A Telltale Narrative: American Horror Film and Metacinema

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Teague, Savanna Rae
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Middle Tennessee State University
The film genre of horror will not and possibly cannot die. The genre’s metacinema tradition existed in the first flickers of the motion picture industry with its reliance on adaptation and serialization, and it continues, producing along the way an expanding range of scholarship. To understand the trajectory of current genre trends is to examine horror’s inherently meta nature—its need to reference itself and its audience’s growing awareness of horror’s intertextuality. With metanarratives as the focus of analysis, a singular, linear progression of the genre emerges. This progression links films to one another through their reflexivity; it relies less upon historical categorizations that group films on the basis of dates or production cycles. Metatextual remnants, such as characters like Igor in any Frankenstein iteration, carry on through decades of films in the form of references, adaptations, and fourth-wall breaks, resulting in a visible metanarrative within the horror genre. By confronting tropes self-referentially, meta becomes a language that horror filmmakers use to speak to their audiences, to other filmmakers, and to the genre itself. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) achieves meta status by creating multiple points of view through careful camerawork that invites an audience to examine its understanding of horror. Films like Scream 4 (2011), however, demonstrate the risk of relying too heavily on a metanarrative to stand in place of a coherent story, especially with an audience aware that certain meta elements are expected in a film franchise. A crucial difference between most of the overt meta-horror films of the 2010s and their predecessors, including Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and the original Scream (1996), is the purposeful use of meta. Whereas horror films of the 1990s and 2000s use meta to engage audiences with reminders of the real world, meta-horror films of the 2010s devolve into satire without advancing a metanarrative conversation. The horror genre is still recovering from its most meta era of the last three decades with a better appreciation for what meta can do when employed strategically and with knowledge of its various imitations.
Film studies