Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Operate Horror Films

I've noticed over the years that a great many people don't seem to understand how to properly use horror movies, and some recent remarks have prompted me to give it enough thought to write a post on the subject. Now, when I say "use horror movies" I'm not talking about how to get the dvd to play. I'm talking about how to get the most from the experience. See, a lot of people (especially guys) have a tendency to sit back with their arms folded going "this is stupid" the whole time a horror movie is playing. Afterward, they talk about how it wasn't scary, as though it somehow proves that they're a braver person than everybody around them. Alternatively, such people may spend the whole movie loudly and annoyingly making fun of the film. These people, despite the ego boost they gain from said activities, are genuinely missing the point. Quotes like "How can you be scared of this? It's just a movie" are an indicator of how totally incapable of properly operating a horror film these people are. We all know it's just a movie. Obviously it can't actually hurt us. The point is to allow yourself to get into it and experience those feelings in a risk-free way. It's like hypnosis: it only works if you let it. Instead of getting this experience, though, many people (again, usually guys) seem to see horror films as some kind of macho ego booster. They never allow themselves to really participate in the viewing process, and then brag about how unphased they were by the movie. Well this is like buying a bottle of Jack Daniels, pouring it down the drain, then bragging about how you emptied the bottle but are still sober. The whole point in buying the Jack in the first place is to get drunk, so if you've done that all you've managed to do is waste a bottle of whiskey. It's the same with a horror film. You have to be willing to be psychologically vulnerable. You have to open yourself to the experience. So in reality, it takes more courage and strength of character to allow yourself to be scared than it takes to sit back sneering. It's ironic that in making such an all-out attempt to demonstrate strength in this lame way, many people instead manage to illustrate just how weak and insecure they really are.

NOTE: There are of course lots of bad horror films out there, so it's not always the viewer's fault if it "doesn't work". This is about good horror films.


  1. On the subject of "bad" horror films, I think it's important to differentiate between being scared and being startled. The flood of PG-13 rated horror films that have flooded the genre have one thing in common: they rely almost 100% on "jump scares", which are little more than startling the audience.

    Oddly enough, since I'm a big fan of all things Halloween (the holiday), I have to say that most haunted events like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios and Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens also rely too heavily on startling people as a method to evoke fear.

    I tend to believe that true fear is something that goes beyond startling someone. It's something that comes on slowly until it completely envelopes someone and brings them to the brink of a psychotic breakdown. But it's hard to convey that in a film since it's too easy for members of the audience to displace themselves and, as you said, act like they're not scared.

    I think part of the reason why we're prone to critique films as we watch them these days is due to the epidemic spread of film and game reviewers on the internet. A simple scan of YouTube reveals thousands of reviews of every possible film, major to obscure, and sometimes they even get the MST3K treatment.

    That may be a coping mechanism, augmented by a societal trend (at least among the internet savvy), and thoroughly cemented by an increasing need to interact with one's entertainment instead of just viewing it as a passive participant. Still, what we're supposed to do is beyond me; but I think just sitting down and letting the film take you where it wants is a good suggestion.

  2. True, the things-jumping-out-to-startle-you hand has become massively overplayed in recent years. Many (I'd even say "most") horror films are genuinely bad and not at all scary. I am in no way claiming otherwise. I do, however, advocate putting yourself in the right frame of mind so that, if the film is actually good, it can have its proper effect.

    And I hadn't given much thought to the flood of online amateur film criticism, but I'm sure the role that plays in this issue is massive.