I watched Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015) last night, and it got me thinking (again) about the boundaries of the horror genre. What makes a horror film? Why is Everest not considered a horror film? It’s called “adventure,” “biography,” “drama,” “disaster,” “survival,” “thriller”—but not horror.
The plot of Everest, which is based on the disastrous expeditions of 1996, certainly sounds like the plot of a horror film: a group of people treks off into an isolated and forbidding place and is beset by dangers, by a force that imperils all their lives. One by one, they succumb to horrible deaths, or struggle and barely survive, maimed and traumatized.
Watching Everest, I certainly experienced the emotions of horror—the fear and dread that Brigid Cherry has argued is so crucial to the genre: “The function of horror,” she writes, is “to scare, shock, revolt or otherwise horrify the viewer.”[i] I felt not only fear but revulsion, something Noël Carroll has (like Cherry) proclaimed as central to horror. Late in the film, one of the climbers, Beck (Josh Brolin), is forced to spend the night on the mountain and wakes up with his hands ungloved, frozen and bloody, black and red—not really his hands at all anymore, although they are still attached to his body. (He later has to have them amputated.) This scene was so painful, it was almost unbearable for me to re-watch it in order to get the screenshot below.
In some ways, then, Everest does skirt the horror genre. There are, though, two things that keep it just on the other side of the line.
One is its lack of a MONSTER. Robin Wood’s famous definition of horror—“normality is threatened by the Monster”—remains one of the most powerful ways to identify what forms the essence of horror.[ii] Despite its undeniably horrifying moments, Everest doesn’t really have a monster.
One could argue that nature—the mountain itself, the storms that sweep over it—are monstrous. But they aren’t, not in any meaningful way. Carroll has argued that the “monstrous” is always impure—a hybrid of categories that should remain separate (dead and alive, for instance).[iii] There is a moment, as I suggested before, when Beck seems monstrous: everyone thinks he’s dead and yet he staggers into camp—more dead, indeed, than alive. And his hands are no longer his, like a character in a 1930s mad science horror film. But Everest, even when buffeted by wind and snow, remains not only sublime but beautiful, not monstrous, not impure.
That’s why Adam Green adds wolves to his unambiguous horror film, Frozen (2010), also about people who are trapped on a mountain—albeit a rather smaller mountain at a ski slope in the northeast US. And he doesn’t add just any wolves but wolves who rather unnaturally crave human blood and lurk under the film’s protagonists as if they know they’re going to jump down from the immobilized ski lift on which they’re trapped. Like Beck in Everest, a character in Frozen loses his hand—but it is ripped off by wolves, not taken by frostbite. The wolves of Frozen, in short, add the “monster” to the beautiful, utterly menacing, natural environment.
The other characteristic that tends to rule Everest out as horror is the whole question of CHOICE. The explorers willingly, knowing all the risks, head up Everest. Not only are they not coerced, but the film makes it clear how much they sacrifice (money, relationships) in order to make the choice to try to defeat the world’s most daunting and deadly mountain.
It seems to me that horror, on the other hand, at some crucial moment, always puts its characters in a situation which they couldn’t have predicted, didn’t choose, and over which they have no control. This is why, again, Frozen is a horror film and Everest is not. The three skiers in Frozen might have been able to predict a storm was coming, but they could not anticipate (and certainly wouldn’t have chosen!) the chain of events that led to their being trapped on a ski lift as the slope closes for the weekend and ravenous wolves prowl underneath. Indeed, who knew wolves preyed on humans in New England? When one of the characters jumps from the lift, breaks his legs, and then thinks he hears wolves howling, his friend yells reassuringly down to him: “When was the last time you heard of a wolf attack in New England?” When indeed!
Obviously, you could say that the storm that sweeps Everest leaves the party of climbers without choice, but it is something they could have (and did) predict. As in Everest, people make stupid and reckless choices in horror films, but they are nonetheless always, at some point, also overtaken by an unpredictable force vastly out of proportion to their bad choices—one that puts them utterly in the grip of some other, external power.
In the end, then, the presence of the monstrous and implacable lack of choice are two crucial markers of the horror film. And as horrifying as it is, Everest falls just outside the boundary. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying!
[i] Brigid Cherry, Horror (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.
[ii] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), p. 78.
[iii] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 32.