Jason Zinoman at The New York Times asked a group of film directors and writers to name "the scariest movie they’d ever seen", and got a lot of overlapping answers from a relatively broad group of people -- The Shining, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing.

What most interested me was not the choices, but the reasons. People respond to films (and all forms of art) in diverse and unpredictable ways. Marti Noxon, for instance, lists The Blair Witch Project as one of only two movies (along with The Exorcist) "that have kept me awake as an adult"; on the other hand, I found Blair Witch to be a useful remedy for insomnia.

Many of the responses hark back to childhood reactions, and this is understandable -- children are generally easier to scare than adults, and our early experiences, before we have been numbed and carapaced by life, tend to be the most vivid and visceral. (In 1985, I thought Terror at London Bridge was unbearably frightening. Now? Not so much.)

I first started thinking about how we respond to horror movies in '86 or '87 when I saw what soon became one of my all-time favorite works of nonfiction film, Scream Greats vol. 1: Tom Savini. Early on, George Romero says,
Everyone says why do you laugh, how can you laugh at this stuff, here's somebody being torn in half and people are laughing. And I guess you can't understand that unless you're into it, you know? It's like, why do people laugh on a rollercoaster ride? Some people don't. In fact, probably most people get sick on rollercoaster rides, and get headaches and throw up and everything else, but the people that love 'em, love 'em, and they get in there and laugh and scream, because the experience makes you exuberant.
My critical understanding of affect and audience response at that point in my life was probably not much more advanced than, "Boys like horror movies, girls don't," and so Romero's words got me thinking in a way I never had before. Because I hate rollercoasters and similar rides -- really, any ride involving height, since I am cripplingly acrophobic; adding motion to height is for me a recipe not for vomiting (although maybe that), but for utter and irrational panic. (Scariest movie I've ever seen: Man on Wire.)

Horror movies actually can produce a variety of types of laughter for aficionados. There is the sort of euphoric laughter Romero speaks of, certainly, but there's also the laughter produced by something like Blood Feast, which is hilarious and revolting, or hilariously revolting -- it makes complete sense that John Waters loves Blood Feast, a film that would make a great double feature with Pink Flamingos.

Anyway, we could go on and on about the various ways of appreciating horror movies (which, I later learned, girls are also capable of doing), but what I want to pose here is just one undeveloped idea: Is "scared" the best word for what we're talking about?

In my House Next Door piece about Maximum Overdrive, I wrote:
Whether a movie can "scare the hell outta you" depends very much on the you watching the movie. Myself, I don't remember being scared by a film since I was a child. Revolted, yes. Startled, certainly. Disturbed, definitely. But scared? Of what?
I could have thrown in a few other words there, too -- unsettled is a useful one -- but proliferation is not the point. The NYT piece is illuminating because it allows a few people to talk about that exact "Of what?" Or, at least, it shows that scared is, indeed, sometimes exactly the right word. Marti Noxon, for example, seems really to have been scared by The Exorcist and Blair Witch.

I wonder if some of the capacity to be scared by a movie (or book) has to do with how immersive we are in our experience. I'm not a particularly immersive view of films (or reader of anything). Last year, I wrote a post that bounced off of some statements by Ron Silliman about non-immersive reading, and though I experience films in a vastly different way from how I experience text (and, indeed, one of the pleasures of film for me is that it does what my brain doesn't do well with text: exploit mise-en-scene), I don't usually just lose myself in a film. There are exceptions, but they're rare, and plenty of movies I cherish are not ones I have immersive experiences with.

I can think of a few people I know who simply cannot watch any violent or horrific movies because they watch films immersively and empathetically. Their physical reaction to violence on film is pretty much the same physical reaction I have on rollercoasters. And it's no fun.

It's not even as simple as immersive/nonimmersive, though, because there are types of violence I really struggle to watch on screen. I'm not much of a torture porn fan, for instance. But the thing that inevitably and consistently will cause me to turn away from the screen or skip ahead is any portrayal of an animal suffering.

Does this mean I value animal life over human life, since I can easily watch representations of people getting sliced and diced, but any representation of an animal suffering is unbearable? I don't think so -- in real life, the sight of any sort of blood or pain, human or animal, is extremely difficult for me (I would make a terrible EMT, trauma nurse, etc.). Movies affect me differently from life. Were I to publish a collection of film essays, I'd be tempted to steal a title from Marvin Mudrick and call it Movies Are Not Life -- But Then What Is?

I haven't yet come up with enough understanding of my own reactions to these things to be able to offer much of a theory about their causes or roots. Certainly, part of my joy in the types of horror movies I enjoy is technical or aesthetic -- Blood Feast is euphoric because it is so unhinged, so excessively, blazingly uninterested in anything other than being gross; Texas Chainsaw Massacre is euphoric because it is so consistently raw and unblinking, so committed to its tone; The Shining is euphoric because it is total cinema, a dance of sound and sight.

In the video essay that accompanies the NYT article, Zinoman says that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer so terrified him when he was young that he never wants to see the film again. That's an interesting criterion for me, and I definitely have a few such movies, though not because of being scared. (And I find Henry a fascinating and powerful portrayal of sociopathy, so am happy to watch it every now and then.) The two movies that immediately come to mind as ones I'm in no hurry to see again are Last House on the Left (original, not remake) and Boys Don't Cry. I think Last House is brilliant and necessary -- the most effective attack by a film on its own audience that I've ever seen -- but there is nothing even remotely pleasurable about watching it, and so while I would perhaps watch it again to be able to write about it at some point, I'm not rushing to do so. I may watch Boys Don't Cry again someday, too, but even the thought of doing so makes my innards clench, because the one time I watched it, soon after it was released on videotape, was an overwhelmingly emotional experience, and not one I much enjoyed, because it seemed to me then just about the most relentlessly depressing and unfulfillingly sad movie I'd ever encountered.

Being scared, though, is entirely different. Documentaries like Manufacturing Consent and Taxi to the Dark Side are far more frightening than any horror movies I've ever seen. Those are the sorts of movies that can keep me me up at night.


  1. I wonder how much the age of the viewer has to do with this. Marti Noxon must have been fairly young when she first saw The Exorcist. I was not allowed to see it when it first played the theatres. It was too old to be of much interest when videotapes first came out. So I ended up seeing it for the first time, on screen at a special Halloween showing.

    It scared the entire audience. Most of us had not seen it before. We were genuinely frightened by the movie. But it didn't keep me up that night. The thrill lasted as long as the ride did.

    Willy Wonka, the Gene Wilder version, kept my younger brother up for weeks after we saw it on television as children. All I had to do was mimic Wilder just a bit and my brother would run from the room. I can't imagine it would frighten an adult viewer much at all.

  2. The most frightening -- as opposed to revolting or disturbing -- movie I've ever seen is probably Adrian Lyne's film Jacob's Ladder. Maybe what that says is that not being able to trust your own mind is the scariest thing for me.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)

Compulsory Genres

Writing in Crisis