Horrors and Thrillers - Why do we love to be scared?
With Halloween approaching, I figured I'd review a bunch of scary and Halloween-themed movies throughout the month of October. But that also gets me to thinking: why do we like to be scared?
Now, chances are there are as many different answers to that question as there are styles of scary movies. But for me, I think I've figured out a few simple answers.
But first, I have to state one thing plainly about my own personal preferences: I'm not a fan of gore.
I know there are those out there that will disagree with me on this. The vast number of movies that use this trick speaks strongly to that. But personally, I don't like movies that use gore as a cheap scare. That's not scary. It's just gross. And once you've gotten used to a certain level of grossness, you need to up the ante before you can get that reaction again.
So, with that out of the way, what else is there?
It's the morals
You can say what you want about the movies themselves, but have you ever noticed just how moral the horror genre is? It may be one of the most moral of the widely popular genres out there.
Don't believe me? Well, consider this situation (c).
You're watching a movie set in the woods near a small town. Local legend tells of an axe-wielding specter that walks the woods every Presidents Day, looking for his lost puppy. A group of students from the local university (it's always a group of teenagers or early twenty-somethings) decide to tempt fate and stay in the old worn out shack that somehow still has power and a TV antenna.
When they get to the cabin, two of them immediately run into the back room for a little bow-chikka-wow-wow time. Two of them head into the kitchen to eat their snacks while doing their best to get through ten pounds of weed they swiped from a police evidence locker. And two of them sit down in the front room to study for that quiz they know they all have on Monday.
Now, using the rules of the horror movies you've seen, which pair do you want to bet will die first, die second, and not die at all? Sure, they'll all get scared (except maybe the first to die because they don't know they should be scared at all yet) and they may each be horribly hurt, but statistically speaking, the ones most likely to make it through to the end credits are the ones who are doing nothing wrong.
Horror does this because they need you to have someone to root for. And the easiest ones to get behind are those who are behaving how we all know we should. But if they kill off all the people you're supposed to root for, they know they're shooting themselves in the foot.
Now, there will be the odd good character who dies. If good people didn't die, we'd soon learn not to worry for them. But statistically speaking, those who have the biggest chance of bucking the kicket are those who need some sort of life re-adjustment.
It's almost as if these monsters, these evil apparitions, these hell-spawn are actually God's angels in disguise, punishing those who flout the rules.
There is something to be said for releasing strong emotions. We cry at romances. We laugh at comedies. We cheer at action flicks.
And we tremble at horrors.
In our daily lives, most of us don't have a way to release that kind of emotion. It's not that we long to release our pent up fears. But when we get the chance, there's a tremendous and immediate benefit.
The body is designed for fight or flight. But in today's modern world, that instinct rarely comes into play. Cops and soldiers get the chance, though they usually pray they don't. Some professional sports greatly rely on it. (I'd love to see Tiger Woods afraid of being tackled if he doesn't make his next putt and see what that does to his concentration.)
But for most of the rest of us, we're stuck doing a job that maybe we like, maybe we don't. But even if we don't, we just have to slog through it and get the job done.
Scary movies, however, allow us the experience of releasing our fears and letting them run for a while. They build as the climax draws near, then there's that release when everything works out (most of the time).
The brain is mostly unable to tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. There are endorphins and other chemicals that are released into the body in preparation for this fight-or-flight response. And when the release happens, it can be such a cathartic release, not only of our own emotions, but of the body's own chemistry.
Triumph over Evil
This is sort of a combination of my first two points in a way.
Now, there will be the odd movie where the monster or the killer is allowed to win. But overall, part of the catharsis of a good horror movie is the ability to see the good guy triumph over the bad.
Good guys triumph over bad guys in almost every genre out there, but in Horror, it's more than that. The bad guy in a horror movie usually represents evil incarnate. The embodiment of all our fears or evil thoughts. A triumph in horror isn't just a victory for the cop on the screen who finally caught the man who killed his wife in the first minutes of the show. It's a representative victory of all that is good—represented by our hero—over all that is evil—represented by the monster or killer.
How can you not cheer when that happens?
Now, that doesn't mean that everyone likes scary movies for these same reasons, but they're always the ones that I come back to when deciding whether I like a particular scary movie or not.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be discussing several scary movies. Some I've selected because they're simply classics in their genre. Others I select as being scary movies that I myself am personally drawn to again and again.
And I've even chosen some that the kids may like.
Speaking of kids ... do you know where yours are?
Check out these titles
- The Changeling is my personal scary movie gold standard
The Changeling has an atmosphere that enhances every moment. The movie scary movies should aspire to be.
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a classic for kids of all ages
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - if you haven't seen it yet ... what's up with that?
- "It" takes a village ... of children
Stephen King's It is iconic. Pennywise is the greatest clown you love to hate.
- Salem's Lot is a little weak but shouldn't be overlooked in its genre
Salem's Lot is imperfect but shouldn't be discounted.
- Legend gets a bit trippy but there are some amazing visuals
Legend's a bit odd. It can get a bit creepy and confusing. But if you see this one, be absolutely sure to catch the Director's Cut.
- Lady in White has a few minor problems but works overall as a well told ghost story
Lady in White is imperfect, and suffers a little from its small budget, but overall, the story is well done and well acted, and there are scenes that do work quite well.
- The movie never specifies who exactly "The Others" are, but the movie's atmosphere is distinct
The Others builds a great atmosphere and the ending forces you to re-think not only this movie, but many other ghost stories you've seen before.
- Scream breathes new life into the genre by showing its hand
A horror movie that shows you its hand but still manages to excite you? This one puts fun into the genre.
- 1408 brings emotional torture to the forefront and really makes you think
1408 is a well-done movie that takes its time to generate the right atmosphere before moving on to bigger events. And it gives you something to think about in the end.
- Ernest Scared Stupid has a pure heart but he's definitely not aiming for adults
Jim Varney makes Ernest genuinely stupid, genuinely ridiculous, but also, genuinely sincere.
- Poltergeist is a movie for the zeitgeist!
A wonderful scary movie that the whole family can watch together that makes parents cherish their kids a little more and makes kids fear the television as they should.
- Friday the 13th rather stands alone among even its sequels
Friday the 13th launched a franchise, but those who haven't seen the original may be surprised. Not my favorite, though.
- The Watcher in the Woods will give your kids a good scare
The Watcher in the Woods is a scary movie that the whole family can watch. I remember loving this one as a kid myself.
- Alien and Aliens - Aparently two movies do a franchise make
The first two movies in the Alien franchise may be the only ones universally loved, but their distinct visual look will keep them going for years to come.
- Arachnophobia makes the familiar fantastic
Spiders are everywhere. Most of 'em will leave you alone. This movie proves to you that you should fear them anyway.
- Casper is great for kids - and not terrible for parents
Casper's not as deep as it tries to be, but that's fine. Get too deep and you start losing kids inside.
- The Shining defined a generation of scary movies
The Shining is tense, creepy, weird and will linger with you.
- Frankenstein is classic cinema, but it's definitely not the novel
This classic has endured in our public consciousness, but much of it has been misunderstood over the decades. Check this one out.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street is iconic and weird
Nightmare gets weird and creepy and it's created one of the most uniquely iconic images in horror. Well done Mister Craven.
- John Carpenter's Halloween is well made and quite scary
This is a classic movie of the Horror genre. There are good reasons why this one influenced so many scary movies that came after it.
More by this Author
A simple comparison of two versions of the same story. Everyone has a different idea and approach, but it's up to you to determine which is "better".
The Horatio Hornblower movie series is a wonderful adaptation of C.S. Forrester's novels. Here I make a character study to focus on how the film makers brought the character of Archie Kennedy to life.
Alien is a classic of both monster movies and cinema in general. Since 1979, any serious attempt at making a monster movie must be aware of what went into this Ridley Scott masterpiece.