Fandom can be a funny thing. People become very protective of the things they love. As horror fans, most of us have likely had to defend our love of the genre a time or two…hundred, which can cause some jading over time. This is perfectly understandable considering the deep chords that horror has the ability to strike in each of us. Our passions are stirred by anything that appears to question or threaten the genre we love. Passion is not the problem. The problem is taking that passion to a place of exclusion for the sake of preserving some sort of “purity” in horror fandom.
So, what is a horror fan? What does a fan look like? Is there an ultimate expression of horror fandom? Horror is a big tent capable of housing a vast fan base and a massive variety of people. Collectors, cosplayers, and convention die-hards. Deep cut devotees, indie darlings, and those who only check out the big franchises. Edgelords, scaredy-cats, and everything in between. I count my own horror fandom as beginning before I could even see a horror film. I’m old enough to remember a time when the VCR was a fairly expensive luxury. But, in the years before my family owned one, I discovered and became obsessed with the Universal Monsters through library books. When I was about four, my mom bought me a Famous Monsters activity book, which I still own. When we finally did get a VCR, one of the very first movies I watched on it was the 1931 Frankenstein… and my fandom was cemented.
Truly, there is no one way to love horror. That is obvious, right? But if that is the case, why do gatekeepers so often come out of the woodwork? Of course, most fans are wonderful, compassionate, and welcoming people who form a diverse community of misfits. There are two kinds of fandom, however, that concern me. One is largely an annoyance while the other has proven to have a profound impact on movies and the creators behind them.
The first, the annoyance, are what could be called exclusionists or gatekeepers. These are the ones that try to prove their credibility by showing up in Twitter mentions to tell people they’re stupid for liking a particular movie or weak for finding a film (almost any film it seems) scary or disturbing. Recently, a video rife with misguided vitriol and laughable inaccuracies attacking a person who expressed how frightening a particular film was to them went viral. It was intended to be the first in a series called “You’re Not a Horror Fan.” I don’t intent to rub salt in the wound of that particular exchange (okay, maybe a little salt is warranted), but needless to say, the poster of that particular video was dragged over the coals. The problem with the video was not the passion behind it but the gatekeeping mentality; the “you’re not a real horror fan unless” of it all.
It is important to keep in mind that these guys (and yes, it is almost always guys) are relatively harmless. As aggravating as they can be, they have no real power. They can buzz around our ears and the internet all they want, but they can’t do anything to actually exclude anyone from the horror community. All they can do is buzz, not actually sting. Most of the time they just hang out in their corner of the tent and whine to each other. Have at it, bros, just don’t be surprised when most refuse to listen as we head to our dark web suppliers for copies of Cannibal Holocaust (or we can just go find it on Amazon).
Far more dangerous are the Annie Wilkeses of this world. When Stephen King created this iconic character, he may have had other things in mind, but she has become an apt metaphor of modern toxic fandom. Now, no one is saying that these “number one fans” are literally kidnapping creators, strapping them to beds, and forcing them to make art that conforms to their liking. There is a real-world version of this, however, that has become all too apparent over the past several years. Fan backlash has had an extremely powerful effect on the ways some movie franchises have been produced going forward. The biggest examples are the #ReleasetheSyderCut movement, the fallout after Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, and most closely related to the horror world, the controversy over Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot.
Each of these situations pressured studio executives to change course. In the case of Justice League, the film, reworked and finished by Joss Whedon after tragedy compelled Zack Snyder to leave the project, was considered a critical and financial disappointment. In the past, that would have been that and life would have gone on. The fan-led hashtag campaign, however, eventually encouraged Warner Brothers to sink a great deal of money into allowing Snyder to complete his original vision, an unusual gamble which paid off. I don’t begrudge a filmmaker being given the chance to complete their film, but I was disturbed by the way it came about. Ultimately, rather than appeasing fans it emboldened them to start a new #RestoretheSnyderverse campaign.
Both Ghostbusters (2016) and The Last Jedi were praised by critics and performed well at the worldwide box office. It was the backlash by a particularly vocal element of the fanbases of these franchises, however, that caused huge fallouts for both at the studio level. At Lucasfilm, the original directors of both Solo and the final installment of the Skywalker Saga were replaced with “safer” bets, likely leading to far more bland results in both cases. Also, a planned new trilogy created by The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson was quietly cancelled. Ghostbusters made over $229 million worldwide, but was considered a failure, partly because of the fan backlash (plus that massive budget). Sequel plans to this reimagining were scrapped in favor of a second sequel to the original film, the just-released Ghostbusters: Afterlife. In the cases mentioned here, these filmmakers have generally landed on their feet, but what happens to the new or diverse voice who has not yet gained Hollywood clout and is silenced for good by fan backlash?
I have been very vocal in various places about my concern over creators being shackled and forced to bend to the demands of the fanbase. I feel the final result of this sort of “filmmaking by committee” or fan consensus almost always results in underwhelming, bland movies. We love these IPs because the originals were daring, often breakthroughs, in film. George Lucas’s Star Wars changed the face of cinema because it was different from anything else around at the time. Horror-comedy was never the same after the fierce originality of the original Ghostbusters. Yes, of course we want to experience that lightning in a bottle effect again, but it simply will not happen under the kinds of circumstances that have been created.
Luckily, horror has been largely untouched by this kind of fandom up to this point, but I fear it could happen at any moment. I plead with fellow horror fans that we resist the urge. Ultimately it only benefits movie fans when filmmakers are given the freedom to try something new. Sometimes it connects, sometimes it doesn’t, but occasionally it’s a home run. Innovative filmmakers need to be given the space and opportunity to take those wild swings. When they do, we all end up winning.
So, back to my original question, are you really even a horror fan? The term fan is, of course, derived from the word fanatic, implying a deep love for something. Ironically, the litmus test for true fandom in recent years seems to have evolved (or devolved) into how much you hate something. Maybe it’s time that we turn that around again, that we express our love for the genre in whatever way we see fit. Better yet, forget about keeping fandom “pure” and let others express it how they see fit as well. That is what I mean by this big tent community of horror fans. So, whether you fall asleep watching A Serbian Film or hide your eyes during the clown scene in Poltergeist, the criterion for horror fandom is simple and only requires answering one question: do you love horror? Whatever form your expression of that love takes, if the answer is “yes,” then you are a horror fan.