Spooky versus Scary: Prisoner of Azkaban as a Horror Film (Kind of)

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Halloween is upon us, meaning that everyone is socially obligated to consume horror media. Horror, more than any other genre, forces the audience to tap into their emotion. The ultimate goal of many horror is to make the viewer feel the same dread and fear that the characters do. My issue is that movies in this genre tend to revert to cheap tactics to convey this feeling: jump scares and gore. To be fair, these thing instill fear, and isn’t that the whole point of horror? There’s a quote from the master of horror, Stephen King:

I recognize terror as the finest human emotion and so I will try to terrify the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

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To be fair, The Shining strikes the balance of Spooky versus Scary better than any horror movie I’ve ever seen

But at the same time, is it too much to ask that horror movies and media convey fear in the atmosphere, story, and worldbuilding, rather than using gore and jump scares? I, for one, prefer when movies put more into creating fear in the atmosphere of their story than through the cheap scares.

So let me pitch this movie: it’s spooky, but not scary. There’s not an excess of blood and violence, and no jump scares. The main characters are school-age children, there’s a haunted house, a convicted killer on the loose, a werewolf, a monstrous looking-executioner with an absurdly large axe, and ghoulish demons which will suck out the soul. Now, that has all the makings of a deliciously scary horror movie, right? It must surely be some greatly revered horror classic like The Shining or Psycho, right?

Azkaban 2Well, somewhat. The movie I just described is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sure, Prisoner of Azkaban is at its core a fantasy story, and has some elements of mystery, but the more you think about it, Azkaban has its share of pseudo-horror moments. My main point is this: you can make a case that Prisoner of Azkaban is a horror movie, but it is a highly subversive one.

But okay, horror movies need to be scary. What are the big horror moments in Prisoner of Azkaban? Obviously, one would be inclined to think of the big confrontation in the Shrieking Shack or Harry and Hermione hiding in the woods from Lupin in werewolf form. But also, think of Harry looking for Peter Pettigrew in the dark:

I love this scene because it conveys the same kind of dread you might find in a horror movie. There’s something in the dark, and it’s coming for you… but the scene ends up being a fakeout; there was no dead man barreling towards Harry, there was nothing there at all. In any other movie, they’d take this chance to have a fake-out jump-scare, like you see in Alien when they cut from the hunting alien to a cat with a overwhelming noise.

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Also, think about the climax. In seemingly every haunted house story, what happens in  the haunted house? Do the main characters have a semi-peaceful resolution with the escaped killer? Not usually. But perhaps the most horror-subversive thing about Azkaban is its lack of notable violence; Buckbeak kicks Draco Malfoy and Werewolf Lupin, Harry aggressively uses the expelliarmus spell on Snape, and Werewolf Lupin and Dog Sirius attack each other a little bit, but these are the most violent things to happen. In place of violence, there’s peaceful resolution in the Shrieking Shack and more prominently, the Expecto Patronum charm.

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Expecto Patronum is a retort to horror media; it tells us that the best way to defeat Dementors – and fear itself – is that we only need to hold on to what’s good. Prisoner of Azkaban wouldn’t be the only spooky story to tell us that the best way to defeat our enemies is to think positively and hear them out, but I think that this provides a nice little counterpoint to all the other movies that are popular around this time of year.

2 thoughts on “Spooky versus Scary: Prisoner of Azkaban as a Horror Film (Kind of)

  1. Hi!
    I love this analysis of the difference between spooky and scary, by using Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as an example. If I remember clearly (it’s been over a decade since I watched it), there was one jump-scare that stood out to me in the movie. One of them included Lupin popping up behind the tree while Hermione and Harry were not looking. I think that definitely gave the theatres a scare.

    Another moment that could classify as spooky was Lupin turning into a werewolf. The build up of Sirius throughout the movie as a convicted killer and a threat was another intriguing and spooky aspect of the movie.

    I think Harry Potter as a franchise tended to focus on intrigue to keep their audiences hooked. I think horror movies suspend their audiences through intrigue as well. But the pace is quicker. The protagonist always seems to be in conflict with the antagonistic force, and the resolution seem pyrrhic.

    In Harry Potter, you’re right, it is very horror-subversive. Because there’s more build up, which is subverted.

    I really enjoyed this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve said a lot of very eloquent things here! I had forgotten about that moment where Harry and Hermione sneak around the tree and Lupin’s standing there. That is rather scary. But that being said, they could have made it a deal more jarring and – for lack of a better word – jump-scare-y. Still, to only have that one moment in the entire movie speaks a great deal to one of the movie’s goals – spooks, not scares.


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