My local library has a section for science fiction books but no section for horror titles. If you want horror masters like Stephen King or Richard Matheson, you have to look through the normal "fiction" section. This could mean one of two things. The first is that horror is now good enough to warrant inclusion with the regular section. But the second, and most likely, is that horror is not good enough for its own section. It occurred to me that maybe this thinking applied to movies as well.
Back in the 1950s, sci-fi and horror were pretty much mentioned hand-in-hand, as if they were both part of the same depraved, bottom-feeding segment of popular entertainment. They were often uttered in the same breath, and often as something childish, or as a corrupting force of children. The best and most popular examples from the 1950s were all sci-fi horror hybrids: The Thing from Another World, The War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Godzilla, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob and The Fly. These were, more or less, movies about things that had gone wrong with science (or nature, or both) and began to run rampant.
Both genres continued, together and separately, under the radar and mostly in a "B" movie capacity. At some point, with the emergence of titles like Psycho, The Innocents, The Haunting, The Birds, The Collector, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, Don't Look Now, Carrie, The Omen, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead and The Shining, the mainstream began to acknowledge that, indeed, sometimes a great deal of skill and care -- and, yes, even art -- goes into making horror films. Very soon, the same thing began happening for sci-fi: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, The Andromeda Strain, A Clockwork Orange, Solaris, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Superman, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, E.T. and Blade Runner.
In most cases, the two genres were also beginning to separate into two distinct entities, with two distinct personalities. Horror was tense and foreboding, while sci-fi was quiet and thoughtful. These descriptions also turned into a critical assessment of the genres. As always, movies that work in a physical way are never appreciated as well as movies that work in an intellectual way. The physical is seen as worse than the intellectual, rather than merely different. Therefore, "thoughtful" sci-fi movies in recent years have been embraced with a fanatical, zealous devotion, their messages seen as a sure sign of quality. These films have enjoyed financial and critical success, and mainstream and fan success, crossing all lines. Last year reached a zenith with the triple-header of Star Trek, District 9 and Avatar, and many of these recent films have jumped to rankings on "all time" lists.
Meanwhile, even the very best horror, such as Shaun of the Dead and Let the Right One In, has remained merely at the level of cult status. In 2009, two of the year's best films were the horrors Drag Me to Hell and The House of the Devil, and neither one made much of a dent in the zeitgeist. Very few recent, good horror films have broken through to mainstream success. And frankly, the most popular horror films tend to give horror a bad name, such as Van Helsing and the Twilight films. The original Saw is very popular and quite good, but a long way from appearing on any lists of the greatest films ever made. And The Others seemed like a fairly prestigious and spooky horror film; it even came close to some Oscar nominations, but I wouldn't say it has a really passionate following.
At its best, horror is capable of -- and even expert at -- taking the temperature of a time and mood in very subtle ways. But, like comedies and erotic films, it will always be an embarrassment, something one enjoys inwardly but does not celebrate outwardly (at awards ceremonies). But there's also no denying that science fiction has struck a chord with audiences. What are your thoughts, dear readers? Does the recent financial and critical acceptance matter to science fiction as a genre? Is science fiction better than ever, and has it surpassed horror? Or, like in the 1950s, do they still go hand in hand? Does horror still matter, and does it deserve its own section?