Monday, October 28, 2013

"This Isn't Scary"

What is a "scary movie?" The way people talk about them, they seem very hard to come by. I've seen plenty of movies that evoked reactions of fear & anxiety in me, but I don't think I've ever seen one of these "scary movies" I always hear about.

I've said previously that the term "torture porn" is a derragatory way to dismiss specific horror films that still hold artistic merit, but there is another, much more pervasive term that I have always considered to be incredibly detrimental to the entire horror genre: "scary movie."

C'mon! Don't you think I'm scary?
Bram Stoker's Dracula is not considered a "scary" book, and neither is Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. There are no scary writers, scary movie directors, or scary movie actors; These people work within a genre called "horror," and that term is specifically intended to be more open and interpretive than simply "scary." Going back to The Appeal of Horror, we know there's a lot more to a horror story than just being scary.

Scary is not a genre or a style, it's a description of part of a story. There is a reasonable expectation to experience fear during a horror movie (as fear is the foundation of the genre), but that expectation sometimes clouds the audience's experience. Every horror fan has that friend who keeps saying, "this isn't scary" every 5 minutes until something pops up and says, "boo." If you don't have that friend, it's probably you (don't worry, there's sill hope).
Some people evaluate horror films—"scary movies," as they call them—by the number of times they jumped in the movie theater; the more times something flashed across the screen, the scarier it was. I'd like to think that the reason they "jump" is because they are already on edge from the context, story, and tone of the film, but the truth is some people are are just jumpy by nature (if you ever have the privilege of having one of these people as a coworker, it will greatly enhance your typical work day).

When going to see a film in the adventure genre, there is a reasonable expectation for excitement, but we don't call them "exciting movies" because that sets studios and audiences up for failure. Did you see "World War Z?" Wasn't that an exciting movie? No, no it was not... but it lived up to being a decent adventure story in the sense that it involved extensive travel to strange or exotic locations. If I was expecting it to be a "scary movie," I probably would have disliked it that much more.

"Jurassic Park" (1993)
Is "Jurassic Park" a "scary movie?" No, it's a thriller... but we all know that suspense and discomfort are important elements in thrillers just as they are in horror, so there were frightening moments throughout the film. If "Jurassic Park" was released as a horror film, it probably would have been judged very harshly because there aren't enough scary parts. Interestingly, when "Jurassic Park" first came out in 1993, most people considered the movie to be very... well... scary. Why is that? Expectation. If you're going into a Spielberg movie with dinosaurs and cool special effects, you're not expecting that there will be parts of the film that will frighten you or make you tense, and therefore those scenes become much more effective. If you go to see what you yourself are referring to as a "scary movie," you'll basically sit there with your arms crossed waiting for the boring set-up to be over with so they can get to the scary parts. Once the scary parts start happening, they probably won't be as scary as you expected because you were building them up to be "scary" all along (whatever that loaded word means to you).

The solution is simple: lower your guard, drop your expectations, and LOSE YOURSELF IN HORROR. Imagine that the character on the screen is you. Just treat it like any other movie and let it take you on an emotional journey. As a rule of thumb, I typically pretend I'm watching something blasé along the lines of, say, "Maid in Manhattan" so any moments of shock or discomfort affect me the way they were intended to:
They're going to stay in a cabin for the weekend? Awww, well that sounds like they're gonna have a lot of fun. But what's this... there's some sort of flesh-eating bacteria in the water supply?! WTF, for reals?! That's fucking horrible!! I can't even imagine how terrified I would be if I were in that situation!

"The Human Centipede: First Sequence" (2010)
If you put yourself in the character's place and honestly envision yourself in the exact same situation, it's far more difficult not to feel scared or tense when watching a horror film. Perspective matters. Did you think "The Human Centipede" was a comedy? If so, consider checking your bullshit at the door and watching it again; that movie presents one of the most terrifying scenarios imaginable and ought to be respected as an unnerving cinematic achievement in modern horror.

When it comes down to it, fear is subjective. What scares me may not scare you, and what scares you might just make me giggle; that's the major reason there are so many sub-genres within horror to help people guide themselves to a profound and personal emotional reaction. If fear were universal, every audience member would react exactly the same way to every horror film and the term "scary movie" would then be one of factual basis instead of expectation. Fortunately, each individual fears different things, so we horror fans and writers can continue searching for and confronting our greatest nightmares.

It would be more accurate if we started calling them "creepy movies" instead of "scary movies," but it's better still to appreciate the horror genre for the gray area it is and allow yourself to get lost in the story.


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