Not all scary movies can be classified as horror, and not all horror movies are scary. Horror of the non-scary variety can have a multitude of thrills outside the fear factor: action, humor, colorful characters, bizarre locations, blood and guts, campiness, group dynamics, social commentary and general entertaining wackiness.
But what is “scary?”
I used to measure the value of a horror film by how many chills and jumps it produced. However, there are so few movies that make me legitimately afraid, either because I’ve developed a high tolerance or because only specific things frighten me. I’ve recently figured out that the one kind of film that really gets under my skin is a good ghost story. On an intellectual level, I don’t believe in ghosts, but although I try to keep that in mind, I’ve spent a few sleepless nights staring at the odd shadows in the corner of my bedroom.
Ghosts scare me because you can’t fight them or run away. You can’t stop yourself seeing the spirit if it wants to be seen. The ghost doesn’t really have an inner life of its own; it exists solely to scare the shit out of you. Why? Who knows? Spirits don’t always have the clearest motives, nor do they always have a focused target for their haunting. They haunt indiscriminately, even if you haven’t done anything to deserve their wrath. At least 99% of what makes a ghost movie scary is anticipation. You know the spook is going to pop up at some point — that’s a given, but you don’t know when or where.
The success of the Paranormal Activity movies relies on a mostly stationary camera that, in each sequence, gives us a view of a single room. In that shot, we can see doorways, corners, furniture, hallways, and staircases, all excellent locations from which a shadow can emerge. We want to keep an eye on everything so the ghost will not catch us unawares, but it’s not possible; there are too many corners to keep in our gazes. We want to peek down hallways, under the furniture, or around corners, but the camera does not move, showing us too much and not enough at the same time. We don’t get to control where we look.
Ghosts scare me in the movies, but they also scare me after the fact. Much like Samara in The Ring (or, if you prefer, Sadako in Ringu) the power of a ghost lies in its image. Once the image of the ghost has imprinted itself upon my mind, I have a hard time shaking it off. This doesn’t happen to me with zombies, slashers, or monsters. But those are physical things. They can be sliced and diced. Ghosts appeal to my fear of powerlessness because I cannot exert my will over them. They have won simply by existing. If I see them, they have won. For a ghost, causing fear is the ultimate goal – not killing, maiming, or giving chase.
So why do I do this to myself? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it’s about wanting to feel something different, a little surge of adrenaline. Or it’s a weird way of proving to myself that I’m a tough girl (I’m not tough). I don’t watch ghost movies very often because I know how much they creep me out, and when I do watch them, I try not to do it alone. Or before bedtime.
Here’s a handful of ghost movies I have found effective:
J-horror got played out pretty quickly, but I liked the contrast in sensibility between Japanese and American ghosts. American ghosts seem to have a bit more method in their haunting; they are either seeking to avenge their deaths or they have some unfinished business to attend to. The protagonists of the story will fix this ghost’s “issues” so that the spirit can finally move on to the other side and stop scaring people. I don’t know if this is a symptom of our Western therapy-obsessed culture, or what. Japanese ghosts, on the other hand, seem to be relentless, single-minded and completely unforgiving in their pursuit of causing crap-your-pants terror. They don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice, and trying to help them sort out their issues will get you just as dead as all the victims before you. Facing such an irrational and unstoppable force is scary. It doesn’t hurt that these two movies have some heart-stopping sensory details: the clicking death rattle and rigor mortis movement of the woman crawling down the stairs, the black hair spilling out of the screen as the dead girl emerges from the television set…
The Devil’s Backbone
If you haven’t seen this movie, stop what you are doing and watch it right now. I should probably re-watch it since I saw it years ago, but it’s one of Guillermo del Toro’s earlier films and it’s fabulous. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it is set during the Spanish Civil War and uses the setting as much to make social commentary as it does to tell a good ghost story.
I really like Ti West’s old school approach to making a horror movie here, as well as his other acclaimed film, The House of the Devil. I even enjoyed ¾ of Cabin Fever 2, with its retro-pastiche silliness. The Innkeepers is a relatively straightforward ghost story that makes full use of its setting in an empty, old hotel that’s about to be shut down. The two leads, hotel employees who do a little paranormal investigation on the side, are charming and have a good rapport that makes for a nice tension reliever between the spooky scenes.
Paranormal Activity 1, 2 & 3
These movies are so simple. And almost nothing happens! And yet… My roommate and I spent most of 2 and 3 peeking through our fingers or over a blanket. As I said above, the way the shots are framed makes it hard to know where to look. The houses where the films take place are so normal, so suburban, it’s easy to put yourself in the characters’ places. And the way the films seem to waste time, with whole sequences in which nothing happens, makes the anticipation burn just a bit more. By the time there are only 20 minutes left, you know shit has to happen and it has to happen fast. Looking forward to number four.
What ghost movies have you found effective?
In honor of October and Halloween, I’ve started watching a lot of horror movies. “A lot” of horror movies for me is pretty relative, considering I watch them any time of year and, in my mind, the Halloween season started at least a month ago. I get really excited about fall.
For a while, I’ve been mulling over the question of whether there is some “ultimate” fear, some fundamental, primal trigger that unites us all in terror, and whether that ultimate fear is manifested in all horror films. Of course, “death” seems to be the obvious answer since it’s always a prominent feature of horror, either in the form of ghosts or actual corpses. But not all horror films rely on death (or threat of death) as the main source of tension; in some cases, characters are afraid of what they can or can’t see, afraid of living with a terrible guilt, or afraid of being permanently maimed. One could argue that all of those things connect back to death at some point, and I believe they do; but I also want to go one step further to argue that fear of death might actually represent an even greater, deeper fear.
To start with, let’s quickly go over what I see as the four most common fears represented across the many genres of horror. First, we have fear of the end of civilization (zombies, vampires, plague, apocalypse). Second, we have fear of pain and mutilation (torture porn, body horror, rape/revenge). Third, we have fear of people who are evil or crazy (slashers, possession, home invasion), which may overlap with fear numero dos considering that crazy/evil people are often responsible for a fair amount of mutilation. And fourth, we have fear of loss and uncertainty (ghosts, monsters, general supernatural).
For me, what all of these things have in common is loss of control. Nothing scares us more than feeling like we don’t have control over our own destinies, actions, desires, or physical agency. Helplessness.
Even worse, there are the situations where you do have control at the start, but a wrong choice suddenly takes the outcome out of your hands. The horror comes in knowing, on some level, what’s happening to you is your fault, that somewhere along the way you made a tiny mistake that set horrific events into motion.
Nothing is more terrifying than the moment you can’t take back. The left turn you made before realizing how close the oncoming traffic was. You can see your doom coming but it’s too late to stop it. Scream all you want, but it won’t make the seconds tick backward to undo what you’ve done.
Those are the twin fears that underlie all horror: powerlessness and regret. They don’t always co-exist, but stakes (and tension) are higher when they are found in combination.
In horror films, it goes like this: you say Bloody Mary three times into the mirror; you watch a video tape and wait seven days; you run up the stairs to escape a killer even though there’s nowhere to go but down; you ignored the warnings not to go into the woods; because you weren’t paying attention, a zombie bit you and now you’re infected.
Not only do you die, you know you’re dead before it even happens and there’s nothing you can do except watch yourself die. Live your final moments with the knowledge this could have been prevented.
If only you weren’t the way you are: too stubborn, too curious, too brash or arrogant or oblivious or skeptical.
Maybe horror films are our Greek tragedies, catharsis through pity and fear in situations created by a character’s fatal flaw. The horror and tragedy of Oedipus wasn’t that he killed his father or entered an incestuous marriage unknowingly; the horror was the realization that he was not in control of his destiny and that his actions, while predetermined, exposed the lie of free will and destroyed his life.
The people who make genuinely scary horror films understand the potent cocktail of helplessness and regret. All horror deals with the things we can’t fight.
When the end of humanity comes, the threat is too big; the infection spreads too quickly, the undead rise in numbers too great, the desperation of survivors turns everything to chaos. A character’s every decision becomes weighted with life or death significance.
When a character falls into a trap (which may or may not be of her own making), she is bound, hobbled, and mutilated. She is physically overpowered and intellectually outwitted. Assuming she makes it out alive, she is psychically wounded; she also has no control over the traumatic memories that haunt her in the aftermath.
When confronted with true evil or true insanity, the character fails because he has mistakenly believed all humans to be rational. He has prided himself on his empathy and ability to reason with other people. But evil resists. Crazy does not find him charming and does not care that he has a wife and three kids.
And lastly, when confronted with the supernatural, the character finds that, having released the vengeful spirit into the world, it’s simply not possible to fight a ghost. She can’t fight the unknowable and the unseen. The uncertainty. What she can never really comprehend is loss, absence, or grief. By the time it’s all over, she is afraid of being afraid.
So could the ultimate fear be powerlessness, mixed with regret? Sounds a lot like death, after all. Dying is scary because of those things, because it silences us and takes away our agency. No more body, no more mind.
It’s also possible that loss of power is my personal deepest fear, and thus influences the things I find scary or compelling in horror films. It would be potentially foolish for me to assume that my ultimate fear is something primal and universal to all of humanity. Fear is one of the most personal things in the world. I tried to explain to my mother once why The Ring got under my skin so much. I told her that the seven day window o’ death scared the hell out of me because I couldn’t stand the idea of knowing that something terrible was going to happen to me, and that I didn’t know what, and there was nothing I could do but just sit and wait for it to happen.
She just laughed at me and said, “Oh, Candice. You’re such a control freak.”