A Good Scare

October 31, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

As FDR famously declared, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." To that end, we have an entire holiday dedicated to the experience. Haunted houses, once the province of local impresarios who gathered a few friends and opened an amateur attraction for a nickel a head in his basement or garage, have become big business. Halloween costumes are no longer assembled from old bedsheets and rag-bag clothing - now people spend exorbitant amounts to look like Darth Vader, Harry Potter, and Zach Galifianakis.

Of course, Halloween isn't really about fear. It's about fun, albeit of the macabre kind. Even more than Christmas, which is gradually returning to its pagan roots (despite pleas to "put the 'Christ' back in 'Christmas'"), Halloween is shrugging off religious connotations. The derivation of the name - All Hallow's Eve - is merely a Christian substitution for the darker rites of the Celts, who had claimed this holiday as their own long before the Catholic Church proclaimed November 1 to be All Saints Day. Most trick-or-treaters don't care about that stuff - they just want to know which houses are handing out the good candy.

Adults celebrate Halloween differently than children. While some kids may be fascinated by the consideration that ghosts and ghouls walk the earth for a day, the average post-adolescent has long since given up believing in things that can't be seen. Parties dominate the adult Halloween landscape, usually with dressing up and sometimes with more risqué activities than would be found at a similar fete for 11-year olds. I remember rumors in my youth of a house that held a "Halloween orgy" every October 31. This was spoken about in whispers and we all made sure our trick-or-treat route passed by this place even though none of us really knew what an "orgy" was.

A lot of people like to watch "scary movies" around Halloween. Exhibit A, if one is needed, is the unprecedented box office gross of Paranormal Activity 3 in 2011. It's fair to question whether any film can truly be frightening. Maybe there are different kinds of fear: the lighthearted, safe jolt provided by a movie or an amusement park ride and the gut-churning terror of waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of breaking glass followed by the realization that someone is walking around downstairs. We spend millions of dollars seeking out the first kind and an equal amount attempting to prevent the second.

For as long as there have been movies, there have been horror movies. Back in the silent and early talky days, they were called "monster movies," and we all know the iconic images that evolved from them: Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, Lon Cheney Sr.'s Phantom of the Opera, Lon Cheney Jr.'s Wolfman. Universal's stable of ghoulish creatures dominated the '30s and early '40s with their Monster Movie franchises, until self-parody took over and lead to open satire with 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. By then, the party was over. Overexposure had transformed the eerie into the campy.

Were audiences ever really scared by these movies? It's a tough question to answer. (Ask someone in their 80s or 90s who saw them first-run.) As best I can ascertain from long-ago discussions with my grandparents, adults enjoyed them as escapist entertainment but children were freaked out. Part of my youth was misspent watching Creature Double Feature (a ubiquitous Saturday afternoon monster movie fest hosted by a fake "vampire" - there was one in just about every market), which aired all the classics (and many not-so-classics). Even at the tender age of six or seven (when I began watching monster movies), I was not the least bit scared or intimidated. Then again, I was seeing them in the middle of the day on a television set in my living room. It's tough to be scared in those circumstances. Fear is helped immeasurably by darkness and an image bigger than 27" diagonal.

The Hammer monster movies of the '50s and '60s remade many of the Universal classics for a more "adult" audience. In color and with considerably more graphic gore and violence, these put a new spin on creatures that had become tame as a result of their iconic stature. Lugosi's Dracula, while often referred to as the perfect cinematic imagining of the legendary vampire, looked better in stills than on screen, and his accent and mannerisms had become satirical fodder. Christopher Lee, on the other hand, lacked the gentlemanly veneer of Lugosi, but brought an animalistic intensity to the role. Only the silent Nosferatu had featured a more monstrous Dracula. Still, as entertaining as the Hammer horror films are, they aren't scary, at least not by today's standards.

The next wave of horror films came in the late '70s and early '80s and was dominated by the slasher killers: Michael, Jason, and Freddy. By this time, none of the Old Guard - Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, The Wolfman, or The Mummy - was considered sufficiently frightening. In fact, they were viewed as quaint. There were kid-friendly breakfast cereals inspired by them. Now, it was felt, something more graphic and visceral was needed. Thus was born a new generation of horror films, with Halloween at the forefront. It wasn't the first, but its financial success spawned a decade of copycats and sequels, each more gruesome than the last. Along the way, narrative and tension were increasingly reduced in favor of blood and gore. Critics of the era rightly complained about the sameness and lack of inspiration evident in many of these films. Fans, on the other hand, didn't care. Their interest was in the inventiveness with which the paper-thin characters were dispatched.

I remember watching Halloween alone at home on TV a couple of years after it was released. Censored for broadcast and with commercials interfering with the pacing, it was still a tense, creepy experience. But I never considered it "frightening." No other slasher film came close to Halloween for developing and sustaining tension, although A Nightmare on Elm Street was more inventive in terms of story and directed with an equally sure hand.

The slasher era never really died; it merely hibernated. Scream, from Wes Craven, brought it back to life in the '90s. This led to the re-birth of Michael (first in a new series of sequels then in remakes), Jason (again - more sequels, then a fan-wank smackdown with Freddy, then a remake), and Freddy. Slasher era #2 didn't offer anything more than slasher era #1, except it was more openly gruesome and aware of its inherent campiness.

Slasher #2 begot "Torture Porn" and "Torture Porn" gave way to first person terror. The high quotient of "boo!" moments in the latter may provide it with some staying power and the immense box office success of Paranormal Activity 3 will ensure a flood of copycats. Paranormal Activity 4 will have the pole position next year, and will almost certainly be released on October 19. Other movies will have to find other, workable slots. There's a limit to how many of these the market can support before collapsing.

When it comes to getting genuine scares from horror movies, the setting in which a movie is viewed is crucial. Consider The Blair Witch Project, which remains one of the most unsettling films I have seen. The first time I saw it was in the middle of the day at a half-full press screening. I was impressed but was more focused on technique than on a visceral reaction. The second time I saw it was in a packed multiplex auditorium. On that occasion, I was more interested in observing how my fellow movie-goers reacted. Finally, a year or two later, I watched it on home video. Alone. Late at night. In the basement of a house located in a rural area. Afterward, I double-checked all the door locks and had difficulty getting to sleep. The "scary" nature of a horror movie is wedded to the "where" and "when" in which it is seen. Group watching - such as in a packed theater - may lead to more effective "boo!" moments (where everyone jumps, a few people scream, then everyone laughs about it), but if you want to feel the cold fingers of fear, watch the movie alone in the dark. That's when an expertly made horror film makes its impact felt.