Expectation plays a pivotal role in how we approach the things we encounter. Even in life’s simplest acts, our biases filter our experience. As I am sure many have experienced, is there anything quite like taking a sip of a beverage when you are under the impression it is something else entirely? If you think a glass is full of water, but it is really clear soda, it can provoke a shocked reaction; amixture of surprise and distaste. These kinds of mistaken identity mixups – tea and dark soda, ketchup and cocktail sauce, lemonade and sports drinks – can cause an almost comical overreaction. Who knows how many times I have torn my robes and shaken my fist at the heavens after taking a bite from a cookie, only to find that it is actually oatmeal raisin rather than sumptuous chocolate chip. Why must they look so similar? Et tu, cookie?
The commonality in these incidents is that taste and expectation are closely entwined. It is not so much the surprise itself that causes the distaste, but the promise of one flavor that is actually revealed to be another entirely. When we consume something where there is an assumption of its attributes beforehand, and we front-load certain filters for our tastes that we otherwise might not if we were to go in completely blind. Case in point, juxtapose the prior examples of assuming an incorrect flavor against tasting a ‘mystery’ – entering into an experience assuming full discovery is far less jarring than expecting one thing and getting something else entirely. Pure mystery would be preferable to false pretenses.
Which brings us to Attack on Titan.
Sold to me as a horror tale of human suffering in a world gone mad, I initially was reluctant to watch it at all. Horror and I have a rocky relationship to begin with, and I am seldom one to chase the latest fad for popularity alone. But after enough time had passed and its appeal seemed to remain steady, I finally gave Attack on Titan a shot. What I expected was gut-wrenching horror, something I might have to watch at midday with the lights on, and imagery that would turn over in my mind long into the night. I mean, if the word of mouth I was hearing kept referencing it as horror anime, I was in for some level of shock, right?
I laughed far more than I screamed.
Anime’s latest popular darling turned out to be a real kick in the teeth. I patently did not care for it, and found the hype unwarranted. Fundamentally, I think this is because Attack on Titan fails to work as horror. If gripping fear was the intent, the show stumbles more often than it sprints.
An obvious problem is how incredibly common the titans are. Many of the great horror stories of yore have focused on a singular being, one whose power and/or cunning is more than the might of all the protagonists combined. Whether they be cape-wearing vampires or acid-drooling xenomorphs, these villains were that much more imposing because they were alone, rather than in spite of it. In times of great danger it is almost instinctual for people to gather up and find safety in numbers, an outgrowth of our nature as typically social creatures. When a monster can still threaten the characters (and by extension, the audience) even when surrounded by others this sends a chilling message – your numbers mean nothing. This knowledge eats away at our psyche on a primal level, causing us to doubt the automatic fight or flight responses that we trust to take over in times of great fear.
Instead, the sheer quantity of titans makes them mundane rather than monstrous. In one sense this might be an issue of scale – humanity itself is depicted as being somewhat numerous within the city’s walls, so maybe a few extra monsters are needed to help sell the terror? This seems to be the approach of the creators, as there are dozens of titans on screen and countless more hinted at off-screen. If this were raw mathematics, then the fear should be multiplied, right? If one titan is scary, then more titans equals more scary.
But in execution, their overwhelming numbers make them less frightening. Even if the threat increases for the characters in the fictional space, as a viewer it has a numbing effect on the senses. When titan after titan pours through the walls, their existence shifts from terrifying unknown to mundane reality. Their dime-a-dozen status makes them dangerous, but no longer horrifying. They become the fictional equivalent of automobile accidents – fatal, ever-present, and so commonplace that few give them a second thought. Having a huge numerical advantage and obscene power actually anesthetizes us to their terror, robbing the titans of their horror by making them such a regular occurrence.
By extension, they lose much of their potential fright by being visible on screen so often. While humans exhibit many varieties of fear, there are few quite as potent as the fear of the unknown; some might even argue that this is the only true fear that humans have. Our minds can conjure up sounds from the silence, shapes from the darkness, and movement from the stillness. There is no terrifying cocktail quite so potent as the one we mix ourselves, and when we face the haunting unknown our psyche drinks deep from such poisonous wells. It takes truly masterful horror to make visible threats as terrifying as what we can conjure in our own minds. The titans spend so much time in plain sight that they become more measurable than menacing; they are something that can be quantified and diagnoses. Even the commercial breaks have interstitials discussing titans in a textbook fashion, displaying heights, weights, and weak points all very matter-of-fact. It all seems rather clinical.
Even the variant titans suffer from this visibility. While they have unique and frequently mysterious powers that other titans may not possess, any chance at real terror has long since been removed. Whether a new titan has special armor, or shapeshifting abilities, or cunning sentience, it does little to provide new frights. Do these powers invoke some surprise? Certainly. Curiosity? Definitely. But horror? Not the slightest. As a viewer I am no more afraid of a new special titan than I am of a new enemy mobile suit or novel stand power, regardless of the gory results. When you see dozens of something on screen week-in and week-out there is a dulling of the senses, a reduction in shock value as the new inevitably settles in and becomes the familiar.
But as far as horror is concerned, Attack on Titan’s most egregious sin is the monsters themselves. I believe the scientific term for their appearance is outright goofy. While the intent is clearly to make them unnerving and grotesque versions of our own humanity, I find them hilarious to watch. Maybe I am alone in this – it wouldn’t be the first time, for sure – but seeing a giggling, wobbly, naked giant with the anatomical accuracy of a plastic doll does not instill me with any terror. While the cinematic language is trying to convince me of the severity of the situation, it all ends up being rather hilarious. The titans are absurd, and they suck the air out of any building tension that might make things truly terrifying. As characters fall to their knees in horror or scream as they are drawn into the maws of relentless beasts, it all comes off as parody when two seconds later a nude goliath practically skips down main street kicking soldiers through buildings. It’s hard to scream when you cannot stop laughing.
None of this makes Attack on Titan bad, by any means. Clearly the series is intended to be more than pure horror. Like many works that find a wide audience it exhibits elements of multiple genres: action, suspense, drama, mystery, and more. It has gripped countless viewers through a combination of interesting setting, exciting action sequences, and shocking twists. It is no accident that Attack on Titan is a success; it takes a David and Goliath power dynamic, slathers it the thick dressing of nationalism, tosses in some gripping action sequences, and then adds the potent spices of political intrigue and things are not what they seem. It is solid entertainment, and popular for a reason.
That, however, is not how the show was originally sold to me by the fans who loved it. The fault is not entirely theirs – the show’s tone and visual language definitely imply a certain element of horror, even if it is not stated outright. But because of my altered expectations, I entered into the first season with a critical lens that significantly shifted my estimation of the show. Judging Attack on Titan as a horror work – even if it flirts with horror iconography – is a flawed approach, one that skewed my perspective of its strengths and weaknesses. With the arrival of the second season I find myself watching with a different lens, and enjoying it far more than I did during my initial run.
We must be mindful of our expectations. As critics and fans, we must be careful how we evangelize a particular work. Assumptions are a form of bias as potent as any other. Is it and oatmeal raisin cookie, or chocolate chip? If we are not careful, we might recoil from the first bite simply because we thought it would taste differently.