Halloween is my favorite holiday. Dressing up in costumes and eating fun-size Snickers until you get sick: is there anything better? I love the whimsically macabre the best, like Tim Burton and Edward Gorey, but I have a soft spot for the more traditional horror of Wes Craven and Stephen King, too. As the song goes from The Nightmare Before Christmas, “life’s no fun without a good scare.” But what makes something scary?
Warning: scary stuff, bad language, and potential spoilers in the videos below. You’ve been warned!
1. The Jump Scare
Earlier today, I checked out 7 Short and Spooky Webcomics, specifically the Korean webcomic/cartoon Bongcheon-Dong Ghost by HORANG. Lauren Davis, who compiled the list, said it was often called the “scariest webcomic of all time.” While it was kind of spooky, the horror relied entirely on a flash-animated jump scare. That kind of fright is fleeting; once you’ve closed the browser window or left the theater, it’s gone.
The jump scare relies on building up tension and then breaking it with something unexpected. It’s about as subtle as hitting someone on the head with a hammer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. You’ve seen it a thousand times: A character creeps slowly through the haunted house, lit by a single wavering flashlight beam. She calls out for her friend in a timid voice, questioning. She passes a darkened doorway; she hears the crunch of a footstep and spins around. There’s nothing there. With a deep breath and a shake of her head, she turns back around–and BAM it’s the scary thing! The audience jumps and gasps, clutching the arms of their dates, and then laughs; they can’t believe they fell for that old trick.
Jump scares are often criticized for being cheap. A horror film that relies on them to generate tension usually suffers from diminishing returns. However, a well-placed scare, like the one in the clip below, can be extremely effective. David Fincher places the viewer in the midst of the SWAT team as they raid the derelict apartment. For over a minute, we follow them up the stairs, along the hall, and finally into the room filled with tree-shaped air fresheners. Howard Shore’s score booms like an erratic heartbeat as they draw back the sheet and find what appears to be an emaciated corpse. While the detectives search the room, finding a stack of photographs showing the gradual decay of the man’s body, a cop leans over him, gloating. And then the corpse starts coughing and choking and flailing. Off screen, an officer cries out “Oh God, he’s alive. He’s alive.” Right there with you, brother.
Most people have a visceral reaction to seeing people’s insides on their outsides. In fact, the word “visceral” comes from “viscera,” or internal organs (particularly the intestines.) The slasher films of the 70s and 80s rely on gore; the screen is washed in gallons of fake blood and mutilated corpses. Filmmakers like Dario Argento, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter pushed the envelope both in terms of content and special effects. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the effects didn’t age well, and some of the films veer, intentionally or not, into camp.
By the mid- to late-eighties, the slasher film had often become a parody of itself, existing in a weird space between genuinely scary and self-aware mockery. The Freddy Krueger films (which, for the record, I really like) walk that line, as they both adhere to and comment on the tropes of the genre. You’ve got your psycho killer who was wronged and now seeks revenge, your ingenue heroine, and your attractive teenagers being ripped to pieces. Check, check, and check.
Here’s my favorite scene from the original Nightmare on Elm Street, where a young Johnny Depp, in his adorable cropped jersey, gets murdered into a geyser of blood.
3. Psychological Horror
This is the good stuff. These are the scenes that crawl under your skin and live there, never really going away even after the credits have rolled or the last page has turned. Psychological horror lingers. For my money, one of the most consistently scary directors is David Lynch. His films have this unrelenting and disquieting sense of otherness, of wrongness, that I find much more upsetting than traditional horror. While traditional horror shows a glimpse of a scary face in the window, Lynch contorts reality so that the scary face is someone that you should know. It might be your lover, your husband, or your child, but in that moment, it’s not. It’s something else, and even after that moment of uncomprehending alieness passes, you’re not sure what is reality and what is a dream. Ordinary things become other, and the real terror is that they’ve been that way the whole time–you just never noticed before now.
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The best horror–films like The Exorcist and The Shining–combine all three types of terror. While Regan’s pea-soup antics are gross, it’s the idea that a perfectly nice little girl could suddenly become something else that’s really scary. One of the scenes that still gives me the heebie-jeebies, more so than any other part of the film, is the way poor, possessed Regan descends the stairs backwards in The Exorcist. This scene wasn’t originally shown in theaters–apparently the special effects weren’t quite special enough, and it was cut–but later releases all include it.
The scariest thing about movies like The Shining is the lingering sense that, given the right circumstances, you or your loved ones could become Jack Torrance. I remember reading that one of the main reasons why Stephen King disliked the Kubrick film so much was because it framed Jack as so dangerously unstable from the beginning. Nicholson’s performance was not of a man driven mad by a hotel full of evil; he was always that way, and the Overlook merely provided a playground for his inherent evil. Either way, the terror that Wendy experiences, as Jack breaks down the door, is our own. The person we love might wake up some day and become someone else. Or, from Jack’s point of view: How do we know when we’re going mad? And what if we prefer it to being sane?
Great horror stories tap into a universal fear. Fear that you may not be able to protect your child (The Exorcist) or fear that your child be fundamentally wrong in some way (The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby). Fear of clowns (if you weren’t scared of them before you saw IT, you are now). Fear of your own mind and the things you may be capable of. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown. Fear of death. In the end, a ghost isn’t scary simply because its a ghost; it’s scary because it reminds us that we, too, must die.
So, dear readers: What scares you?