What is Slow Burn Horror?


A painting of a candle with melting wax and its flame burning low

“Nothing in the house moves,” Eleanor said, “until you look away, and then you catch something from the corner of your eye.” -Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

You saw something move. You swear. Right there, In the corner of your eye. It was a… something. It’s been bothering you for days but every time you try to track it down, it dissolves like morning mist. Dread creeps in. Your ears start seeking patterns in silent moments. When you wake up in the morning, your jaw aches. 

From video games to books, movies to comic books, horror is a vast genre, encapsulating everything from bloodbaths to mindbenders. Though they share the common goal of making the audience afraid, each subgenre of horror has developed a unique language with which it operates. Slow burn horror plays with the possibilities of time, setting, and atmosphere within horror; it sets a measured pace for the story to unravel.

Thrillers zoom through the plot at breakneck speed, generating terror in their unwavering inertia. You are given little time to think; you must react. Conversely, slow burn horror stalks, a hidden presence in the shadow. You are given too much time to think. The focus is on atmosphere, more concerned with how than who, why, and what. Its ponderous pace leaves room to eke out the more gut-level elements of fear: dread, anxiety, uncertainty, disturbance. 

The type of fear elicited in slow burn horror is rarely that immediate fight-or-flight shot of adrenaline caused by a confirmed threat. Slow burn horror dwells in the potential energy of phobia.

According to Cynthia Freeland, author of “Horror and Art-Dread,” “dread…is an emotional response to a thought of the possibility of something very profoundly threatening.” 

You don’t think much of the scratching when you first hear it. Behind your bedroom wall, just to the left of the cabinet where you keep your winter sweaters. A light scrabbling sound, like a trapped rodent. It is midday and you are just about to make lunch. You can deal with it later. You actually forget about it until two weeks later when it comes again. This time you are lying in bed, teetering on the edge of sleep. Just as your mind melts into the lowest level of conscious awareness, there it is. Clawing. You jolt up, awake, wild. It is midnight. There is nothing to be done. You turn away from the offending wall, promising yourself you’ll call an exterminator in the morning. 

A week passes. If there is an animal, the exterminator tells you, there’s not much you can do unless you want to rip the entire wall down. You send a message to your landlord and wait. The scratching has started happening more often. It has an uncanny ability to catch you out when you least expect it. Scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, watching your phone battery drain to 2%. Sitting on the bed folding laundry you washed four days ago. One night, after an hour of tossing and turning, you try to sleep on the couch. You wake up, heart pounding, at three in the morning. You have no idea why. Some nightmare you can’t remember, probably. You head back to your room, feeling silly, and sleep through the night. You don’t dream. You haven’t dreamed in months. It’s weird. You used to dream all the time. The light scratching sound comes from the wall by your cabinet. You close your eyes and wait for the noise to stop, knowing it doesn’t. Knowing it won’t. 

When it comes to film, slow burn horror movies deviate from some of the more common tropes. They tend to limit their use of jump scares and gore, focused instead on curating a mood. According to Chris Laverne of Creepy Catalogue, they “create an escalating sense of tension through atmospheric setup… that builds… and builds… and then comes crashing down on you and leaves you left thinking, oh my God, what was that? The message and fear of these movies sticks with you well after the credits roll.” Movies like 2005’s The Descent force characters, and thus the audience, into physically claustrophobic settings where there is nothing for tension to do but rise.

Slow burn horror films are also called “atmospheric” for their deliberate focus on the background. Robert Spadoni’s Merchants of Menace contrasts narrative against atmosphere: “narrative represents a force of rationality within a film; to varying degrees, this formal subsystem clearly delineates space and time, and forges causal links that bind a film’s elements together.” Irrationality is at the core of slow burn, or atmospheric, films; it slips into the fissures left behind by a disintegrating plot. The Haunting of Hill House features little in the way of plot aside from “characters congregate in a potentially (but definitely) haunted house.” This leaves plenty of space for author Shirley Jackson to drag readers through the minutiae of the house’s uniquely unsettling architecture. 

Critics of the genre accuse slow burn horror of being boring. Payoff and emotional highs are rare. Where a film like Saw might feature at least one gory set piece per act, slow burn horror offers a diminished sensational palette. However, slow burn horror is a genre that builds; it sets its smaller emotional wavelength on an upward curve. The audience is left walking along a road that seems flat, but it has an incline that gets more noticeable as time goes by. 

In slow burn horror, audiences often share an uncomfortable proximity with the characters. Many pieces of slow burn horror stick closely to the point-of-view of one character. Sinister events are often witnessed by the protagonist and audience only; there is no third-party to offer the confirmation we crave. Did my reflection blink or was that just a trick of the light? Slow burn horror pushes audiences into the limbo of unknowing. The protagonist’s growing horror at their increasingly suspect circumstances mirrors the audience’s. 

Sometimes, slow burn horror leaves a breadcrumb trail for only the audience to see. It develops doubt in the viewer by balancing plausible deniability with dramatic irony. Ari Aster does this quite effectively in Midsommar by presenting a noticeably tampered drink that goes unnoticed by the characters. 

Slow burn horror wears the audience down, attacking on multiple fronts. Karl Delossantos of Smash Cut Reviews describes slow burn horror movie Hereditary as patient: “The horror set pieces are long drawn out and some you don’t even notice until a second look.” Delossantos further iterates the layered approach of slow burn horror by describing the horror in The Blair Witch Project as not coming “from what you see, [but] from what you hear and feel.” 

In slow burn horror, what you don’t know is as important as what you do. Slow burn horror obscures just enough to deny audiences a satisfying resolution; its lack of certainty offers no break in the tension. According to Delossants, in The Witch, “the slow burn doesn’t come from whether or not there is a witch, that question is answered relatively quickly. Instead, the mystery is who you can trust…. And the movie doesn’t give you a clear answer.” Slow burn horror literature is rife with unreliable narrators. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” offers an extremely narrow point-of-view, forcing the audience to read between the lines in an attempt to find truth in the ambiguity. That attempt, however, is destined to be in vain. 

Slow burn horror forces audiences to reassess concepts they take for granted. Home is safe. Reality can be trusted. There isn’t a demon in my wall. In describing the process behind creating 1932 horror film Vampyr, director Carl Dreyer explains, “Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed, and the objects are as we conceive them.”

Categories: DefinitionsTags: , ,

20 comments

  1. I very much enjoyed the reading and now I want to see Midsommar more than ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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