Are Horror Films Actually Scary? Does it Even Matter?

October isn’t very far away. And in my household, that means that I’m already ramping up the horror selections. That also means that I’ve been having quite a few conversations about horror,  mostly in the hope that friends can recommend some unseen gems. And I’ve also been reading a lot of horror reviews. The whole process has raised a few questions in my mind. Are horror films actually scary? And does it even matter if they are?

Before proceeding, I’d like to draw a line here. I’m NOT referring to jump scares. Jump scares are cheap, and they can give anyone a jolt. They’re fun and effective, and I like them, but they aren’t what I’m referring to when I say “scary”. What I’m talking about is whether or not a horror film disturbs you, gives you nightmares, or gives you pause when doing the normal things in your life. There’s a perfect example from my own life. I saw Poltergeist (1982) when I was 8 years old. At the time, there was a huge tree right outside my window. Because of a scene in Poltergeist, I HATED that tree. Maybe you check twice to be sure the door is locked when you get in the shower because of Psycho (1960). Or maybe you don’t like hockey masks. Because of the fun and variety of horror, it could be anything.

Personally, I feel like there’s not much the horror genre has left that can scare me. I have become completely desensitized to it. A huge part of that is maturity. It’s easy to scare the crap out of a kid with visions of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and re-animated corpse parts because everything is new and exciting to a kid, and kids haven’t developed a skeptical radar. As a rational adult, I realize that these things don’t exist. The real world does, however, possess serial killers and mass-murderers. Even then, the odds of being a victim of one of them is infinitely small.

And yet, I still run into adults (and obviously kids) who are genuinely scared by things that go bump in the night on their TV and movie screens. That’s no knock on them. I’m jealous of these people. I wish I could still get the same fearful rush from a horror movie now that I did when I was 8 years old.

It’s also worth noting that I don’t mean any of this as an insult to the genre. I still love horror in all flavors. I see a lot of horror reviews from non-horror fans, and their sole compass on whether or not a horror film is good is if it scares them. It drives me bonkers. A good film is a good film, and a fun film is a fun film, regardless of whether or not it elicits chills. And the horror genre in general is so much fun. I’m not scared in any way at the prospect that a chainsaw-wielding maniac in a pig mask will slaughter me, a la Motel Hell (1980). But if you’re honest about seeking unique, surprising, and yes- ridiculous- movie sequences, you can’t go wrong with so much that the genre has to offer.

I would also add that few other genres offer as much insight into a society as the horror genre does. Horror films are a sociologist’s dream. They’re snapshots of what a society fears at the time. You can understand so much about a society’s motives by looking at what scares them. Think of the explosion of sci-fi/horror in the 1950s and 1960s, which dovetailed perfectly with the advent of space exploration. The late 1960s saw a rise in counter-culture behavior that many deemed Godless. The horror genre responded with loads of films about devil worship and possession. You could write an entire book about the Japanese, their reverence for their ancestors, and their panache for ghost movies. A list of occasions in which the popularity of the horror genre reflects society could go on and on.

The next time you find yourself watching a horror film and rolling your eyes, insisting that you’re not scared, put all of that aside. I’d argue that it doesn’t matter in the least when gauging the film. Take a few seconds and ask yourself if you’re entertained. Ask yourself if you’re learning anything new about the state of the human psyche. The answers might still be “no”, but it’s a more honest gauge of the film.

42 Comments

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42 responses to “Are Horror Films Actually Scary? Does it Even Matter?

  1. For me, films of a supernatural nature are infinitely more scary than those featuring serial killers or gallons of blood. I think it’s because a bloke in a hockey mask is a tangible entity that’s relatively easy to understand, whereas there are grey areas over the existence of ghosts and ghouls and the like, making them a little more difficult for the brain to rationalise.

    • I can appreciate that, for sure. And then you get into the ghoulish things that some cultures believe- zombies in the tropical islands, vampires in eastern Europe, the lycanthropy myths around the world, the mothman here in the US… It’s easy to see how these things stay around in cultures forever.

  2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the scariest film I’ve ever seen, and also probably the best horror movie ever made. I imagine you’ve seen it, though if you haven’t, what the fuck?

  3. aleksa

    My daughter and I are basically hadcore horror addicts who have to keep trying different types of horror to get our fix. The last couple of horror films/thrillers that we found creepy or disturbing were both out of France (“Inside” and “Martrys”).

    • Oh, hell yes. Those are great horrors, and as Goregirl says in another comment, you might check out Calvaire. It’s right in that same ballpark. There’s also Them (Ils), which lots of folks seem to love (I was kind of meh about it).

  4. I’m not a big fan of Horror but when I watch one I don’t need to “believe” in vampires, zombies, etc. to be convinced it is a good or even a great film. One of my favorite film of all time is The Shining and I don’t think that those kind of things exist.

  5. Possession movies freak me out still. Its probably because I have a kid and don’t want to deal with my kid getting possessed by some demon (any more than he already is). Those movies are always “Based on a true story”, which is so funny because you know its a trick, but you still fall for it.

  6. Vladdy

    I think you’re completely right in everything you say, but remember you are a lover of the genre, so your enjoyment also takes in crappy horror films. Also, you are willing to look harder to find things to appreciate. As I’ve mentioned before, what horror is to you, musicals are to me. So I don’t feel I’ve wasted an hour and a half watching a terrible film if there is one really good song or dance number in it–I wouldn’t, however, recommend it to anyone or make anyone watch it with me. I like horror movies too, but really only the good ones. And which are the good ones? The scary ones!!!

    • Haha… ah, musicals, my old nemesis. We meet again.

      You’ll be happy to know that I’m finding my way within the musical genre. For instance, I liked Umbrellas of Cherbourg a lot. I liked Singin’ in the Rain. And I realized that Mel Brooks movies are basically musicals. Crazy as it sounds, I intend to tackle the genre at some point with both guns blazing.

      • Vladdy

        Just one big word of advice. Most musicals based on Broadway shows muck up their sources, while most originals are exactly the same lame movie. This is one genre where going with the classics is the best way to start. Gigi, It’s Always Fair Weather, the Fred & Ginger movies, and the early sound Lubitsches are my first recommendations.

        • This is probably a dumb question, but I’ll ask anyway… if I’m not familiar with the Broadway material, will it make any difference? Or are they just generally bad films and the failure to stick to source material is merely a symptom?

  7. You must have nerve of steel, John! Btw, you’ve seen some Asian horror movies right? I personally think Asian horror are much scarier than Western horror. I watched a few of them growing up and suffice to say I can’t handle those anymore. Indonesian horror flicks are pretty dang scary too, even though they’re set with shoestring budget compared to Hollywood ones.

    • I’ve seen a lot of Asian horrors, and they’re great- Korea, Japan, even some Thai horrors. And each country has their own flair within the genre. It’s really cool.

      I find that some of the best horrors have very small budgets. Since they can’t rely on special effects to scare people, they have to get inventive, and I think that’s great.

  8. goregirl

    As you well know, I watch a lot of horror. Horror films make up a massive percentage of my overall film viewing. Horror movies certainly do not scare me like they once did but that is not to say that they don’t illicit emotion. It is funny really that although horror films do not scare me like they once did, I seem to have grown a new appreciation for them in my adult years. Horror films have disgusted me, made me laugh, shocked me, made me cry, excited me, made me think, gotten under my skin and yes, some have scared me. When I was a kid devil worship and possession films scared the hell out of me thanks to a devoted Catholic friend who was constantly filling my head with her hell and eternal suffering bullshit. These days I get a real kick out of satan inspired shenanigans! I love Hammer films when I was a kid but as a teenager I poo-pooed them. I have come to love and adore them again as an adult; the amazing sets and costumes, the solid performances the great gothic mood. I meet people all the time that say they HATE horror films. In the office I work in there are exactly two people amoung the staff of 20 that like horror films. That is a fair representation of my experience with the rest of the world too. I use to attempt to engage the “haters” in conversation but it was an exercise in frustration. I know you really enjoyed Calvaire and based on that I would recommend checking out Fabrice Du Welz’s Vinyan (I did not like it as much as Calvaire but it is an interesting watch). I recently watched a very solid little independent Canadian film called LONG PIGS which impressed me. I have seen a few gems recently, but you’ll have to wait for the reviews for the rest of em.

    • That’s a hell of a summary of the reactions you can get from horror.

      The phrase “I get a real kick out of Satan inspired shenanigans” gave me a huge laugh. That’s excellent.

      I can’t even imagine trying to have a horror conversation with co-workers, other than my friend Ryan (who is a devout movie lover and knows as much about film as anyone I know). My co-workers are great but I can’t imagine any of them liking horror.

      Netflix has Vinyan, so I’m all over that. They also have Long Pigs… but only let you save it to your queue for now, so it’s not really available. You never steer me in the wrong direction with horror.

    • Chris Power

      Thanks for the kind words about our little flick “Long Pigs” – it is appreciated goregirl! You will not be eaten :)

  9. Liz Alexander

    They’re a great escape, that’s for sure!

    When is someone going to make a movie based on the Slenderman mythos..? THAT would scare the pants off of me! (The Youtube vids are bad enough…)

  10. I LOVE horror movies and I’m also gearing up for “the season.” For me, the scariest movies are the ones involving ghosts/demons/possession b/c I do totally believe in the existence of those phenomenons. Also, the stranger-in-your-house killer kinds of movies like The Strangers always get to me… I’m always checking and double checking the locks and alarms on my doors.

  11. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    The Final Destination movies are not even trying to be scary. They are just trying to cook up new and interesting ways to kill people. I fully acknowledge that those movies are not good, but it doesn’t matter. Similiarly, the Saw sequel (the first one excluded) did the same thing and included some kind of twist at the end. Once again, not scary and not trying to be scar.

  12. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    I would say there are some sub-genres of horror that try to achieve an audience reaction that is not necessarily fear. However, there are still plenty of horror movies that are scary. The Paranormal Activity movies still scare the bejesus out of me.

  13. I’m not sure what scares me anymore. It used to be the slashers when I was a kid, but that fear disappeared long ago. The surrealism and the blurred dream/reality world in A Nightmare on Elm Street used to creep me out the most. The ghost stories don’t really do anything for me either. I think I’m in the same boat as you at this point, I just judge horror films solely on quality of story and narrative execution, not cheap thrills and gore effects. And some are just good for fun’s sake.

    And you’re right, jump scares don’t count!

  14. They’ve never scared me, but as I got older, I could appreciate how they could scare a child.

  15. Ever since I saw The Shining for the second time, I have never been scared again. But some movies like The Exorcist still leave me uneasy.

  16. Great post. As a lifelong horror fan, few of these movies really scare me anymore, but I definitely agree that they offer great glimpses into a culture’s psyche.

  17. I love horror movies, but, like you, they rarely leave an impact. However, the first Paranormal Activity stuck with me for a few days. I really don’t know why.

  18. I tend to treat horror as a close second to comedy in terms of subjectivity in genres; what scares us is as unique and personal as what makes us laugh. So everyone’s mileage varies with horror depending on the shades of horror that they’re watching. What scares you and keeps you up at night? Do you fear the masked man stalking his victims, or the wraith that’s out on some sort of phantasmal vendetta against the living? Once you figure out what chills your blood the most, you can pick your poison and go from there.

    The real question is actually below the surface of the first two, though. It’s not necessarily that we’re afraid of the psychopath or the ghost or the monster, it’s that we’re afraid of what they represent: fear of our own mortality, our lack of understanding of the universe we live in, and so on. Horror antagonists scare us not strictly on face value, but because they represent the real fears that keep us up at night and gnaw at the back of our minds.

    But that’s why we need and love to watch horror movies. They’re like suppressants, pushing down the real fear and replacing it with surrogate, superficial fear instead. You won’t stay up nights thinking about the end of all existence (the only thing that I find myself really, truly terrified about on a regular basis) when you’re thinking about whether it’s a good idea to double-check the closet one more time to make sure there isn’t a ghoul or gremlin hiding there, waiting for you to go to sleep.

    • Crap, I missed a lot of comments in this article. I love the hell out of this one. You could write a whole article about what you’re talking about here.

      You’re dead-on about picking your poison. I’ve developed a big time love of the werewolf thing because it’s all about something that I think most people can relate to- namely, an average schmoe turning on a dime into a horrible monster. Everyone has their inner demons that they fight. And I guess that taps into who I am, too. I’m a hell of a lot more scared of myself than I am of anything or anyone else.

  19. impsndcnma

    I don’t really care for horror movies in general. A good example is that even though I heard fantastic reviews for Cabin in the Woods, I don’t care to watch it. I’m not sure why the horror genre bothers me as much as it does, but at least to this psyche it still works.

  20. ilovethatfilm

    I completely agree. Horror films rarely truly get under my skin these days but there is still so much to gain from the genre. However a couple that did did really upset, disturb and shock me were Wolf Creek and the French films Inside and Switchblade Romance (AKA High Tension). Don’t know if you’ve seen them but if not, maybe give them a try!

  21. I would LOVE to be scared by a horror film, but it just doesn’t happen. That’s not a knock on the films themselves, as many are quite good, but it’s disappointing when people hype up something as being so “scary” and then have it be anything but. That happened to me recently with Ringu. Very good film, but I find it somewhat mind-boggling that people find that scary.

    • You raise a really good point about the hype factor. It’s like Citizen Kane, where everyone points out that it’s the #1 film on the AFI list, and then THAT’S the expectation. Well… that’s not fair to Citizen Kane. Same goes for horror. If everyone tells you you’re going to be scared going in to the film, odds are good you’re going to steel yourself against it, and ultimately not be scared.

  22. Very interesting read. Like you, I think having grown up, I’ve got de-sensitised to a lot of what I see in films. I remember the first time I saw the shooting scene in the first Robocop film and genuinely thought that was the most horrific thing I will ever see. Years later and it just seems like your average bit of violence.

    I love horror films. Correction. I love GOOD horror films. For me the scares need to be less of scares and more chilling. Something that will keep me thinking long after the film is over. Something I’ll suddenly remember when I’m alone in a dark house on a very dark evening.

    But I still appreciate horror films like The Cabin in the Woods. Something that’s your typical horror film on the surface, but it’s more than just a horror film. It’s a GREAT film regardless of genre.

    Still waiting on a good horror film to give me that chill.

    • Oooh, I love this comment, Jaina, because you’re digging deep into what gets to you. Or at least, how it should get to you. Can you give some examples of what’s really “chilling”?

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