Film Talk

The power of a scare

Halloween is virtually upon us, a time of year I happen to love a fair bit. If for nothing else but for my love of horror films, pumpkins and generally anything black that has skulls or bats on it. Sadly I’ve not gone any parties to go to this year, but as I do get to dress up as Alice from Resident Evil a couple of weeks after, I might cope. Plus this marks the first year I should successfully finish my Hoop-Tober challenge by, or on, Halloween. So I’ve been watching virtually one horror film a day for the last month.

What exactly constitutes a scare? For me, it’s a fairly horrible feeling regardless of how long it lasts. It borders the same feelings of being nervous. Sweaty palms, a sinking, pit like feeling in your stomach, a burst of dizziness and jelly like legs. Much as my brain has tried to protect me from the moment I was most scared rendering me unable to remember every minute detail, I do still remember it. For me, it was undoubtedly my car crash. There’s something about being on your own in a flimsy French car that’s being sandwiched against concrete by a lorry that will do that to you. I was perfectly fine physically, though the flimsy car lived up to its description. Other than that, it’s probably been if my family have been severely ill. Or those phone calls that you’ll all know, that take you from normal to a feeling of horror in seconds. Or the time we got diverted in the middle of the night on the way home from a football match. The diversion signs disappeared, the sat nav lost the plot and all of us lost phone signal as we entered ‘Much Markle’ – a place that at the time sounded fake and fitting for us all to be driven off the road with a flat tire and murdered. I’m sure in the daytime it’s a lovely place of course.

So perhaps it’s weird that while I don’t really associate horror films with being scared, I’m a huge fan of the genre. I completely understand why they scare people, but I’m still searching for a film that can have an effect on me as bad as any of the things I described above. When sitting down to write this, I tried to recall which film has left me most disturbed. In recent times, probably ‘I saw the devil’ or Gareth Evans’ short from V/H/S/2 – Safe Haven. Both were uncomfortable watches, though neither stopped me sleeping the night after. I grew up with my film education being primarily horror films and I’d happily watch one then pack up and go straight to sleep. I’m not easily spooked, though as a child I had an irrational phobia to my Grandma’s bathroom (in my defence it was always super cold in there and had a weird smell) and a family friend’s loft/attic area (things disappeared and it was always too quiet and too cold).

There have been individual things, or images, that have stuck with me of course. It’s usually been the things I’ve not been expecting. In an ideal world, we’d all enjoy horror films like anybody who saw Scream at the cinema originally would have. Pre-social media, pre-bloated trailers that show too much, it would have been a huge shock to see a highly billed character killed so early on and such a brutal twist. You couldn’t imagine having something like The Blair Witch Project debut in the same way. Upon its release, it shocked audiences and some believed what they were watching had really happened. That was again, pre-internet so nobody had spoiled it and it’s media campaign much reduced. I try to avoid trailers for horror films where possible, and reviews, until I’ve seen them. It was this tactic that made It Follows’ have a standout moment for me. Stop reading if you’ve no seen it, but the man on the roof scared the bejeebus out of me when I first watched it. I’ve never quite understood an acquaintance I made at university; they’d purposefully find out when all the jump scares and reveals would happen so that they didn’t jump while watching the film.

Different things scare different people of course. It makes horror a fascinating genre and probably why the ratings are so skewered (I think I’m right in saying the average horror film on IMDB is ranked between 5 and 6 out of 10). The silent, bang, bang movement accompanies many a modern horror but for the most part doesn’t work for me, but I live with somebody who it’s incredibly effective on. For me, once you’ve seen a certain number of horrors, you know exactly when the jump scare is coming. That said, I was once watching American Horror Story: Murder House in the dark, on my own at about 1am. Taissa Farmiga’s character was also in pitch blackness, going through the house corridors after hearing weird noises. It was building to something and I jumped a mile. Though not at the show but because my doorbell rang. It turned out to be a couple of drunk guys looking for a lost friend but it was incredibly effective at the time!

Personally the horror films that have always stayed with me more are the ones that seem feasibly real, so not often the paranormal based films. For example, The Purge: Anarchy bothered me more than it probably should. I think because the current world situation looks so capable of inflicting something that drastic and because you know people would capitalise on it in the worst ways. I also spent a lot of my teenage-early adult life driving around the country on my own, which meant road trip horrors always freaked me out, see Wrong Turn, Joy Ride and more recently, Hush.

Horror of course changes with the time. Studio bods focus on the things that truly scare people, or new vulnerabilities, cue why we had more than a few social-media based horrors in recent times. Or even ‘Nerve’, though more an action thriller than horror, it played on our fears, but curiosity, of being watched and being able to know virtually everything about everyone. What scared audiences in the 1970s isn’t quite so relevant now. You had cold war fears once upon a time where nuclear fears now take over, so the plot devices change but the psychological ideas behind them doesn’t.

I am curious whether or not a location, or the audience you’re with, can influence how you feel while watching a horror film? Horror films in a packed cinema can be great, or awful depending on whether people are scared or just think it’s hilarious. You have to feel that if you’re watching them from the comfort of your warm, safe house, they’d have less impact than if you were watching them in a lonely cabin in the woods.

It also makes me wish there was a horror film festival in an abandoned asylum or cinema I could go to. Now that would be fun!

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