More than any other film genre, horror instills self-consciousness in its audience. “It’s only a movie,” we repeatedly remind ourselves when we’re scared, as per the tagline of Wes Craven’s 1972 classic, The Last House on the Left –a refrain that deliberately undermines suspension of disbelief. Meanwhile, we’re thinking about how others in the audience perceive us in this vulnerable state. Many viewers work hard to avoid letting friends think they’re scared – straining for the appearance of stoicism, or in some annoying cases, loudly poking fun at the movie in an attempt to ease tension – while others embrace fear as an excuse to cozy up to their partner (hence the stereotype of horror movies making great date movies).
The social aspect of horror movie-going brings an interactivity to the genre that’s ripe for postmodern experimentation. That’s one reason why a considerable number of horror films play with the concept of metafiction, and I mean “play” literally: with horror films particularly, metafiction is a tool to tease and toy with audiences whose increased sensitivity renders them ripe for manipulation. As we tell ourselves “it’s only a movie,” these films tell us “yeah, we know. And we see you.”
Before I attempt to answer the question of what metafictional horror films have to say, or what makes them effective, I suppose I should explain what I mean by “metafiction.” The simplest definition is “fiction about fiction.” Metafiction can exist in any medium that hosts fiction, and in any genre. Metafiction itself is not a distinct genre, but a lens through which storytellers explore the nature of creating or consuming fiction.
What seems to trip up some people is that just because a work of fiction includes moments of fourth-wall breaking, or cheeky self-aware references to other works of fiction, doesn’t mean the work itself is metafictional. Ferris Bueller turns to the camera to address the audience, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is not metafiction because fiction has little significance to the film’s plot or themes. Similarly, while various creators may have played with metafiction intermittently in 30+ years of Deadpool comics, all the fourth-wall breaking in the Deadpool films doesn’t make those metafictional either.
The 2017 horror-comedy Happy Death Day is a good example of what I mean in regards to this trope in horror, with the premise that a college girl (Jessica Rothe), stalked by a masked killer, repeatedly wakes up to the same day, until she’s killed again and the cycle repeats. It’s transparently a slasher twist on the classic 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, and with at least one explicit reference to that film, Happy Death Day isn’t shy about wearing its influences on its sleeve -– but it isn’t metafiction.
That isn’t a value judgment, however. Horror filmmaking requires self-awareness, but being metafictional is not inherently a virtue. Some metafictional horror films are in fact quite bad. Case-in-point: The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence).
If you’re only familiar with writer/director Tom Six’s The Human Centipede trilogy as a meme, I recommend keeping it that way. The original 2009 exploitation film culminates in three tourists held captive by a mad scientist who stitches them together, mouth-to-anus, so that they form a single digestive tract. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the original. But I reluctantly watched the second film because the premise is undeniably meta.
In the 2011 sequel, a repulsive sadist (Laurence R. Harvey), obsessed with the original film, is inspired to create his own human centipede, with 12 hapless participants this time around. As horrible as that sounds, it’s so artlessly executed that it isn’t particularly scary, just deeply unpleasant. The effect that Six’s own film had on its central villain is core to the narrative, so while it’s thoroughly a work of metafiction, it has too little to say for the meta aspect to be interesting. If anything, it’s just another way for the film to show contempt for its audience. That’s just one of countless demerits for one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.
As a metafiction enthusiast, I’m drawn toward any horror film that explicitly invites meta readings. Viewed through that lens, what these films use metafiction to say is fascinating to dissect, regardless of how subjectively good or bad one may find the films themselves. On that same token, a horror film doesn’t need to have grand philosophical ambitions in order to use metafiction in a fun or meaningful way.
Take Lamberto Bava’s Demons – a 1985 Italian romp set in a mysterious movie theater where the unsuspecting audience are treated to a free screening of a cheesy horror movie about demons, only for the viewers to be attacked by demons mid-movie. “Warning: if you have the courage to see Demons, sit near an exit,” the trailer declared. “Otherwise, you might never get out! In your theater, who will survive the touch of the demons… and who will not?”
As highbrow as the concept and use of metafiction can sound, Demons is delightfully unpretentious. It’s only apparent goal is to be the ultimate trashy, grindhouse-style thrill-ride, and it succeeds thanks to the strength of its meta gimmickry. Call me jaded, but watching Demons from the comfort of my little apartment on my little laptop in 2022, I was laughing too hard to find it particularly scary (I got the impression that every single person behind and in front of the camera was doing mountains of cocaine). But that doesn’t matter. If I was a teen sneaking into Demons at my local theater in 1985 with my clueless friends or girlfriend, I’d have been petrified. I’d play it cool, but the entire time I’d worry a demon would rip out of the screen to tear my throat out, just like in the movie.
While I get the sense that Demons was made with casual viewers in mind, one function of meta horror is acknowledging the expectations of horror-savvy viewers, lulling them into a sense of smug security before mischievously subverting expectations. The original 1996 Scream – probably the most famous example of meta-horror – does so brilliantly by simultaneously satirizing the slasher sub-genre while still serving as a scary and suspenseful whodunnit in its own right.
By 1996, Wes Craven had already earned a reputation as a “Master of Horror,” with several iconic films under his belt including The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the last of which was already a wildly successful franchise. Scream found the then-57-year-old veteran filmmaker in a confident strut, gleefully poking fun at the slasher tropes he helped originate. But it’s the wickedly clever script by future Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson that made the Scream universe feel so knowing and modern.
Much like 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Scream is set in a world where all the horror films we’re familiar with in the real world exist. Therefore, characters often act as mouthpieces for different kinds of people who may be watching Scream. Protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell) represents the horror skeptics in the audience. “They’re all the same,” she says. “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.”
Conversely, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is the voice of the horror snob. “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie…” he rants. “You can never have sex… you can never drink or do drugs… and never, ever, under any circumstances, say ‘I’ll be right back’.” These unofficial rules were familiar to real world horror fans; in 1992, the “final girl” trope was codified by academic Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Among other ideas Clover explored, she acknowledged that the Final Girl – the young woman who’s the last to survive a horror movie, especially slashers – usually abides by traditional purity conceits, like abstaining from sex and drugs.
“Good for her,” my sister said as we watched Scream together, when Sidney loses her virginity with her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich). “Too bad she has to die now.” It was her first watch, and my second. She’s a horror skeptic, like Sidney, and I explained the Final Girl trope while introducing her to classics like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m sure viewers in 1996 made similar comments. Yet something interesting happens: Sidney lives to star in four sequels. In the 2018 documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Williamson confirmed that this subversion was central to what he was trying to say through Scream. Williamson found slashers misogynist in the way they single out sexually active young women as targets for masked killers. He made a point of depicting a teenage girl choosing to have sex, without falling victim to a twisted interpretation of the madonna/whore complex.
It’s all there in the text. In a climactic scene in which the killers obligatorily explain their evil plan, they note that they waited until Sidney lost her virginity before the final stage of their killing spree. Metafiction is further woven into Scream’s themes as “Ghostface” explains how horror films are an effective scapegoat for their crimes. Not only did slasher tropes guide their evil plan, but by the mid-90s, moral panic surrounding violent films had long been a point of controversy. The idea of a sadistic teen exploiting the public’s desire to blame social ills on transgressive art is frighteningly plausible.
As much as metafictional horror often likes to prey upon the audience’s self-consciousness, filmmakers often reveal their own self-consciousness by acknowledging the genre’s history, tropes, and cliches. Rather than turning a mirror to the audience, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – Craven’s earlier exercise in metafiction – is a self-reflection on the part of its writer-director. Released in 1994, New Nightmare spins off from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series into “the real world,” starring the series’ original “final girl,” Heather Langencamp – not reprising her role as the fictional Nancy Thompson, but playing herself. The film also stars familiar faces like John Saxon, who portrayed Nancy’s father in the original film and plays himself here, Craven as himself, and Robert Englund pulling double duty as himself and a “darker, more evil” version of Freddy Krueger, the slasher icon Englund made famous.
New Nightmare is about the lingering, often unpleasant affect fiction can have on those who create it. As the film’s version of Langenkamp is haunted by Freddy, it’s difficult to perceive it as anything but the actress’s struggle to move on from the role that made her famous. To this day, she’s still best known as Nancy. The film implies that Englund faces a similar struggle, and while Craven doesn’t center his own role, his character’s difficulty to write “the definitive Nightmare” offers much to read into. During a key scene in which Langenkamp confronts Craven about the horror she’s experiencing and its relation to the screenplay he’s writing, he sounds defeated as he explains how they can’t “kill” Freddy until the film is complete.
Like a great deal of metafiction, New Nightmare may sound silly and self-indulgent on paper. But by taking itself seriously (much more than Scream), and presenting a scenario in which Craven lost control of his own creation, it’s still a terrifying experience for audiences more interested in horror than postmodernism. Freddy arguably was always a bit playfully meta: horror movies give us nightmares, and so here’s a horror monster who can kill us in our dreams. Now take that one step further: what if Freddy was real, and even the cast and crew involved in his movies were afraid of him? As we do when we watch any horror movie, we know intellectually that none of that can be true, but a scenario as meta as New Nightmare forces us to ask ourselves, in the vulnerable state of watching a scary movie, “but what if it is true?”
The Cabin in the Woods is more scolding in its tone toward horror fans, and takes a downright nihilistic approach towards metafiction. This 2011 horror-comedy directed and co-written (with Joss Whedon) by Drew Goddard appears to be just another generic horror film at first glance, right down to its title. But it turns out that the college ensemble is actually being manipulated by a government group dedicated to sacrificing teens in familiar horror scenarios to appease “the Ancient Ones” and prevent apocalypse.
The first time I saw The Cabin in the Woods nearly a decade ago, I was blown away by its boldness, from the sci-fi twist to the slapstick humor to the ending, in which the remaining protagonists opt to let the Ancient Ones rise again, triggering armageddon, rather than sacrifice themselves and let the annual sacrificial practice continue. But upon rewatch, I was disappointed by how Goddard and Whedon use metafiction to point out tiresome and arguably harmful tropes, but don’t actually do much to subvert them.
For example, the government technicians behind the scenes cheer when two of the teens have sex in the woods, so you’d think the “teens who have sex in horror movies die” cliche would be undermined like it is in Scream. It isn’t. In that way, it feels as if The Cabin in the Woods reinforces these frustrating cliches just to make the audience feel guilty for enjoying movies that contain them.
The Cabin in the Woods is one of a number of meta horror films, alongside Peeping Tom, Fade to Black, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and Rubber, that exhibit a bit of finger-wagging towards the audience, with varying degrees of success. I got to a point in my research in which I questioned how much these filmmakers actually like horror, or at least horror fans.
In contrast, the 2017 Japanese comedy One Cut of the Dead, written and directed by Shin’ichirō Ueda, is refreshingly kind-spirited. The twist is so exquisite that I debated discussing it here in an effort to avoid spoilers, so if you’re looking for a surprising, funny experimental comedy, I urge you to stop reading and come back after you’ve watched it. For everyone else, here’s why I bring it up:
Like arguably all found-footage horror films, One Cut of the Dead is meta from the start, before the twist that completely changes the film’s trajectory and genre. It follows a deranged filmmaker (Takayuki Hamatsu) directing a zombie film, but the shoot is itself invaded by real (er, some value of “real”) zombies, and he refuses to stop shooting. That’s a fun premise in its own right, but it’s so shoddily and unprofessionally executed that it goes into “so bad it’s good” territory. Some viewers may find the whole charade so tedious that they’ll want to turn it off.
That’s where I was for the first 30 minutes or so. Then something amazing happens: the film within a film within a film ends. The camera switches from a shaky first-person “found footage” perspective to a clean, well-lit aesthetic that even the least educated viewer will notice has a dramatically higher production value. The rest of the film is a flashback, and we see that the insane director is actually a normal, good-natured man who wants to make a fun zombie short for Japanese television. In the final act, we see what happened behind the scenes that caused so many problems for the zombie movie we saw in the first act. But by the end, despite all the hilarious mistakes, the cast and crew is all smiles, and so will be most viewers.
For all the inventiveness of its plot structure, One Cut of the Dead’s meta-message is quite simple: horror movies are fun to watch, fun to make, and even when they don’t actually turn out well, they can be a worthwhile experience for both the people watching and making them. Horror movies, including many horror comedies, tend to focus on the dark side. That’s just the nature of the genre. The magic of One Cut of the Dead is in reminding us that it’s all in the name of good fun.
One Cut of the Dead is so consistently, deliberately comedic that some may dispute its status as a horror film at all, but it may be the clearest example of my “it’s only a movie” thesis. We tell ourselves “it’s only a movie” not just to assuage our fears, but to remind ourselves that when it’s all said and done, we mostly see horror films to have a good time.
Metafictional horror films, like any great horror films, can certainly have profound and important things to say, but metafiction’s primary function in horror movies is to enhance the quintessential horror movie experience: making us scream, making us laugh, and hopefully, giving us something interesting to think about along the way.