Starting with 2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett made a series of horror films together that turned them into one of the genre’s most reliable duos. Projects like 2011’s Autoerotic and You’re Next, along with their segments for V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, and V/H/S2, earned them a reputation as clever, self-aware horror creators who weren’t afraid of the genre’s nastier side. 2014’s The Guest was something entirely different: A 1980s horror-movies pastiche that’s smart, scary, and memorable enough to help make Dan Stevens a major star.
Barrett also directed horror shorts for V/H/S2 and 2021’s V/H/S/94, and he made his feature directorial debut with 2021’s Seance, another throwback horror feature set in a remote girls’ boarding school. When a student’s suicide leaves room for a new girl at the school, she promptly runs afoul of the same bullies who abused her dead predecessor. They lure the new arrival into a seance to summon the dead girl, and events fall out from there.
Seance is consistently surprising, and it’s a tease throughout, luring viewers down a couple of different paths by using conflicting tropes. Is this a ghost story? A slasher story? A revenge story? Or something entirely different? It’s such a satisfying and unusual way of telling a familiar story that Polygon thought Barrett would be the perfect capper for our Trick or Tropes horror week, exploring the roots of horror movies and the question of why horror returns over and over to re-interpreting the same images and ideas.
Seances are such a 1980s Satanic-panic horror trope. Why did you want to start there?
Simon Barrett: I’ve always loved this kind of ritualism, leading to a haunting. I think there’s inherent atmosphere in those situations and devices that you can play off of, and then ideally set up for surprises. I’ve always loved these types of narratives, particularly Oujia films and the seances of it all. I just always thought they were really cool. I’ve never participated in one, and I have zero real-world interest in the supernatural, but I love it in fiction.
You’ve talked about wanting to make your directorial debut a fun horror movie, as opposed to something heavy about current anxieties. Was reaching back to an older trope potentially part of that?
I think that’s true. I don’t know that it was ultimately the right creative decision for me, given the way Seance has been received — it kind of feels like people are a little bit, “Why would you want to sincerely do this anachronistic thing?” But I did have this notion that I wanted my first feature to be a feel-good horror movie. You’re Next was kind of a feel-good horror movie, but it’s quite a cynical film about relationships. Certainly The Guest is as well, though they’re both very silly movies. I wanted to do something a little less cynical, and a little more hopeful about humanity.
I realized I was inherently thinking in such a corny direction that the film would have to be inherently old-fashioned and timeless. I trying to go for a very corny kind of old-fashioned romance. I was trying to do something that felt very much like the young-adult kind of content I consumed, which were mostly Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer novels, and the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books. That was what I grew up on. When I became interested in movies, I translated that to slashers. I was trying to do something a little more sedate and cheerful than what I felt the current vibe in horror is.
What makes a fun horror movie vs. a not-fun horror movie?
Yes, that’s an important thing to examine. It’s obviously very subjective. But for me, it comes down to the film’s relationship with its characters, and how it treats them. I think it’s a “respect for the characters” thing. It’s easy for me to say that some horror movies are sadistic toward their characters, but it’s a very specific sensibility.
For example, I think the film Napoleon Dynamite is sadistic to its characters, to a point that it makes me feel viscerally uncomfortable watching that film. I despise it. But that’s an extremely personal reaction. So some of this is very subjective. But overall, I think it’s whether you’re taking your characters seriously enough as individuals that you care about their outcome. And you treat that with the kind of respect due, given the tone and themes of the narrative. With You’re Next, I was quite fond of some of the characters, but they still needed to bloodily die onscreen for the narrative and humor we were going for.
But with Seance, I thought it was different. It was young women, and I thought, “There’s a not-fun way to do a slasher set among young women in a boarding school.” I wanted to go the different way, where the only characters who die bloodily are villains, so you can embrace the narrative and enjoy the humor on that level. So I guess that’s simply my definition of fun. Are the scenes designed to induce discomfort, or a negative feeling in the audience, the kind of Michael Haneke Funny Games feeling? I’ve leaned into that in some of my work. Or are you meant to be, like, “Oh, that was nice, and kind of what I wanted”? I wanted like what like House on Sorority Row was for me. I love the cozy-slasher vibe.
Why is horror as a genre so trope-driven, even compared to other trope-driven genres?
Sadly, I would say the answer is probably usually creative bankruptcy, and finding a successful trope that that can be monetized and imitating it again and again and again, which tends to be how the horror genre has traditionally propagated itself. I hope that’s not the case in my own work. I do tend to think there’s something fun about these iconic images that have inherent atmosphere, like a Ouija board. These things have a certain significance that does create a shorthand for you. I don’t need to explain to people what’s happening if it’s somewhat recognizable. You can get to the fun stuff sooner. I think that’s part of it. I think horror is in the tropes, in these things that scare us.
I think personally, I’m probably done making horror movies for a little while, not only because I’m attached to some Adam Wingard projects that aren’t horror movies, but as a director, I’m realizing I might be a little out of sync with the current vibe. I’m an increasingly elderly man. That’s something I’m very sensitive to, is at what point my brain is going to start decaying, because it seems inevitable for us. I’m thinking I probably should maybe take a little break before I get too repetitive and too burned-out, because I’m realizing what I specifically like about horror is the old-fashioned vibe of telling scary stories to friends in the dark.
My V/H/S/94 segment takes place during a rainstorm at night. I like rainstorms at night, and I know that that’s really corny. It’s so much a trope that it was literally a cliché in 1930s horror cinema. But if you can pull off a cliché well, it evokes such a wonderful feeling of the way these things used to scare us as children, the way horror was probably a taboo genre for a lot of young viewers. So you can have that feeling of these movies being a little unsafe, and you can have a cathartic experience safely with them. I love that particular journey so much, but I think my sense of humor sometimes juxtaposes with that sincere corniness in a way that makes people think I’m just very confused.
Your horror movies seem to consciously recontextualize tropes and play around with the basis of them. Do you not see it that way?
I do see it that way, but I try to do something else, which is deliver on those tropes, and then do something else on top of that. Horror fans are especially sensitive to not getting what they wanted out of a film. You know, if you have a movie called Seance, you got to give them at least one seance. I deliver three. Unbelievably, that has not had a positive effect on my Rotten Tomatoes score. You would think just statistically alone, I’d be over 50.
But anyway, there’s truth to that. With A Horrible Way to Die in particular, that was a movie that people thought was going to be a certain type of film, and it was another type of film, and because of that, they mostly disliked it. It wasn’t until later that some people were like, “Oh, well that’s kind of interesting on its own merits.” I wouldn’t say I’m upending tropes, but I try to fulfill them and then subvert them narratively on top of that, and I don’t know that that is as much fun.
As much fun for you, or for viewers?
For the viewer. It’s definitely fun for me. Well, I mean, making movies isn’t fun. If you have fun making movies, you’re not trying hard enough. And I mean that sincerely. But I do like what I do, and I’m very grateful.
Does the trope matter to you when you’re picking a movie to watch? Do you look at horror movies coming out and think, “Oh, yeah, I really love a haunted-house movie,” or “I won’t ever miss a werewolf movie”?
It’s more about who makes it, and other things, but that’s because I would like to think at this point in my adulthood, I’m a fairly sophisticated viewer. At the same time, yeah, if there’s a haunted-house movie coming out, I’m excited. That’s the funny thing, because I myself don’t really enjoy making haunted-house movies, because I have a hard time with the stakes and rules of them. But as a viewer, I love them. And if there’s a slasher or a mystery slasher, I cannot wait. So I love the tropes. And so that probably is the real answer to your question.
With Seance, because it was my first feature, I really wanted to be working in a genre I felt like I understood intimately as a viewer, this kind of cozy-slasher boarding-school Suspiria kind of thing. I felt an intimacy and comfort with that as a viewer, because I love those tropes. I felt like I would be able to tell a story in that language that did some weird things, and I could still kind of make it coherent. So yeah, tropes get me. But horror itself gets me. There aren’t too many horror movies that I miss in theaters.