Tasha: I admit it, guys: I used to be a world-class horror-movie wuss. My parents would have no more taken me to a horror movie than they would have taken me to a porn theater, so I grew up without inoculating myself against scary images onscreen: I had to leave the theater during Gremlins because I was so unnerved, and I used to freak myself out by re-reading Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelization and imagining what it might look like onscreen. I didn’t seriously seek out horror movies in college, and didn’t really start watching them regularly until years into my work as a professional critic. (By contrast, my partner got to see Alien in the theater in first run. He was 8 years old.) So I am still a babe in the scaaary woods when it comes to horror films.
But once I started watching horror films regularly, I wondered what I’d been afraid of. More than virtually any other genre (rom-coms and dance movies are the primary competitors here), horror films tend to draw from a stock collection of tropes, and once you start seeing the seams, it’s hard not to notice them. There are the cheap tricks: the jump-scares, the fake-outs, the shrieking musical scores, the stupid decisions made by people unaware of their peril. There are the gore movies, where a bunch of thinly characterized, possibly awful people get whacked in messy, supposedly clever ways. There are the more sophisticated sympathy-generation machines, where a reasonably well-built character—usually a woman—is trapped in an unfolding situation she can’t control, and fighting the inevitability of fate. (Often to save a child.) More recently, there are the camera tricks associated with found-footage horror films: the barely-glimpsed horror briefly caught at the edge of a moving frame, or abruptly revealed by a camera flash or other limited light. After seeing these things over and over, I’m fairly inured to a lot of the tricks, and while I may flinch at the sudden shocks, I don’t feel frightened, just startled. And usually annoyed immediately thereafter.
We’re all pretty experienced with horror films. Correct me if I’m overstepping here, but Scott, as our resident torture-porn apologist and expert, you’ve seen an awful lot of incredibly bloody movies, and Noel, I’ve read enough of your work to think of you as a kill connoisseur, the kind of viewer who keeps track of the money shots in horror films. Are you with me in feeling a bit jaded by horror films at this point?
Noel: I wouldn’t use the word “jaded,” but I would say I’m “aware.” I know the grammar. I know that if there’s empty space in the frame surrounding the hero or heroine, there’s a good chance that something horrible is going to fill that space eventually. Notice how in home-invasion thrillers, the victims nearly always live out in the middle of nowhere, in houses with big windows? That’s one of the reasons those movies make me so anxious: There’s no escape from the big black rectangles, and what might be lurking just beyond them. In a way, it’s a relief when the killers come barging in, because at least then the evil has a form.
“Even straight real-world dramas with no supernatural element can be paralyzing when they exploit the unknown.”
But I want to correct a misperception, Tasha. I’m actually more like you than you think. I avoided horror movies through most of my youth, because my mom didn’t want me to see them (not even when they were edited for network television), and because I was skittish enough just from the horror-movie commercials that were all over the radio and TV in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I spent most nights from age 7 to age 14 sleeping with my covers pulled over my head, trying hard not to think about the ads for It’s Alive or Alien. It didn’t help that I had an older brother and one regular babysitter who did see some of those films, and who described them to me in far more detail than a kid with my imagination needed. Plus I’ve always had a weird fear of vomiting, which when I was younger kept me away from movies I was sure would gross me out.
Prolonged exposure to horror in my adulthood has cured me of my concern about stomach-turning gore. I’m hardly a gorehound now, but I appreciate a good, craftsmanlike gaping wound or arterial spray, especially in this age, when too many of those effects are done digitally. I’m not sure exactly when I turned the corner on horror, but I think it started in high school when I watched a couple of David Cronenberg films, and then extended into college, when I started getting into George Romero, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento. I came at horror as a cinephile first, watching movies by the auteurs who displayed obvious technical skill, and who exploited the simultaneous popularity and disreputability of the genre to sneak in social commentary.
But the other reason I came to love horror films is that they really do still scare the crap out of me. Not all of them do—but I’d be lying if I said only the masterpieces get to me. Each month, during the week when I’m writing my “Midnight To Midnight” column, I’m watching horror movies pretty much nonstop, and at the end of each night, I end up turning on the lights in the hallway before I walk back to bed. A few years ago, I watched all the Friday The 13th films for a writing project, and for about a month afterward, I was still looking over my shoulder in darkened rooms. I have a fondness for movies that make me laugh, cry, grip my armrest, or let out an involuntary yelp. Provoking an emotional response doesn’t make a film great, or even good, but it isn’t something to dismiss out of hand, either.
Scott: As long as we’re sharing movie-fandom origin stories, I can tell you I’m a scaredy-cat, and that’s something I inherited from my father. My dad likes to tell the story of how he was so scared watching Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein as a boy that he chewed through a cheap belt he’d bought earlier that afternoon. My little sister and I had nightmares for a full month after watching the broadcast version of The Exorcist, and for the longest time, evil children and demonic possession remained at the top of the list of things that scared me. Children Of The Corn, Village Of The Damned, The Omen, etc.: There was something unnerving about innocents given over to evil, perhaps because their openness and suggestibility makes them more susceptible to dark forces: They’re purer mediums. Though more likely, it’s just some primal, personal response I can’t quite articulate—we can’t always understand what scares us, just as we often can’t control being scared. We can say, “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie,” to borrow the great Last House On The Left tagline, but such rationalizations only go so far.
So what still scares me in film? Short answer: Everything. As critics, we can point to something like a slasher-film jump scare as a “cheap” horror effect, and praise the slow burn of classic haunted-house movies, with their subtler employment of offscreen space and things that go bump in the night. But for me, it’s all scary—it’s just the quality of the experience that counts. You resent jump-scares just as you would the sibling who hides around a corner and yells “Boo!” There’s something more lasting, almost luxuriant, about the scares in The Strangers or The House Of The Devil—to name two of my favorite horror films of recent vintage—because there’s such patience and skill involved in creating an atmosphere thick with dread, and holding off on puncturing that atmosphere until the last possible moment.
To that end, I’m liking the current vogue for haunted-house movies, led by James Wan’s Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring, and the Paranormal Activity franchise, which even at its worst (and the fourth film did suggest the series is out of gas) plays on horror fundamentals, however conservatively. The attachment of a digital camera to an oscillating fan in Paranormal Activity 3 was a true masterstroke, an ingenious way to update the use of offscreen effects for an age where cameras are small and omnipresent. I’m also hoping for a revival of the hard-R horror that surfaced in the early 2000s—you call it “torture porn,” I’ll call it “extreme cinema”—and found its way back in the form of Sinister, a gnarly gut-punch of supernatural violence made chillingly visceral. What I like about these movies, when they’re done well, is the idea that the safety net has been cut away, and anything can happen.
Tasha: I’m definitely not in the “everything scares me” camp. I’m a wuss, but I’m a skeptical wuss. But you’ve nailed exactly what is still effective for me, Scott: The sense of not knowing what will happen next, especially when the survival of a worthwhile, empathetic protagonist is involved. That’s why at this point, I find slashers, torture-porn (yep, “torture-porn”), and Final Destination sequels pretty boring. The characters are often interchangeable and generic, and I don’t feel invested in their safety. There’s some question of exactly when and how the next person is going to die, and what unlikely implements will be used in their destruction, but those feel like such minor questions, the only small variations in a clockwork process that’s about as predictable as a rom-com. (Spoiler: Those two attractive people who want to end up together, but can’t, because of some wacky misunderstanding? They end up together. Also a spoiler: That guy in the latest Hostel sequel or copycat who’s cuffed to a chair in a squalid room full of surgical gear is not about to have a good day.) A slowly advancing, inevitable fate can be scary if it’s presented well—say, Seth Brundle’s gradual disintegration in The Fly, where it becomes clear early on that he’s unlikely to make it back from the body-horror overtaking him—but just sitting through someone being tortured onscreen doesn’t frighten me.
Here’s what does: stories that exploit the unknown, in all its infinite forms. Horror stories generally make up their own rules, and not knowing what the rules are—what a ghost or demon or alien or monster might be capable of, or what might be used to successfully stop it—is a large part of the fear. Getting the rules wrong (as happens in The Ring) can lead to terror and turnarounds. Even banking on getting the rules right (say, with the “one, two, three… knock-on-the-wall” game in The Orphanage) can be terrifying. Stories with fantasy or science-fiction elements often work for me because the unknowns are so much more extensive—until Prometheus turned ridiculous with the biologist poking the fangy alien dildo, I found the film terrifying, because there was absolutely no guessing what the visitors might find on that alien planet, or what horrors it might inflict on them.
“Provoking an emotional response doesn’t make a film great, or even good, but it isn’t something to dismiss out of hand, either.”
But even straight real-world dramas with no supernatural element can be paralyzing when they exploit the unknown. Simple darkness will always be frightening, and people in darkness always seem unnervingly at risk. Almost as powerful a tool: the unknowability of people’s hidden motives. Stoker is frightening because there’s something so obviously wrong with Matthew Goode’s character Charles, but director Chan-wook Park and writer Wentworth Miller do an exquisite job of drawing out the mystery of what it is, how deep it runs, and where it’s going to go. I felt the same way about the title characters in 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin and 2007’s Joshua—as children, they both seem like they should be harmless, but they’re so profoundly disturbed (and so chillingly, convincingly acted) that they throw everything about the story’s outcome into doubt. For me, there’s no better feeling in a film than having no clue what’s coming next, and films that latch onto that feeling and prolong it for thrills… I love them. And fear them.
Noel: You guys haven’t seen Under The Skin yet, but in its first half, that movie returns again and again to a mysterious house that seems to contain a portal to… well, I shouldn’t say. But trust me: It’s freaky. And terrifying. Like you, Tasha, I’ll never not be scared by a scene of a person walking into a dark room, uncertain of what’s lurking there. What makes those scenes even scarier in Under The Skin is that it’s hard to make sense of what’s actually happening, because the images are so bizarre. That’s why I find some avant-garde short films more frightening than any blood-soaked narrative feature, because that sense of the unknown carries over to the style of the shorts themselves, leaving me feeling dangerously unmoored.
What else is scary? I have a visceral reaction to certain kinds of pain onscreen, like injury to the eye or genitalia. I also squirm at anything involving drowning, choking, being buried alive, or just generally being unable to breathe. My palms get sweaty when people are way, way up high, and barely secured. And I have a deep sense of dread when characters are alone. Even those home-invasion thrillers I mentioned up top don’t scare me as much if there’s more than one person in the house before the invasion occurs. It’s being alone in the woods, or walking into an abandoned house alone, or doing anything anything scary without a buddy or loved one alongside, that’s especially unsettling. I’m similarly made anxious by the vastness of space, and the vastness of the ocean. That idea of an individual being dwarfed or engulfed by nothingness is something I find hard to bear.
I’m also bothered by the prospect of a long ordeal. Tasha, you mentioned the almost reassuringly clockwork quality of torture-porn, but not knowing how long the clock is going to tick is what makes those movies powerful. Characters who are going about an ordinary day until the words “Day One” appear beneath them are in for some interesting times.
Scott: With regard to “torture porn,” Tasha, I think you’re cutting with a pretty broad [insert sharp implement of choice] here. To a degree, you’re right: What scares us in movies is the unknown. So it’s always scarier to anticipate Jason lurking somewhere in the woods while teenagers are skinny-dipping in the lake than actually watching him bring the knife down. Once the unknown becomes known, there’s no difference tension-wise between a horror film and an action film, other than the villain possibly wearing a mask made of human skin or something. But beyond the arguments I could make for “torture porn” as something like a reflection of our own anxieties about a post-9/11 world in which we are the torturers, specific films can have a specific tension to them that may not be “scary” per se, but are compelling and nerve-jangling in their own way. Part of the torture process, after all, is instilling fear in the victim over what might happen next and when—in something like Takashi Miike’s Audition, it becomes akin to actual seduction, like an S&M session involving razor wire and amputation. (Credit Miike for finding the comedy in scenes like that, too.) And though it doesn’t necessarily fit the label, we can trace these films back to movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House On The Left, which are scary because the terror feels so real and human, and puts us in a position where we fully empathize with the victims.
Which brings me to this rhetorical question: Do we have to like something to be scared by it? I have no trouble calling a terrible slasher movie terrible, but does that mean I have to label it “not scary” too? That seems like warding off the demon to me. I’ve gone to countless preview screenings for horror movies where an audience has been completely on the hook, screaming and yelling at all the scary parts, only to boo or shrug or laugh at it when it’s over. “Eh, didn’t scare me,” says the macho guy who was freaked out for 90 of 91 minutes. Because I admit to being scared by just about every type of horror movie, I’m curious about whether people call the horror films (or types of horror films) they like “scary” when, to me, the scariness of a horror film doesn’t necessarily relate to its aesthetic merit (though it helps). If you say “Boo!,” I jump. That doesn’t make you clever.
Tasha: Agreed, “boo” is not clever, though some forms of “boo” are cleverer than others. There’s an art to riffs like the fake-out “boo”—I’m thinking of specific moments in Poltergeist and Alien where a character flinches in fear at something harmless, and is just beginning to relax into relief when the real “gotcha” happens—just as there’s an art to building an atmosphere of dread that makes the “boo” effective. The shower scene in Psycho is scary, particularly in the last moment before anything happens, when it’s clear that something is lurking on the other side of that shower curtain, and poor Marion Crane doesn’t realize it. But it wouldn’t be nearly as frightening without the preceding scenes of Norman Bates’ spooky house, his not-quite-convincing casualness, and his secret peeping in on Marion. With that in mind, sure, I’m capable of appreciating the artfulness of a horror film or even a scary scene without liking the film, and I’m capable of finding one terrifying without respecting it.
In fact, I think that’s where we most part ways on, sigh, “extreme cinema,” Scott. You’ve made a very compelling case over the years for the genre’s political underpinnings, social commentary, and evocation of culturally relevant horrors, and I acknowledge the metaphors, but I can praise the subtext while still finding the text revolting, cheap, and dehumanizing. You can isolate any aspect of a film for praise without necessarily respecting the others—Neil LaBute’s 2006 Wicker Man remake has gorgeous cinematography, for instance, but that’s all I can say for it—so there’s no reason you can’t admire a film’s scariness without admiring the film itself.
And part of that is because “scariness” can be a very personal thing. Like Noel, I have my specific phobias and weak spots: gross-out textures, like the gooiness of the Alien films and The Fly. The combination of paralysis and awareness. I’m not a claustrophobe, but a really effective claustrophobia movie like Buried or The Descent can turn me into one for 90 minutes. Especially freaky: anything that hides people’s facial expressions, from cleverly chosen shadows to masks. Films that exploit those things are scarier to me—for instance, Baghead convincingly makes the point that someone with a sack over their head is frightening, even if you think you know who it is. Not only can you not see facial features in order to recognize the person or gauge their intent, the effect is a misshapen, inhuman thing, in vaguely human shape. But while Baghead scared me good ’n’ proper, that doesn’t make it a great film. Mere scariness doesn’t make a movie smarter about storytelling, or more sophisticated or ambitious, or anything else we look for in a “good” film. Our own Genevieve Koski is terrified of spiders; a film featuring spiders is scarier for her than me. That doesn’t otherwise change its quality as a movie.
Noel: Not even The Giant Spider Invasion?
I get what you guys are saying, but I hesitate to sign on completely, because I keep thinking about all the comedies I love that other people dismiss because “It isn’t funny.” I realize that the argument you’re both making is that “funny” or “scary” shouldn’t matter, and that I should be able to make the case for a film regardless of whether it makes someone who isn’t me laugh or jump. But it’s not always easy to work around another person’s particular biases and tastes. If I tell friends that I like a particular horror movie, and they watch it without feeling the least bit scared, I doubt my explicating the themes is going to change any minds. Because odds are that if they’re not scared, they’re bored.
Because of my column, I spend a lot of time watching really bad horror movies: straight-to-video, $1.98 productions, staffed by amateurs. But sometimes the badness makes them scarier—at least to me. The slicker the horror movie (and the bigger the stars in that movie), the faker it seems. But a movie shot on cheap video, with terrible actors, has the advantage of unpredictability. You’re right, Tasha, that this unpredictability doesn’t magically transform these films. They’re still pretty awful. But if we’re talking about what still scares us in movies, then I have to admit I’m unnerved by the shabby. These movies are often enjoyably awful—not in a so-bad-it’s-good way, but because they deliver some solid jolts.
Scott: Noel, your thoughts on the intermittent effectiveness of shabby straight-to-video horror movies reminds me why I love the genre so much: Even the bad ones can surprise you every once in a while. Bad comedies or dramas can yield some bright moments, too, but they aren’t exactly “jolts,” just mitigating factors in an otherwise-dreary experience. I’m reminded of the single biggest jump scare I’ve ever experienced: a shot of a figure bursting suddenly across an empty hallway in The Exorcist III. That isn’t a bad film per se, but I remember almost nothing else about it but that moment, and I’ve talked to many horror aficionados who were similarly shocked. I sit through so much flotsam waiting for moments that good—and horror being horror, the anticipation is deliciously dread-filled.