Discussion: The State of Horror Films

Another discussion! This time, Andres and Kennisha decided to talk about what makes a horror film actually scary.

Andres:  Recently, Jeff and I wanted to watch a horror film, but a truly terrifying one, and we couldn’t really think of any. Maybe it’s because we’re desensitized to a degree, but we couldn’t figure it out. What was the last film that shook you to the core?

Kennisha: While I have yet to encounter a horror film that didn’t freak me out on some level, I think the last film that made me deeply afraid was the short film Lights Out. I’m already scared of the dark, but at the end of the day, I ignore that as best as possible and go to bed. So it was really unsettling to watch a film that directly explored that fear.

Andres: At least you’re not alone, it seems we’re both scared of the dark. Lights Out is a short film that got me freaked out, and the trailer for the feature length version looks even more terrifying. But, it’s safe to say that while some movies are still able to scare you, sometimes a lot of it is just false scares, right?

Kennisha: I have a love/hate relationship with false scares but they get me every time. What I both like and hate about jump scares is how they break the tension. If you’re terrified, having a moment to breathe for a second can be nice, but in terms of inciting legitimate fear, jump scares don’t do much.

Andres: The thing is, when they’re used sporadically, I don’t mind them. They allow you to laugh a moment for getting scared because of a cat or a book falling, but when an entire film relies on jump scares, then it’s boring. Some directors can build their dread so well, that you’re tense even if nothing happens. Look at The Blair Witch Project, in which essentially nothing happens, but it’s pretty damn scary at times.

Kennisha: Yeah, I agree. It’s also interesting to see how horror affects us differently over time. For a child watching a movie, jump scares could be just as scary as any other scene. For me, the scariest movie I watched as a child was The Return of the Living Dead. I cried for months thinking zombies were going to come up from the floor and eat me. Looking back now, I find the film to be funny more than anything else.

Andres: I haven’t seen The Return of the Living Dead, but some horror films definitely have a bigger hold on us from a younger age. When I was younger and would watch The Shining, I would be terrified of washrooms because of that woman in room 237. I would run out of them, similarly to how people run from the basement. That’s what I used to do. Just like taste in films, what is scary to you, might not be scary to me and vice versa.

Which leads me to hype for a film. A few days ago, there was a trailer for a new film called The Woods. Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett (the team behind You’re Next and The Guest), in the trailer there’s a pull quote that says it’s “one of the scariest movies ever made” (BloodyDisgusting), that is almost calling for some sort of backlash.

Kennisha: I’ve always found those bold statements to be interesting, because as you said, what is scary changes from person-to-person, so that person could have very well been scared shitless. It reminds me of the hype surrounding Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. I heard that they were some the scariest movies anyone has ever seen, but when I watched them they didn’t have that same impact on me. All this leads me to wonder if horror is completely subjective or are there elements that are considered universally scary.

Andres: I hadn’t heard much of the hype behind Paranormal Activity before seeing it, but I remember it scared me a huge deal. As for The Conjuring, I was aware that it was rated R solely for how scary it was, and it definitely was for me. I love The Conjuring, which is why I put The Conjuring 2 as one of my most anticipated films of the year (that didn’t make Jeffrey happy). [Editor’s Note: I’ve since come to the conclusion that I don’t give a shit.] Other films that have been called a variation of “the scariest film in years” were The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch. All three of those films have an audience which loved it and an audience that didn’t. While I don’t agree that any of them are “one of the scariest in years”, The Witch may be the closest to earning that distinction. The universal elements you speak of are very interesting to me. There must be some sort of common ground, whether that be specific details within a story (maybe losing a family member) or even just the inclusion of clowns, because clowns are fucking scary.

Kennisha:  I’m also quite excited for The Conjuring 2. I enjoyed the first one a lot, I just don’t think it is as scary as everyone lead me to believe. Also, what I believe to be more on the universal end of the spectrum is the unknown. It’s quite a broad category, but ultimately, the things we can’t see or interpret are the scariest.

Andres: I think that is the closest we’ve come to a universal horror. In the horror genre, “less is more” might ring the most true.

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