Most, if not all cinephiles have seen Jurassic Park, the ‘90s adventure movie from Steven Spielberg. Based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, it tells the story of a gang of scientists battling escaped dinosaurs. On paper, there is no arguing this concept sounds like a classic horror movie, but there has long been a heated debate about Jurassic Park’s specific genre.
Let’s be honest, horror isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about this movie. Many, myself included, remember this film as a childhood staple, a family adventure that inspires thrills and wonder above all else. But with its scary central scenario and chase scenes involving giant monsters, we do have to examine why Jurassic Park is often mistaken for a horror movie. And, most importantly, analyse why, despite all the murderous raptors, it just isn’t that scary.
Encyclopedia Britannica offers a pretty solid definition of what defines a horror movie, calling them “a motion picture calculated to cause intense repugnance, fear, or dread.” It then gives examples of common subjects in horror, such as ghouls, supernatural elements, monsters, animals, and psychological manifestations. These subjects often overlap and appear in other movies, making horror one of the most flexible, and also one of the most misunderstood genres in existence.
Just because something has horror elements doesn’t mean it is a horror movie. Having a story that is a ‘calculated’ attempt at causing terror is different from films that use spooky elements to enhance a singular climactic moment or buy into the supernatural/sci-fi theme that they may hold.
Jurassic Park often suffers from the same miscategorising. It may feature ‘monsters’ in the form of dinosaurs, and it may have three tense sequences – the opening scene, the T-Rex with the Ford Explorer car moment, and the raptor in the kitchen – but at the end of the day, there is a reason why IMDb doesn’t list horror in the flick’s genre list. It merely holds some characteristics instead of carrying the full weight of that definition itself.
As many spooky aficionados know, horror is a genre that is all about tone. It uses the subjects listed above in such a way that crafting an atmosphere of the unknown is always at its forefront. Horror terrifies the pants off us all by making us face unrecognisable situations, antagonists that we are helpless against, and (most importantly) keeping us perpetually gripping the edges of our seats in suspense while doing so.
It is this distinction of constant tension of the unknown (better known as dread) that makes horror movies differ from the typical feelings of peril that you may find in other genres, such as taking cover in a shootout in a thriller movie, running from a tsunami in a disaster movie, or racing to disarm a bomb in an action movie.
A good way to discuss why Jurassic Park’s feelings of peril from the dinosaurs lean more towards a ‘man-made disaster movie’ instead of feelings of dread seen in a horror movie is by comparing it to Spielberg’s Jaws, which is arguably more aligned with the horror genre itself.
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In Jaws, a killer shark is hunting the waters of the New England beach town of Amity Island. Just like in Jurassic Park, the humans must band together against the creature in order to survive. Both films feature stalking, ‘monsters’, death, and struggle – however, only one sparks feelings of dread while the other unquestionably is concerned with propelling feelings of excitement.
In Jaws, we only really see the killer shark towards the end of the movie. It is an ominous unknown creature, like the monster in Ridley Scott’s science fiction movie Alien, that only strikes when the characters least expect it. The entire movie is about when will the shark strike next, who will it kill, and will they be able to stop it before it is too late.
Jurassic Park, on the other hand, introduces us to the dinosaurs from the get-go, making us as viewers accept them as a reality, and letting us know how dangerous they are. However, as the upbeat music swells, the film also tells us to be in awe of the ‘monsters’ instead of fearing them.
We also don’t see the dinosaurs get released from their cages until a good halfway into the movie, which was previously concerned with capturing our imagination and feelings of wonderment with all the giant prehistoric animatronics.
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With this in mind, dinosaurs lose the mysticism that monsters in classic horror movies generally create, and the few ‘horror scenes’ in Jurassic Park – such as the iconic moment with the raptor in the kitchen – come across more like a case of ‘pure peril’ instead of dread.
Jurassic Park is more concerned with damage control and straight survival. There are no truly prolonged feelings of a cat and mouse game or the scare of the creatures revealing themselves from the shadows.
Now you may be scratching your head, wondering if I forgot the raptors’ scenes completely by my statement. If anything comes close to horror in this movie it is the scenes with these creatures. They, like any predator, hunt the party and do have a tendency to leave some fresh limbs lying about.
It is easy to mistake these reptiles as quasi-slasher villains such as Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, however again they aren’t on the same level because of the film’s set-up.
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As I said at the beginning of this argument, a few climactic moments do not a horror movie make, especially when those climactic moments only add up to a few minutes in a two-hour-long movie. We are also not truly scared of the raptors themselves because we know exactly what they are and how in theory we can stop them.
In the beginning of Jurassic Park, we saw the raptors born, and have context for them. They aren’t unknown, unlike the panic caused by a mysterious zombie outbreak, or the unpredictable nature of a mystical killer, it is easy to compartmentalise these dinos and put reason to them. And as we all know once you learn all the facts about what lies in the shadows, the thing that may go bump in the night becomes far less terrifying.
So, in short, as the characters are running for their lives, it doesn’t feel like they are running from the monstrous killer shark in Jaws, or the deadly Xenomorph in Alien, or Leatherface from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Instead, Jurassic Park almost feels akin to a disaster movie such as The Day After Tomorrow.
In The Day after Tomorrow, we also see characters running from a scary threat: various superstorms. Their situation is scary, but it doesn’t scare us as a horror movie does. Its tone is geared towards exciting viewers, getting our blood racing, instead of making us genuinely unsettled and fearful of its subject – the catastrophic storm.
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Similarly, in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs aren’t presented as terrifying creatures but instead as unstoppable forces of nature. In this way, they are as scary as the hurricanes in Day After Tomorrow. Now, some may find storms and dinosaurs terrifying, and yes, there is a universal sense of danger with both of those subjects, but there is also a lack of terror and of sinister anticipation in these films that we get from actual horror movie antagonists.
In this way, Jurassic Park isn’t, as Britannica states, “a calculated” attempt at causing terror, but rather just trying to get your adrenaline pumping, like any good action movie would, with its dinos. If you still aren’t convinced, the last point that really hammers in Jurassic Park’s true genre status is its theme song by John Williams.
Again, compared to Williams’ Jaws theme, which arguably is the very definition of dread, Jurassic Park is upbeat and thrilling. In one of the film’s closing scenes, when the raptor has cornered the crew, we see a giant T-Rex swoop down to eat the raptor while ignoring the humans – essentially saving their lives.
During this moment, the giant’s teeth or fear-inducing presence isn’t emphasised as it would be in any monster movie (kaiju or otherwise). Instead, the ‘do do doo do doo’ music swells, making audiences want to say “wow” instead of scream in terror.
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So, if you couldn’t tell already in the big “is Jurassic Park a horror movie question” debate, my answer is firmly, ‘no’. Horror is a deeper genre than many realise that gets unfairly slapped on the name of many films that may just simply make you sweat a bit, or feature a tiny amount of blood and gore.
Yes, what people find scary is subjective, and many of our readers may be absolutely terrified of dinosaurs, but the point is Jurassic Park never goes out of its way to make that fear truly happen.
In my mind, Jurassic Park is undoubtedly one of the best action-adventure movies of all time, and it doesn’t need to be considered anything more.