Horror is a slippery genre to pin down at times, with perhaps more sub-genres than any other media category, dividing opinion between fans and critics alike. Gore, violence, and jump scares are all divisive topics that can make or break the viewer’s enjoyment of a particular movie. It Comes At Night relies upon its forboding atmosphere to create fear, while the likes of The Nun will use the sudden intrusion of noise during a quiet scene to inject momentary terror into the viewer.
Each approach prompts discourse about whether one is truly scarier than the other. One of the more interesting debates: is it better to watch a horror movie at home or the theater?
On the surface, watching at home may appear a safer environment to indulge in a horror movie, rendering it less effective. Traditionally, the home is an inherently safe space, seen as a place of warmth and security – a known quantity. In one recent movie, the homeowner is actually the villain. There’s an element of control, where if things become too harrowing, the viewer can always turn off the movie. Cozying up on the sofa to watch a horror movie at night is a practice that many fans will be accustomed to. However, those same fans will be acutely aware that an effective horror flick can quickly undermine this impregnable environment and instill a feeling of vulnerability.
In recent years, there are few more accessible films that have achieved this than Host. The movie was released exclusively on streaming service Shudder during the initial onset of the global pandemic to widespread critical and audience acclaim. Watching horror at home almost mirrors the plot of the film. While the cast reluctantly engages with spirits from beyond the grave, so too are the audience welcoming an evil presence into their home. It adds a layer of culpability, leaving the audience feeling both complicit and susceptible. That the movie takes place via the video calling app Zoom, and could only be viewed via a streaming service on release, added a personal touch which is undoubtedly lost when transferred onto the big screen.
Meanwhile, opting to indulge in a horror movie in the theater requires an individual to summon some form of courage, akin to that of a final girl preparing to face off against the villain on their home turf. In the theater, there’s no volume control to reduce every piercing scream to a squeak, each inescapable visual is seared onto the audience’s minds. Speaking aloud to relieve the tension will only serve to evoke someone’s wrath, like a victim hiding in the closet from Michael Myers, while the person munching popcorn at the end of the row during a tense scene could just as easily send the viewer into a murderous rage themselves. Though, thanks to the versatility of the genre, movies like Happy Death Day and Freaky are actually better served being watched with an audience in order to share in the highs of the humor, while being collectively chilled by the scares.
For better or worse, watching horror in the theater remains a communal experience. While there feels like an obligation not to duck out having paid for a ticket, it’s easier to remain in a screening when the theater is packed. In the aftermath of each and every jumpscare deployed, there is a sense that the fear will dissipate as those around you regain their composure. Safety in numbers breeds relief and at the end of the movie, you can still flee to the security of your own home.
Of course, that thought process ignores that there are plenty of horror movies that transcend the cinematic experience and follow the viewer home. These are films at the pinnacle of the genre. They continue to fester, creeping up as the mind quietens and the lights dim late at night. Ari Aster’s Hereditary is one of the most influential horror films of the past decade, with great emphasis placed on the finer details as well as the overt horror. While scares like Charlie’s severed head swarming with ants and Steve being burned alive undoubtedly hit hard while in the cinema, the quieter moments like Annie catching a glimpse of her mother after her death and Charlie appearing to Peter will haunt the viewer long after the credits roll. Hereditary is a prime example of a horror movie that will set pulses racing long after the movie ends at the sound of a boiler’s flutter or floorboard creak.
This supports the idea that watching horror at home is the better choice. Indeed, watching those invasive movies in the cinema only serves to prolong the onset of dread. It could be argued that, at home, the viewer can simply turn off the movie, while it’s harder to walk out of the theater after paying. Yet, if a movie is so unsettling that it needs to be turned off, it’s arguably already doing its job to great effect.
Ultimately, owing to the versatility of the genre, both viewing at home or in the theater have their merits – which can be a blessing or a curse for the success of a film. There’s every chance Host wouldn’t have been as successful had it released on the big screen first. Yet, with Hereditary, the very best horror movies linger long enough to unsettle audiences in both the theater and at home. Within that lies the proof that horror movies are better watched at home. Whether the viewer is looking for the ultimate scare, or need the ability to turn off the movie and walk away, watching at home offers the illusion of safety and control, but is often undermined by the movie. The erosion of safety is at the heart of nearly every horror movie.
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