Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Fright Fantastic:
Why the Best Horror Movies Are So Chilling

What is scary? As an occasional designer of haunted attractions who has worked on horror movies and written my share of creepy stories, I have given this question a considerable amount of thought.  And although not everybody is frightened by the same things, there seems to me to be a common theme that underlies all the truly terrifying situations depicted in our popular culture.  As I see it, the cold, clammy foundation of our greatest fears is the idea of being at the mercy of the merciless.

In need of a hand. A helpless victim in one of the cruel traps set by the
pitiless villain in the Saw films.  © Lionsgate

    I'm talking about scares, not startles.  Jumping out at someone from the shadows might get the heart to skip a beat, but it’s purely a momentary reflex, usually followed by laughs and giggles as the perceived threat is proven to be nothing but a lunging actor in a costume.  A true scare takes some time to build up, and relies upon the suspension of disbelief such that the victim is never quite convinced the threat is not real.  I went on a haunted hayride one time that was not very impressive until the maniac with the chain saw came at us. The roar of the saw was real because the chain saw was real – the only question was whether or not this guy had actually bothered to take the chain off of the blade.  Given the blurring speed of an operational saw chain and the dimness of the light, my instincts were to steer clear of that thing at all costs. I wasn’t about to take any chances.

    Fear of the unknown can be awfully intimidating, whether it’s the small question of whether the killer’s knife is real or whether there truly are dragons at the edge of the world.  That’s the main reason the darkness is so ominous: who knows what evil, hungry things are prowling out beyond the reach of the campfire? Since you can’t see them, your mind is free to write its own litany of horrors – and on a moonless night, the blank slate is virtually limitless.  That’s not to say the unknown is always bad, else there would be no such thing as a pleasant surprise. And darkness, in and of itself, is not a guaranteed harbinger of bad things; after all, where would you be if your parents hadn’t gone bump in the night?

    What raises our goose-bumps is not the dark itself, but rather the imagined beasties that, for all we know, are lurking out there along the wood line. The darkness is merely the thin veil that hides them from our view --and yet, because they are denizens of the dark, with night vision superior to ours, we are not as hidden from them as we’d like to be.  We imagine that we are at their mercy, and that they have no intention of showing us any.  The intervening blackness is cold and uncaring; we cannot persuade it to pull back its curtains a bit so that we may see there are no monsters stalking the benighted landscape. So we carry torches to hold the shadows at bay, but they are of small comfort, illuminating only as much of the surrounding gloom as could be traversed in a single leap by a snarling predator.

Not "catch and release."  Robert Shaw becomes a great white's best chum
in Jaws.    © Universal Pictures 
    Let’s take a look at some of what I consider to be the scariest movies ever made, and see how the idea of mercy applies to them.  The original Jaws was an exquisitely terrifying film. Its antagonist was not a supernatural creature but rather a big, hungry animal, although its unrelenting appetite did push the limits a bit, especially given the shark’s reportedly slow digestive process.  The beast lurked in the depths of the ocean as opposed to the darkness, but within that vast, unknowable sea you could not predict when or where it was going to strike. What you did know was that it was going to be a painful chomp and your chances at living to a ripe old age would suddenly be over. There would be no negotiating, no pleading, no appealing for mercy to those dead “doll’s eyes,” as Robert Shaw described them. Toss in the element of darkness, as in the scene where Richard Dreyfuss ventures into the water on a foggy night to investigate the abandoned fishing boat, and you have a recipe for terror on a plate of reverse sushi that still gives me the shivers.

Seven-corpse meal.  The recently deceased are out for lunch in Night of the Living Dead.  © The Walter Reade Organization
    Night of the Living Dead can be regarded as Patient Zero of our current plague of zombie movies. For a film that cost about a buck and a half to make, it really delivered the scares.  Lead actor Duane Jones would be hard pressed to find a more implacable foe than an army of risen corpses bent on devouring regular folks.  For a while, he was able to outrun them, but when he found himself surrounded, he took refuge in an isolated farmhouse and boarded up the windows.  Eventually, the sheer numbers of the undead proved to be too much for the impropmtu carpentry, and the living abandoned the living room to hole up in the basement.  There they made the same mistake just about everyone in a horror movie is obliged to make: they let down their guard. And the little girl who had just died in the corner of the cellar got up to stab them with a trowel!  No matter what the hero did, the zombies just kept on coming. Relentless and ravenous, they plodded on, an unnatural force of nature that even a resourceful man was powerless to stop.

    It has been said that stress is a reaction to things affecting us from beyond your control. The symptoms are quite similar to those of fear: a rush of adrenaline, elevated heart rate, heightened sensory awareness, an urge to take some kind of action countered by a lowered capacity for rational thought.  Is that why the protagonists in horror flicks make so many dumb mistakes?

Killer costume! Jamie Lee Curtis is menaced by a murderer in a cheap rubber mask in Halloween.     © Warner Bros.
    Jamie Lee Curtis played a plucky babysitter in the original Halloween, where she was beset by a murderous Michael Myers. Wearing a creepy William Shatner mask, Michael pursued her through the rooms of her neighbor’s house, a butcher knife at the ready.  Jamie finally got her wits together enough to stab him in the neck with a knitting needle (good for her!), but then assumed he was down for the count and left him lying there on the carpet, the knife still within easy reach (not so good for her). What made this big, shambling hulk such an iconic killer was his apparent lack of humanity – his single-minded devotion to the eradication of whoever was within reach of his blade, his seeming indestructibility, and most of all, the mask through which no redeeming emotion could be perceived. We saw him as a monster, not as a fellow member of the family of man, and so the usual rules of society did not apply. One look into the dark holes in that impassive, artificial face, and we knew his lack of compassion was absolute.  This “faceless” trick has been used to death in horror movies, from Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Murders.  It’s visual shorthand for an implacable fiend bereft of a soul.
    Not all evil is so mindless. The vengeful doctor in Saw and its sequels was less a brutish golem than a human being to whom mercy was not so much a virtue as a means to an end, a false hope to be dangled like a measly carrot at the end of the whipping stick, only to be snatched away in a final act of harrowing cruelty.  This sadistic puppeteer was a distasteful reminder that even a person such as you or I could, with the not-quite-right twisting and shaping, be transformed into a malignant parody of his former self.  He was as merciless as the flesh-eating zombies, but distinguished from them by the passion with which he engineered his infernal devices. Even hidden from his victims behind a closed-circuit Howly Doody show, he let a trickle of human emotion seep through -- just enough to keep a thin wisp of hope alive and nudge his prisoners into position before bringing down the hammer for a devastating finale. There was no mercy in this man's shriveled heart; what we thought we saw was nothing but a vicious illusion. 

The game's a foot. Cary Elwes is a doctor whose only chance for escape is to hack off his foot in Saw.  © Lionsgate
    In the extraterrestrial horror story Alien, the monster did not have to divest itself of its humanity because it never had it to begin with.  Though there are clues early on that something really bad happened to the derelict spaceship the Nostromo’s crew found on that distant planet, nobody realized the nature of the threat until it had taken root on board their own interstellar mining barge.  One crewman, possessed of cat-like curiosity (but apparently not cat-like reflexes), got too close to a mysterious alien egg and was orally raped by a whip-tailed face-hugger. The thing eventually let go of him, and he reported feeling a lot better. Then, while joining his mates for brunch, the galaxy’s worst case of morning sickness hit him and he underwent a spontaneous Caesarian. The weird baby alien burst out of his abdomen and went screaming across the table, then off into the bowels of the ship to seek its fortune -- and whatever prey it might scare up.

E.T. the Extra-Terrifying. The hideous -- and dangerous -- creature from outer space in Alien.   © 20th Century Fox
    The critter quickly grew into a hideous, man-sized abomination, dripping acid from its veins and poking its rows of metallic fangs out at anyone who had the misfortune of wandering too close. It was never clear if the damn thing was intelligent, but it certainly didn’t give a damn about humans, except as a means of reproducing and, presumably, feeding itself.  One by one, it killed the earthlings off, until at the end it was just the alien versus Sigourney Weaver (and Jonesie, the only surviving member of the crew who did have cat-like reflexes).  Sigourney was scared, understandably, but she had learned that the only way to defeat this thing was to become unmerciful herself: shinnying into a spacesuit, she blew the hatch, blasting the creature out into the frigid night of outer space. 

    Other films prey upon our various fears, and they can all be interpreted in the light of this mercy angle. There is the fear of being eaten alive (Piranha),  trapped (Boxing Helena), drowned (Sanctum), burned (The Wicker Man), hunted (Pitch Black), mutilated (The Bone Collector), transformed (Dracula or The Wolf Man), replaced (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), possessed (The Exorcist), tortured (Hostel), or just plain stomped on (Godzilla).  Our adversary doesn't even have to be a creature or a spirit: falling out of a window, we would suddenly be at the mercy of unrepentant gravity; even the inevitability of aging can bring us to our knees in the path of the plodding juggernaut that is time.

    Perhaps the most basic of all is the fear of death, that ultimate leap into the dark unknown.  It is the big question mark at the end of our life sentence; a huge proportion of our various religions’ energies are spent addressing the mystery of what happens after we die. Yet no matter how comforted we are by the thoughts of a joyous afterlife, very few of us are hoping for an agonizing or humiliating demise. We want our lives to have meaning, and the same goes for our deaths. But when we see our proud existence reduced to something as trivial as another’s midnight snack, it is just too much to bear.  Yet bear it we must, because we are helpless in that other’s clutches. And so we scream.

    The scariest film I ever saw was a 70s TV movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.  Guillermo del Toro had the same reaction, and he decided to do a remake using much better special effects, but the story is essentially the same. In the original, Kim Darby is a young housewife whose husband, busy with his new job, leaves in her hands the chore of moving them into the creepy old house they have just purchased. A local legend says that the obsolete brick furnace down in the cellar is inhabited by evil spirits, just dying to recruit some new members.  Big surprise, the legend is true. These spirits are able to climb through cracks in the woodwork, and in one scene, they pick up a folding razor from the medicine cabinet and are just about to do a Norman Bates on Kim when she manages to get the bathroom lights back on. The creepy little buggers scurry like cockroaches, but not before she gets a glimpse of their fur-covered bodies and bald, wrinkly heads (although the costumes are obviously cheap, their visual effect is surprisingly eerie).

Lighten up! The spirits run and hide when the lights come on in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.    © ABC Television
    Of course, her husband doesn’t believe her, so he takes no special precautions while he’s off making points with his boss. Then one dark and stormy night, the lights go out, and Kim can’t get them back on. She seeks comfort in a hot beverage, oblivious to the fact that one of the little monkey-monsters has slipped her a mickey.  She can’t get her husband on the phone, and soon becomes so lethargic that she cannot stop the critters from dragging her down the stairs and across the living room. Though scared out of her mind, her feeble attempts to grab at table legs and doorjambs hardly slows them down at all. She does manage to grab her camera and pop the flash cube (remember, this is the 1970s) at her kidnappers, sending them fleeing for the shadows. Unfortunately, she has only three flashes left, and the audience knows that will not be nearly enough.  We feel her helplessness, and tremble at the anticipation of whatever horrors await her down in that cold, dark furnace.

     So how do you make a scary movie?  You take a character that everyone can identify with (a housewife, a babysitter, a little boy with daddy issues), put him in a situation where he’s at the mercy of a merciless antagonist (a faceless killer, a hungry beast, an evil entity), and place plenty of obstacles in the way of his escape.  But keep in mind that you are trying to get the audience to willingly suspend their disbelief.  With the right storytelling, they will accept a supernatural monster or an indestructible serial killer, but don't expect them to buy into an otherwise responsible person just assuming the killer is dead when all she’s done is stab him in the neck with a knitting needle.  

Dropped a stitch. Jamie Lee Curtis thinks her knitting needle has finished off the killer in Halloween.  © Warner Bros.   

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