Crafting a solid horror story is at once incredibly difficult and even harder to explain. Like comedy, horror is entirely subjective—without a solid framework, good elements can end up being dog-piled by the unnecessary and repetitive. Unlike comedy, however, which can create effective commentary through satire and wit, horror’s strengths remain deeply rooted in a primal part of the human mind. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, and insanity are all common themes in horror, but we as people are so familiar with them that it takes little for a trope to be overused (or at least seem that way). One can see only so many movies based on a haunted house or demonic possession before the allure of originality fades into boredom.
Horror movies—especially those produced by the US—notoriously sidestep many practices intended to subtly create an air of dread and unease in favor of cheap jump scares. Horror movies nowadays are basically action movies with the lights turned off. And when the film is not trying to get the most baseline emotional response possible, it usually ends up devolving into “creepiness” which generally translates into surreal imagery (a la American Horror Story). One can’t totally blame filmmakers, though—subtlety isn’t easy to explain and for the uninitiated, the idea doesn’t exactly market well.
Black Mirror, the wildly popular Netflix show, scratches an itch not since commented upon since The Twilight Zone. The series is filled with unrelated stories crossing genres from romance to horror to drama, all centering around a theme of technological advancement. And while it does other genres extremely well (“San Junipero” comes to mind), its treatment of horror remains unparalleled in mainstream media, particularly the episodes “Playtest” and “Whitebear.”
In both instances, the show drops the viewer in the middle of a scene without context or an easy explanation. Though far from an uncommon trope, these episodes aspire to the heights of horror greatness by focusing on the individual rather than the setting. By this I mean usually shows and movies will try to set up the world in which the main character(s) live in order to provide a sense of solid ground for the audience, which then builds as the story progresses. Black Mirror creates effective tension by removing any semblance of comfortability. We do not know what can and can’t happen, what has and hasn’t gone into the world the main character is in, or how their decisions will affect them going forward.
Horror starts with the individual, and when the main character is scared and alone, we feel the same. “Playtest” bounces from reality to reality without ever revealing its hand, leaving the viewer on edge and paranoid about what will happen next, and “Whitebear” creates a world with rules the protagonist knows nothing about, only to completely turn that world on its head at the last minute. In both instances, the result is a feeling of claustrophobia, tightening the atmosphere and making it hard to sit still for fear of what might happen.
Both examples also include twists, which deserve mention because twists in the horror genre are at best tired and at worst maddeningly overdone. Black Mirror fixes this problem by allowing the twist to make sense in the story’s context (which doesn’t often happen in horror movies) and by informing and re-contextualizing the story in retrospect. Twists are supposed to redefine the way one looks at the story they’ve just finished, whereas most writers and directors prefer to keep it an easy way to shock the audience. Black Mirror’s method is obviously better because it encourages re-watching as opposed to most twist-heavy movies that basically make a second viewing tedious and even more confusing than the first.
But does any of this matter? Does horror have a place in contemporary mainstream media? Does Black Mirror’s* success exist purely in a vacuum? I personally believe good, genuine horror—like “Whitebear” and “Playtest”—works as a cautionary tale in the vein of science fiction (which Black Mirror certainly is) that can put us in check from becoming too obsessed with technology. The consequences of seemingly harmless or justified advancements in punishment and entertainment, respectively, branches out onto a very human plain. Horror unites us in its capacity to illicit unambiguous emotional reactions, and that’s usually a good place to start when trying to drive home an important message about humanity’s limited ability to consider the scope and implications of our actions.
Black Mirror demonstrates how easy fear can permeate when the boundaries of our perception are left unclear, because that we can sense but not quite see will always be scarier than the thing right in front of us, and that’s something worth talking about.