Thursday, July 15, 2010

How to Watch Horror Movies

It is a complaint I have heard since childhood and, no doubts others have as well. Quite simply, that complaint is that "Such and such horror movie is not scary." As far as criticism goes, the complaint that a horror movie is not scary is a legitimate one. After all, the entire reason for horror movies is to frighten us, perhaps thereby reassuring us that our real life fears are not quite so, well, horrible. A horror movie that is not scary is then no better than a comedy that is not funny.

Sadly, the fact that horror movies must be scary place them at a rather large disadvantage when compared to other genres. For many other genres of film it is sufficient to have a good script, good direction, and a good cast. Horror movies must not only have these ingredients, must also have several scenes which are truly frightening too. Worse yet, because many horror movies deal with elements of the supernatural and even at times science fiction, horror movies often require a greater suspension of disbelief than other genres of film. And, unfortunately, it is in easing the viewer into suspending his or her disbelief that many horror movies fail.

Of course, in many cases I am not so sure that it is a particular horror movie is to blame when a particular viewer does not suspend his or her disbelief, resulting in the viewer not being frightened by the film. The plain fact is that often viewers actually do things that effectively prevent any given horror movie from scaring them. While many viewers go to watch a horror movie at a theatre or watch a horror movie at home on television with the intention of being scared, they either consciously or unconsciously undo any chance that they will actually be frightened.

Perhaps the worst and most common thing that prevent viewers from being scared by any given horror movie is simply entering the whole situation in the wrong mindset. Often times viewers will go to a horror movie at the cinema or watch one on television determined not to be scared. The viewer essentially creates an adversarial relationship with the film, daring the movie to scare him or her. This can be made all the worse if the viewer is watching a traditional supernatural horror movie or a science fiction horror movie and simply refuses to suspend disbelief. A refusal to suspend disbelief will effectively end any chances that a viewer will be frightened by a movie. After all, one cannot be frightened by Count Orlok or Frankenstein's Creature if he or she simply doesn't believe in them, even for a moment.

Fortunately, most horror movie aficiaonados are more than willing to suspend their disbelief for a movie. Even then, however, they might take courses of action that reduce the chance of being frightened by a horror movie. In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King points out that people often go to see horror movies at the theatre in packs. I rather suspect that the same is often true when they watch horror movies on television. This effectively reduces the odds that one will be frightened simply because most human beings feel there is safety in numbers. It is much less likely on will be frightened by Freddy Krueger if one has six or seven of his or her friends at his side. We naturally take comfort and feel more secure when we have a number of our friends at our side. With this in mind, the odds of truly being scared by a horror movie increase when the number of friends accompany one to watch a horror movie in the theatre or who are watching a horror movie in a home decrease. One might not be scared if he or she is watching a horror movie with six or seven friends. He and she may well be frightened if he or she has only one, two, or no friends with him or her!

Of course, here I must point out that in many respects it is easier to be frightened by a horror movie in a theatre than it is in a home. While one is often  surrounded by a number of people at theatere, unless one takes a pack of his or her friends with him or her, most of those people are going to be strangers, from whom little to no comfort or sense of security can be derived. A cinema also has another advantage over watching horror movies at home. In a cinema the lights are not simply dimmed, but shut off, the only light coming from the movie screen and exit signs.Even if one was not scared of the dark as a child, darkness is still disconcerting to most human beings. After all, we cannot see as well in the dark, meaning that we cannot see any unseen threats either. I might add that in shutting off the lights, the cinema forces the viewer's attention on the screen, allowing for a greater suspension of disbelief. With regards to viewing horror movies at home, too often people watch them with every light turned on in the house. In the familiar surroundings of one's home, with every single light on, this greatly reduces the odds one will be frightened. The odds are even made even less if, when watching a horror movie in one's home with every single light on in the house, one has several of his or her friends there as well.

Given these factors, it would seem that it is best to watch a horror movie in a theatre with as few friends with one as possible. If watching a horror movie at home, then it is perhaps best to watch it with the lights turned off and with as few friends present as possible. Whether watching a horror movie in a cinema or at home, one must be willing to suspend his or her disbelief. Certainly there are going to be people who cannot do this, but then they would probably not be watching a horror movie anyway. I

Here I want to say that by no means do I want to place the blame on the viewer if he or she is not scared by any given horror movie. The plain fact is that in the history of horror movies there have been many that simply have not been frightening. This has been complicated by the fact that for the past forty years there have been many lazy filmmakers who depend too much on the gross out or violence and too little on genuine horror generated by atmosphere, suspense, and the fear of the unknown. I have seen the original Friday the 13th more than once and it has never frightened me, even when I watched it all alone in a darkened living room at home. The simple fact is that even as a horror movie it fails. On the other hand, I have seen Universal's classic The Black Cat (1934) many times. Despite having less violence and a lower body count, it scares me every time. Indeed, while a bad horror movie will fail to frighten even if one watches it alone and in the dark, a good horror movie can be frightening no matter what. By total coincidence, I saw Hellraiser (1987) with a pack of friends (this was by total coincidence--we all showed up at the cinema at the same time) and we were all still scared by the movie!

Ultimately, to sum things up, we must give horror movies a chance to frighten us. It is true that many times, even when the circumstances, we will not be scared by movies. Such films as Friday the 13th (1980), Anaconda (1997), and Dracula (1930---and, yes, I know I will take flake for that one) simply aren't enough to frighten anyone.  On the hand, truly great horror films , such as Peeping Tom (1960), The Descent (2005), and Frankenstein (1930) can be truly frightening. We just have to given them a chance.

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