It’s a cliche of slasher-ville that characters get punished for having sex. The Final Girl is generally virginal; the sex-scene murder is a staple. Thus, the moral of many a classic horror film is surprisingly puritanical for a genre that glories in tits and gore: Don’t have Sex.
Every horror movie has a moral is the only one of my cardinal rules of horror that has no exceptions. If you have a movie with no discernable moral (even if it’s a little scary) then you don’t have a horror film; you have a drama.
Horror needs a moral because that’s where the ammunition comes from. The movie world has rules and when someone breaks them, there are consequences. In other words, horror movies are fables.
By definition, every fable has a moral. Little Red Riding Hood should not have stopped to chat with that wolf in the Big Dark Woods. Moral: Don’t Talk to Strangers. If The Shepherd Boy didn’t make such a fuss over nothing, he might not have been eaten by a Wolf (same wolf, different story?). Moral: Don’t Cry Wolf. If the Hare didn’t stop and take that nap, it would’ve run circles around the Tortoise. Moral…well that actually depends who’s the protagonist of this reboot. Either it’s Don’t be Overconfident (if we’re following the tragic rise and fall of the Hare) or Slow and Steady blah blah blah (if this is an underdog story about the Tortoise).
The point is, in almost every fable, people do a wrong thing and then face (often horrific) consequences. Welcome to the entire horror genre! A film can explore lots of themes, but likely only has one or maybe two morals, and those morals clearly state things we should or should not do. We Should Eat the Rich (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977); we Shouldn’t Buy Green-Washed Fast-Fashion (SLAXX, 2020).
“But that’s just hokey slashers!” you may protest. “MY favorite horror films are elevated; brilliant; complex. Morals are simplistic; morals are kid stuff.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve already complained elsewhere about the term “elevated” as applied to horror. I like Ari Aster and Jennifer Kent as much as anybody, but their films have morals: HEREDITARY (2018) Don’t Ignore Family Trauma; MIDSOMMAR (2019) Find Your Family At Any Cost; THE BABADOOK (2014) Don’t Ignore Your Trauma (I’m sensing a trend). The presence of a moral is not a bad thing. It’s a function of the genre.
Even the most “elevated” horror is trying to make a point. More complicated films might be trying to make a more complicated point, although my favorite ones (usually) are not. I find a too-complicated moral muddies the terror waters.
Take, for example, 2020’s LUCKY, directed by Natasha Kermani: it’s a solid flick, clever and, in the first half, scary. It explores themes of gender and violence, and the ways that society teaches women to be afraid, neglects to protect them (us), and also teaches them (us) not to help each other. Even though it’s using horror structure and horror tropes, LUCKY loses it’s scare-factor toward the end, I think in part because it fails to have a distinct moral. The moral might be You Can’t Trust Society To Protect You or maybe it’s Help Other Women or maybe it’s Keep Fighting. Lots of interesting ideas here that I care about deeply, but the extent to which I’m not sure of the moral starts to make this more of a conceptual drama than a horror film. On the other hand, Lynne Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) is totally a horror film to me, despite the structural complexities that make some people label it as a drama instead. For one thing, it has a growing sense of dread that only gets scarier as the film progresses. For another, it has a clear (and chilling) moral: You Created This Monster; Now Love Him.
Of course, there are morals we see time and again. I already mentioned the most obvious one: Don’t Have Sex. In slasher after slasher, the first to screw is (one of) the first to die: SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982), FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997), HALLOWEEN (1978). It’s such a well-known trope that it’s parodied in SCREAM (1996) and CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011), among other films. Morals like this persist across horror subgenres – in the above list alone the Don’t Have Sex moral shows up in “Scared Babysitter” films, a “Secrets Will Out” murder-revenge story, and a “Summer Camp Massacre” film. But some of the most popular horror morals also seem to function as a subgenre of their own.
Take the ultimate SciFi horror moral: Don’t Go To Space. While there is a case to be made that the moral of the Alien films is actually “Don’t get pregnant,” it seems to me that none of this would’ve happened if they never went into space in the first place. They didn’t belong in the vast empty, and if they had to go there, then they damn well ought’ve stayed off that godforsaken abandoned spaceship. It’s the clear moral not just of ALIEN (1979) but also of ALIENS (1986), PROMETHEUS (2012), and ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)…in other words, all the good movies of this series. A couple of these films also have the incredibly popular Don’t Trust Robots moral, but I feel that Don’t Go To Space is more central across the franchise.
The Don’t Go To Space genre is vast, and I struggle to name a single space-based movie where that’s not a primary moral. EVENT HORIZON (1997), SOLARIS (1972), PITCH BLACK (2000), GRAVITY (2013) – an argument can be made for some of these movies also having another moral, but Don’t Go To Space is up there. This moral/genre also encompasses spelunking flicks and movies about deep-sea adventures. THE DESCENT (2005) and UNDERWATER (2020) have pretty obvious Don’t Fucking Go There energy throughout (DESCENT has a healthy dash of Don’t Have (Adulterous) Sex, too, but ultimately everybody dies, not just Juno-the-cheater, so I stand by my moral here).
Another of my favorite horror morals that comes up time and again is Don’t Trust The Police / That Man Won’t Save You. I lump these together because I feel they often share a similar tone; even if The Man who won’t Save You isn’t a literal cop, he often has Big Cop Energy. Films with this moral that I dearly love include THE WICKER MAN (1973), BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984).
I also never get enough of Eat/Burn The Rich, an especially popular moral for films that start off feeling like idyllic horror. These films often take advantage of beautiful people wearing beautiful costumes and hanging out in lush settings to lull you into a false sense of pleasantness and security before burning it all, very satisfyingly, to the ground. I highly recommend READY OR NOT (2019) and THE CHANGELING (1980) for literal fire, TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) for literal eating, and MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND (2017) for a film that will make you wish something burned, although, spoiler alert, nothing actually does.
But what’s the point of all this categorizing? Why do we care if a film is technically a horror film or technically a drama? If it’s compelling, if it’s satisfying, if it’s scary…isn’t that all we need?
To me as a writer and a viewer, it’s useful to understand why something worked, or didn’t. I think a big problem of dramas-with-horror-elements (2020s THE INVISIBLE MAN, for instance) is that they’re often marketed as horror films. This makes them destined to disappoint a portion of viewers – including me – who go in hoping for a true scare. I also feel like women filmmakers (back to Ramsay’s KEVIN) are sometimes slotted into a “drama” category when they make horror – and I think in part that’s so we can avoid the obviousness of the point that’s being made. It’s so nuanced. It’s so clever. It has so many LEVELS.
Sure. Fine. Nuance! Levels! They are there. But it also has one clear moral.
Ignore at your peril.
If you do, the monsters will absolutely get you in the end.
Share your thoughts below! What’s your favorite horror moral? Can you think of any horror films with NO MORAL WHATSOEVER? Make your case!