Fear of the unknown. That was Lovecraft’s thing; his point was that people like to be scared because fear is one of the strongest emotions. It triggers fight or flight, which translates directly to adrenaline. Which feels good, assuming you can tolerate what you have to go through to get there. That’s the appeal of horror movies in a nutshell. Low risk, high reward, basically. The experience of fear without any real danger.
A book is a delightful way to get the adrenaline rush of fear without the risk of bruises and broken bones. Movies are a close second. But the book exists entirely in the mind of the reader, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a scarier place than inside my head. (Cheap joke, I know.) Representing that fear becomes a function of what is not seen or understood much more than what is seen or understood. Describe it and you introduce recognition, which messes with the emotion.
That same fear of the unknown is what I think makes horror movies so difficult. I’m no filmmaker, but I imagine it’s pretty hard to represent “the unknown” in as realistic a medium as a movie. Once the viewer can see it, it becomes noticeably less unknown, and therefore less scary. It’s the movies that don’t ever really show the object to be feared that can really scare us. Anything else is just a tribute to the horror genre, sometimes even a mocking tribute (intentionally or not).
I have to admit that I’ve never been all that big on the slasher subgenre. I’ve seen a lot of them, as some of my friends have been big fans. But there’s nothing scary about them; they’re just gory and perhaps if you’re lucky they will startle you a few times. For my money being startled is a cheap substitute, and I have no interest in gore. Get me inside the mind of a serial killer, though, and maybe you’ll get my attention. But that’s more about crazy than scary, and that’s another post.
Vampires are where it’s at, in my humble opinion. (And before it even gets mentioned, the short version: Twilight is not a vampire/horror story, it’s a YA romance series.) If you want to get historical, you can find any manner of weirdness in vampire myths. But once we get to Stoker, the game changes; challenge the Victorian standard and things get interesting. It’s about the degradation of power and life (and open sexuality, of course). It’s about man versus empire, unbalanced strength being reduced and/or destroyed by the underdog. And boobies, once we get to the 1960s, but I digress.
And I definitely prefer the old school stuff. The Universal monsters, and even up through the Hammer years, are way more fun and come way closer to embracing true horror than anything they’re making today. I’m not a total curmudgeon about it; there are a few good scary movies that have been done recently (looking at you, The Cabin in the Woods). But graphic yuckiness just doesn’t do it for me. I want the emotion, not the nausea.