, that it is vulnerable to the same things that a person or animal might be vulnerable to. It initially appears to work. Jay, the only person who can actually see the creature, winds up seeing a growing pool of blood in the water. However, it does not last.

The creature does not die during the pool scene, no matter how much logic and rationality that the central characters apply to problem-solving the creature. In many ways, It Follows works so well because it subverts the expectations of modern horror films. It plays off this idea that supernatural films must be rational and logical in their own way, that there must be an internal logic to the way that universe works, even if that logic is not perceptible to mere mortals. The fact that It Follows is so successful at subverting that expectation demonstrates how accepted it has become.

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It is interesting to wonder why modern horror films are so fixated on the idea of rules. It is probably impossible to tell, but it is fun to speculate. It is tempting to look at this fascination with horror film rules as a reflection of contemporary society, a reaction to the world around these films. After all, there is a clear link to be made between the haunted house horrors of the seventies and the realities of the decade, when the question of how to pay the mortgage and the popularisation of divorce threatened to turn the family home into something horrifying.

Perhaps the insistence that horror movies make sense and that paranormal beings follow clearly defined rules speaks to anxieties about a real world that has threatened to stop making sense. The found footage films of the early twenty-first century blurred the lines between reality and fiction, couching imaginary horrors in the televisual language of 9/11. Torture porn expressed anxieties about both the torture inflicted upon prisoners and the footage of mangled and broken bodies that were increasingly part of the twenty-four hour news cycle.

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In terms of political context, it is worth noting that modern horror movies seem to feel comfortable throwing their monsters into conflict with the authorities, the forces of law and order. Both The Conjuring II and Lights Out feature extended sequences in which the heroes go to the police to help, only for the monsters to quickly overwhelm those who claim to be in authority. There is an undercurrent of uncertainty to these horrors, as if the monsters are not merely abstract or subjective; they are real enough that they can engage in confrontations with armed police officers.

After all, the past couple of years have seen chaos on an incredible scale; rioting in major American cities, the poisoning of water supplies, a major political candidate who legitimately a build a wall to keep the foreigners out. New and shocking horrors and threats are revealed everyday, spreading like wildfire through sensationalist news outlet and viral social media. Nobody seems to know what is happening. Nobody predicted Brexit and the chaos it wrought. Nobody seemed to believe that Trump would be the nominee and the harm he has inflicted.

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It is strange to think that horror movies serve as a safe space, positing a world where even paranormal threats and supernatural demons follow a logic that seems increasing foreign to the real world. Ironically, the horror movie’s fixation upon rules and boundaries provides a strange comfort. The real horror is not necessarily on screen.

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8 Responses

  1. Along with Cabin in the Woods and Scream, I think another example of a film subverting rules is one my favorite horror films, Tucker and Dale Vs Evil. That film very deliberately follows most of the expected rules of horror: the dumb college students, a skinny dipping scene, a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Yet, it turns the conventions on its head by making the backwoods people, Tucker and Dale, the heroes.

    As for why films are so obsessed with rules I think it might be because filmmakers know audience members have grown smarter when it comes to Horror films. So, outlining the rules is a way of lulling the audience into a false sense of complacency by making them think the characters are just as genre savvy as they are. Then, when things go wrong it enhances the dread because the audience has not been able to anticipate the problems. It is the reason Psycho worked so well. Everyone in the audience, at the time, thought Janet Leigh was the main character, so when she died, then the audience realized no one was safe, which made the film that more terrifying.

    • Tucker and Dale is phenomenal. Notably, my mum – who HATES horror films after a bad experience with The Shining – loved that film. It’s sad that it didn’t find a larger audience.

      I think you might be on to something with the idea it’s simply film-makers playing to more savvy audience members. I think a lot of modern culture assumes some level of awareness from the audience, an engagement with the underlying tropes. This is obvious in a number of ways, but most obviously in the fact that irony has become a cinematic shorthand that treats the audience as being “in” on the spectacle and in the increased emphasis on remixing old ideas rather than simply rehashing. (Crossovers! Shared universes! Gender swaps! Genre shifts! Multiple high concepts!) All of these assume the audience is in on the ground floor and casually fluent in the language of cinema/narrative.

      • “All of these assume the audience is in on the ground floor and casually fluent in the language of cinema/narrative..” It is funny you should mention that because it reminds me of a film I saw recently, Kubo and the Two Strings, which an incredibly brilliant film about the power of story, and why it is integral to the human condition.

      • Looking forward to Kubo, actually. Although it’s not getting much press over here.

  2. In some ways I think audiences might be more daring than the filmakers here.

    I remember ‘Deep Blue Sea’, the super-intelligent killer shark movie from 1999. Enjoyable shlock mostly but it did kill the single most sacred cow in the horror business: the Final Girl. Test audiences (rightfully) hated Saffron Burrows’s character for causing the problems in the first place so in the final cut she got eaten ten minutes before the end and comic relief LL Cool J survived in her place (so did Thomas Jane but he was clearly intended to be Burow’s love interest.)

    To this day I think that is probably the most rule breaking moment I’ve seen in a horror flick, far more so than ‘Scream’ – generally if the Final Girl doesn’t make it no one does. I’ve also seen a few films were the Final Girl is driven/always was evil but ‘Deep Blue Sea’ is the only one I know to just kill her off outright and still leave survivors.

  3. Great article! Would you be interested in sharing this with our horror fans on moviepilot.com? I think they’d enjoy getting in on this conversation as well.

    • Hi Julian! I would be very interested, but I’m not entirely sure how that affects search-engine optimisation or all that sort of stuff for this site. Would I be able to email you over the weekend?

      • Anything you publish on our platform will be immediately visible on Google sitemaps, if that’s what you mean. But absolutely feel free to write me when you have the time and I can answer any questions!

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