Halloween, Dracul, and “Horror Doesn’t Sell”

Want to scare a Horror writer? Forget knives and razor blades, try these three words: “Horror doesn’t sell.”

I hear it all the time. From bloggers, from publishers, from total strangers. Horror has earned the reputation as the “H-word,” and for good reason. Half the time you mention it, someone in earshot adamantly declares they don’t watch that brainless, gore-smeared garbage. And there’s no swaying them either. With other genres like Sci-Fi you can at least nudge a naysayer into trying Arrival or Gravity.

But Horror? Nope, it’s a deal-breaker. For readers it’s a turn-off, for writers it’s often career suicide. Outside of Steve King, Ray Bradbury, and R.L. Stine, how many Horror authors are household names? You might argue Dean Koontz, but he himself would tell you no. Koontz famously railed against being labeled a Horror author, opting to be marketed as a suspense/thriller guy instead. And with all the books he’s sold, can you blame him?

Halloween 2018
“Horror Doesn’t Sell?” Million-dollar Michael doesn’t believe that.

The “H-word” is career poison. Or is it?

Love it or hate it, Horror has a sturdy foothold in every entertainment form. The Shining, Halloween, The Walking Dead, Goosebumps, and Resident Evil are some fast examples of massively popular IPs. Nobody would ever argue against their marketability.

Yet overall as a genre, it’s feast or famine. Depending on which Barnes & Noble you walk into, you might find a Horror section or you might not. Mention scary movies at Thanksgiving dinner and your Aunt Karen will clap excitedly while your Uncle Owen sneers and bites into a drumstick. Then you have film buffs who hate Horror but love Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Because they’re really Sci-Fi.

Except, actually, they’re Horror.

And that’s part of the problem. Horror is often considered a “style” rather than a genre, and most of its premiere works have their feet in other genres. The Shining is psychological suspense. A Quiet Place is a thriller. Rosemary’s Baby is a drama. Resident Evil is a third-person shooter. Hell, even Salem’s Lot won the World Fantasy Award.

But what about straight-up Horror?

This past month, two of the biggest Horror franchises got major releases. Halloween got a reboot while Dracula got an official prequel. If those two aren’t Horror, nothing is. More importantly, the Halloween reboot dominated the box office for two consecutive weekends. As I write this, it’s well on its way to garnering $250M worldwide (something Solo struggled with back in May). And before you point out that Halloween is an A-list franchise, remember that earlier this year A Quiet Place took home a $338M haul.

But movies are movies. What about books?

Dracul

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker should not be mistaken as some Dracula knock-off. In fact, it’s an honest-to-Satan prequel to the original Dracula novel that was built from Bram Stoker’s notes. If you’re a lit geek, you may already know that the first hundred pages of the original Dracula novel were cut by Stoker’s publisher back in the 1890s. Dracul fleshes out what’s missing and does it–in my opinion–with a fresh, exciting take.

As far as sales numbers go, Dracul has no current data I can work with other than its Amazon positioning. It’s too early to measure commercial success, but one thing about Dracul is worth noting: its appeal. Every time I told people I was reading an official prequel to Dracula, theirs heads popped up. They paid attention. Dracul is an attention-grabber. It’s hype stuff. Dracula has been one of the titans of dark fiction for over a century. The prequel matters because Horror matters.

Revivals are great, but what about new Horror?

Bird Box
Bird Box could be the next big thing after A Quiet Place

One thing Halloween (2018) and Dracul have in common is they bridge long-standing franchises with contemporary storytelling techniques. The Halloween reboot, for instance, used a slick single-cut montage (think Birdman) to depict a Michael Myers rampage. Dracul, meanwhile, showed off some plot-hopping between present-tense conflict and past-tense diary entries. And audiences seemed to dig it.

The question is whether audiences will welcome entirely new stories that don’t lean on iconic monsters and nostalgia. Bird Box, a 2014 novel due for a Netflix adaptation next month, gives us gothic junkies hope. If the film takes off, 2018 could be remembered as the year that Horror started selling.

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