I’ve said it before in various pieces written for this site, but when I was younger, I was afraid of everything. I’m not talking about being afraid of normal kid stuff like big dogs or thunder or strangers; I was of course afraid of those things, but I was also afraid of things like a shadow on the wall, or still being awake when my story tape finished playing, or the very idea of nuclear holocaust, or even just things being quiet for too long. I was a ‘fraidy cat of the highest order. Did movies scare me? Of course they did!
Image: Universal Pictures
In the late ’80s and early ’90s—somewhere between ages 4 and 10, let’s say—there was something of a horror movie boom filled with especially gory and gruesome fare, and they were constantly advertised on TV. The Freddy/Jason/Chucky/etc. movies were ripe for primetime television spots and I’d see the three seconds that’d show up before my parents changed the channel and be terrified for days. And yet, I’d kind of relish those few seconds, letting my imagination fill in gaps that no filmmaker could. Back when the USA Network showed nothing but sleazeball movies, they did a marathon of the first three Toxic Avenger movies and it traumatized me — I’m not kidding — for years after. And that’s from only having caught maybe 5 minutes of it, flipping it back and forth when my parents weren’t looking.
Now, I tell you all about me being a loser crybaby child to tell you that it took me forever to get into horror movies. I was in college before I started really watching them—slowly at first, but it wasn’t long before you couldn’t stop me. The reason was this: yes, I was a little older and less sensitive than I had been, but nothing a film could actually deliver would be a match for my scared little kid brain. If I’d actually watched Child’s Play at the time, I’d have probably still been scared, but as an adult it’s pretty damn stupid. Same with most of those from that era. I got into gore movies and the more I learned about how the effects were done, the more I was in awe of the craftsmanship, and not at all scared by the effect itself.
And this brings me to a problem that I’ve been having for the past several years: movies, by and large, don’t scare me anymore. I love horror movies (obviously), but it’s the rare entry that’ll actually creep me out. I’m not talking about jump-scares. Anybody can startle me; I’m like a cat that’s heard a door shut. But that’s cheap. Movies that actually scare stick with me long after my heart rate slows back down to normal.
Image: IFC Midnight
I’m always on the lookout for movies of this kind—ones where the dread gets almost unbearable, or the themes and situations disturb me, or certain shots or moments will haunt my memories. Movies in recent memory that have managed to do this are Neil Marshall’s The Descent, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. These movies are great, and scared me for different reasons. But, it should be noted, these are three films in the past 10 years. Most horror movies don’t actually scare me.
So then why do I keep watching them? If I have such a low batting average—even classic horror movies are only hit and miss (The Shining really creeps me out, The Exorcist did nothing)—then why would I keep watching them? Well, there are a few reasons. The easy one being that I enjoy the structure of a good genre story, no matter if it’s horror, science fiction, action-adventure, what-have-you. As un-safe as some of these movies are, there’s a comfort in knowing that at least there will be tropes and patterns that are used and, hopefully, modified to make it impressive or in the very least, fun.
Image: Sony Pictures Classics
There’s also just my endless fascination with fear through manipulation. Whether the movie’s scares come from creepy noises or ominous visuals, snarling monsters or unexpected jump-scares, the audience is being manipulated. Directors will manipulate the viewer in any kind of film, but with horror movies, that manipulation has to aim for the basest, deepest, most primal parts of a human. H.P. Lovecraft said that the first emotion a human feels is fear, and the first fear is the fear of the unknown. If a filmmaker can cut an audience all the way down to that earliest emotion, then they’ve really succeeded in something. It’ll elicit laughter afterward, but it’s a laughter of relief and self-reflection.
And really, above all, the reason I keep watching horror movies is the hope that the next one will scare me. Since I became a jaded film critic adult, only a few have done it, but it’s the idea that another might in the future that gets me through the ParaSNOREmal Activity movies and the like. And there’s never any telling which ones will or won’t actually do it, because the ones that have worked have been able to cut through all of my intellectualizing and go right for the basest and darkest part of my psyche. I spend a lot of time trying to rationalize fear, but the best scary movies are able to, for a time anyway, turn me back into that little kid frightened by every noise, every shadow, every sinister glance.
Not many people would say they watch horror movies to make them feel like a kid again. But I do, because I’m a crazy person.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.