Overall, horror fans often have mixed feelings about meta. The trouble is, in order to be effective, meta has to be done right. Breaking the fourth wall for the sake of breaking it can feel out of place, abrupt, or like a cheap gimmick if not handled properly. But when executed by a pro, the use of meta to drive a plot can be one of the most effective techniques in horror today.
So what is it that makes meta so special for horror fans? Scream is one of the most notorious films for making its characters self-aware. A lot of people will argue that the reason that people enjoyed it is because it prevented the script writer from falling back on to letting the characters make stupid decisions. This is definitely true. Those moments in slasher movies where you scream, “DO. NOT. GO. IN. THERE!!!!!!” at the screen are the moments that are avoided in films like Scream. But it goes a little deeper than that. To me, the biggest part of making horror movies exist within the movie is the fact that the audience lives in a world where horror movies exist.
Sorry, did that make your head hurt? It kind of made mine hurt just to write it.
After the 80s boom of slashers, where there were so many that audiences actually grew fatigued of people getting chopped up at summer camps, high schools, and creepy cabins, it seemed impossible to enjoy these movies again. If every person in the theater knew that the only place that the killer could be hiding could be in the closet, then why didn’t the character figure it out? It became impossible to fathom a world without these kind of movies, and we stopped being able to relate to characters who didn’t understand these rules just from seeing a slasher movie or two. It added a depth and also a level of sympathy and empathy to the characters in these self-aware movies. When Sidney Prescott can’t get the chain open on her front door, she heads the only place she can: up the stairs. The fact that she has just complained that horror heroines never head out the front door when they have the chance just makes us cheer her all the more because she tried exactly what she should have done, and it went wrong anyway.
Breaking the fourth wall has also given a voice to a lot of horror fans. Meta films now, such as the great The Final Girls, provide fan service in a way that not only gives little nods to the Easter eggs that we agonize over and analyze decades later, but also gives us a sense of community. “YES!” we cry to ourselves. “They get why I love this!” These types of horror films are being created by people who are understand the fan base, and are fans themselves, rather than being an expert on making a cheap slasher that will please the budget makers. These films don’t need a big budget; they just need writers who understand the fan base.
Some meta horror films have gone one further: they exist in a realm where the movies aren’t movies at all. In Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, we meet a man who is striving to be in the same league as Krueger, Meyers, and Voorhees: all serial killers terrorizing small towns. A film crew follows Leslie as he trains to be a pro speed-walker and learns sleight of hand and parlour tricks such as the “brick slide” to scare his victims and seemingly disappear into thin air. While all of this is funny and smart to people who follow the genre and are huge slasher fans, it remains frightening because at some point, this very real film crew is going to have to witness a very real murder. And what will happen to them then?
Perhaps my favourite meta horror is one that gets better every single time I see it, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. In this one, he breaks the fourth wall and then the fourth wall inside the room inside the room. In this amazingly bonkers film, the actors from the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie play both themselves, themselves playing the characters, and the characters themselves.
While many do not favour this one because of the changes to Freddy’s makeup, to me, the change makes perfect sense. This is not the Freddy that Wes Craven created. This is the Freddy that came to Wes Craven in a nightmare and prompted him to create Freddy. So it makes sense that there are essentially two Freddy’s: the pop culture icon, and the true killer who actually exists and is dying to get out.
For a long running franchise, this was the perfect way to refresh the series. Had the “new Freddy” gone over better, there was potential to create a new version of Freddy without being disrespectful or alienating fans of the original. He is Freddy 2.0, but in a way that not only follows the rules of the original, but keeps it completely intact. It’s a remake that can exist with its source material simultaneously, and that is freaking brilliant.
Conclusion? Who says horror isn’t smart? Love it or hate it, meta has allowed horror to bring something new and fresh to the table.