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.