I was listening to a discussion recently about sequels to horror movies. Several of the participants in the discussion asserted that a sequel featuring the same villain couldn’t be as scary as the original, because “once you’ve seen the villain, they stop being scary.” The same people also claimed that any work of horror fiction would not be as good the second time you read/watch it, for the same reason.
Upon hearing this assertion, I thought about my favorite works of horror, and I don’t believe that assertion is true. In fact, I think the best horror gets better upon repeated viewings, not worse. Of course, since I barely every watch movies, my favorites are all plays and musicals.
Let’s start with one of my favorites: Sondheim, Bond, and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. We get to see the villainous title character in the very first song, and he remains on stage for much of the show. Yet, the aura of terror he projects is not in any way “diminished by overexposure.” Instead, we get to see the inner workings of Benjamin Barker’s mind. We see as he progresses from a refugee just trying to find his family, to someone who will kill to silence blackmail, and then to being driven to kill by revenge. Seeing everything unfold only adds to the dramatic power when we witness Todd’s ultimate change in heart, as he concludes “they all deserve to die.”
Jumping to a slightly more recent example, from the first moment we see Thomas Parker in Laurence O’Keefe’s Bat Boy, there is no question as to what kind of a person Parker is. The very first thing we see Thomas do is threaten to kill his wife’s son in front of her unless she has sex with him right away. There really is no doubt in the audience’s mind that he is the villain of the story. And when he concocts his Grand Plan, he doesn’t hide it from the audience; he sings his plan to us as he is thinking of it. The people he does keep it a secret from are the rest of the cast.
That means that when Parker kills his first victim, we know why he’s doing it, and we know how he intends to frame his step-son for the killing. Had we just seen him start randomly killing people, or had we seen minor characters start dropping dead without knowing who the killer was, the show wouldn’t have had the same effect. Ruthie Taylor, Parker’s first victim, is not a particularly important character. We don’t really know much about her. The reason we care about her death isn’t that we’ve lost a major character (since we haven’t), it’s because we care about the killer’s motivations and objective. Knowing who the killer is from the beginning makes Parker a better horror villain.
And since we know what Thomas Parker’s plan is all along, he is no less powerful the 10th time you’ve watched the show as the first time. Between the first time I saw Bat Boy and the second, I listened to the music more times than I’d like to admit, and my appreciation for Parker as an antagonist only increased on subsequent viewings.
Stepping back in time a few centuries, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth both contain elements of what would later become the horror genre. Both of these plays have been analyzed extensively by people who write much better than me, so no analysis I give of them would offer new insights. Yet, these proto-horror plays have remained popular centuries after their original production. That fact indicates that repeated readings/viewings of Hamlet and Macbeth do not diminish their appeal.
Jumping forwards in time again, let’s consider Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal. Even though he is in some ways a symptom of a real mental illness, Gabe has many characteristics of the classic horror villain. He cannot be destroyed, and always comes back to haunt the protagonist. Even when Diana loses her memory of everything else, Gabe finds a way back to remind her of him. And, as he says himself, Gabe “feed[s] on the fear that’s behind your eyes.” Nevertheless, Gabe is present on stage for the entire show. The fact that Gabe is always visible is what gives him his power as a psychological horror villain. The reason he is scarey such a strong antagonist is because you can’t get rid of him. Like Di herself, the audience sees that Gabe is always there, always present, always talking. He cannot be forgotten, and there is no escape. By making sure the audience sees Gabe all the time, the writers give the audience a sense of what life is like for Diana. By seeing, and not merely being told, what Di is experiencing, the audience can understand why having to see Gabe all the time is such a debilitating mental illness. Even when Di herself leaves, Dan still sees Gabe, “the one who’s always been there.” Had the writers decided to keep him off-stage for most of the show, we wouldn’t get to see inside Diana’s mind, and the impact of the story would be nullified. Being a constant visible presence doesn’t weaken him from “overexposure,” it makes him into a worthy antagonist.
I’d be remiss not to mention the two modern musicals which have “horror” in their titles, even though I am not sure that either are actually horror. The first is Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors. As in the previous examples, the villain in this play is on stage the entire time.
In Litte Shop, we get to see Seymour’s progression from an ordinary person, to someone who is willing to kill if the person he is killing is really bad, to someone who is willing to kill his surrogate father to cover his own tracks. Then we get to seem his decision to continue killing at all costs, to keep his romantic relationship, before ultimately feeling remorse and trying in vain to redeem himself. Through everything that happens, the Audrey II is onstage, either in Seymour’s hand or in the background. Even for scenes not set in the shop, many productions keepy the larger Audrey II puppets on set for the later parts of Act I and all of Act II. Seymour is onstage most of the time because the story is told from his perspective. Like Sweeney Todd before him, the fact that we get to see Seymour’s motivations is what makes him a powerful character. And like with Gabriel Goodman, the Audrey II’s precense continuous precense onstage allows the audience to feel the protagonist’s inescapable horror. Even when Seymour is nowhere near the plant, he still has thoughts about the Audrey II in the back of his mind. In the show, by keeping the Audrey II onstage the entire time, we are getting a window into Seymour’s mind, in which the evil alien plant is always present. Once again, prolonged exposure makes the antagonist a more powerful villain, not less.
The other famous musical with “horror” in the title is The Rocky Horror Show. There isn’t really a “villain” in Rocky Horror. However, this show does present a nice counterexample to those who claim that horror loses its power upon repeated viewings. Whilst the original Rocky Horror Show has only moderate popularity, the film adaptions has a cult following, with people rewatching it year after year. The fact that rewatching the Picture Show continues to be popular speaks for itself.
There may be some works of horror which rely on a shock value that is diminished if the audience has seen it before. I contend, however, that that is a weakness of those particular works of fiction, not of horror as a whole.