Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Can Movies Scare Us Anymore?

calvin hobbes hiccups
Whether it's to find a cure for the hiccups, to get in the mood for a harrowing Hallowe'en, or just to escape the mind-numbing malaise of our workaday world, who doesn't love a good scare? There are plenty of ways to get a scare nowadays: watch the six o'clock news, read the Wall Street Journal, take a walk down to your local Wal-Mart. But the best thing to do for a good, down home, old-fashion fright-fest is to go to the nearest movie house, buy a ticket, grip your tub of popcorn, and sit yourself down for two hours of studio-backed hoopla.

That's what my friends and I were expecting when we went to see Paranormal Activity late one night. I'll be honest, I wasn't looking forward to it much. I don't like scary movies as a genre; I don't like to be scared just for the sake of being scared. And this movie was supposed to be the SCARIEST MOVIE EVAR. I mean, did you see those test audiences? They looked scared shitless! But eventually my girlfriend and other friends peer pressured me into going, and so I reluctantly went along.

Maybe the whole enterprise was overhyped. Maybe I just thought myself out of being scared. Either way, the movie definitely had enough holes to prevent it from being as frightening as we expected. We were all so unsatisfied that, over the next few days, we embarked on a quest to find a truly terrifying movie, but to no avail. Then, like any good 21st century American when presented with a concept in which he's losing faith (in this case, being scared by movies), I began to overanalyze said concept.

When I read the wikipedia summary of Paranormal Activity, I found it pretty intensely disturbing. It was just a bare bones description of some ambiguously scary things happening to people just like me. I could picture myself in similar situations, getting scared in similar ways, and my overactive imagination took care of the rest. But something about seeing the events playing out on screen, happening to people who were not me, with all the scary moments separated by interminably boring periods of improvised conversation, totally took me out of the action.

The disconnect between the fear I felt imagining the events of P.A. happening to me and the total snorefest of actually watching the events happen to the actors led me to one of my criteria for making movies scary: identifiability. If a movie takes place under circumstances that I, myself, Joe Audience Member, could imagine myself occupying, it's more likely to leave a lasting impression on me after I leave the theater.

"Sometimes I hear things go bump in the night. Maybe if I set up a camera to watch me sleep, it would pick up strange shadows and movements. What if I'm being haunted my a demon?" Or, in the case of Paranormal, "What if my girlfriend is being haunted by a demon... since she was eight years old? And, also, what if, instead of reacting in any kind of positive way, I proceeded by pissing off our tormentor and aggravating the situation at every turn?" If not for the extenuating circumstances surrounding Micah and Katie's particular haunting (including the complete ineptitude of the hauntees) I might have identified some with Paranormal.

Friday the 13th Part 1, the movie we watched directly after Paranormal, operates on much the same principle. I'm well past the age of going to summer camp, but if I were younger and about to spend several weeks in a remote cabin, that movie would have made me lose sleep no doubt.

The concept of transferring elements of a scary movie into one's own life extends from the mundane (Scream, When a Stranger Calls) to the supernatural (The Sixth Sense, The Ring). Running contrary to the trope of identifiability is what I call situationality. Situational movies don't have much staying power in terms of personal impact, usually relying on strong stories, well developed characters, and evocative images to get a rise out of audiences.

Take The Shining, our third movie. It's very unlikely that I, personally, would take a job as winter caretaker of a creepy old hotel, and on the off chance that I do, it's even more unlikely that said hotel would be built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Yet watching Jack's mental breakdown and spiritual takeover elicits such visceral responses because his journey is so well documented. Kubrick takes us into the minds of all the characters; we know why they're scared, and thus we're scared along with them. We don't necessarily identify with them, but we don't have to - all we have to do is observe. And Stanley Kubrick, genius that he is, sure can make a beautiful film that's nice to observe.

The problem with The Shining as a scary movie, per se, is that it's almost too well-crafted to be a horror flick. We recognize the great shots, the revolutionary use of steadicam, the way he badgers his actors until he gets exactly the performance he wants, but with this recognition comes appreciation, which gets the left brain moving, which stifles the scare reaction. By creating a masterpiece, Kubrick makes the task of scaring film buffs a difficult one.

Scary movies that make use of situationality can run the gamut of genres from "prestige" pics (Psycho) to Sci Fi (Alien) and can have subject matter ranging from the secular (Carrie, Poltergeist) to religious (The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary's Baby). They also run the risk of relying too heavily on startles or gratuitous violence, but then it becomes debatable to what extent they descend into the slasher or "gorno" subgenre. Movie theaters have been inundated with tales of torture and dismemberment, but true fright-aholics are after something with a little more substance.

All my philosophy major style "research" has led me to a conclusion: at this point in our movie watching culture, we've seen (or heard about) so many different horror conventions and we know (from experience or theoretically) all the tricks Hollywood has up its sleeves that it's getting harder and harder for movies to provide a subtle, intelligent, and lasting scare.

Now I know what you're thinking: doesn't all this analysis of scariness contribute to the difficulty of scaring an audience? Because at bottom a scare is a primal reaction that starts deep in one's bowels and only escapes through a scream or a jump or tingles all over one's body. And any time you get people thinking about what they're supposed to feel, doesn't it get harder for them to actually have that feeling?

A good point. But let me answer your question with another question: wasn't it our failure to get scared that elicited all this thinking in the first place? It wasn't as if I just sat down one day and thought, "Hmm, what is it about scary movies that make us feel scared rather than, say, smelly?" I wanted a scare (albeit reluctantly), and when I was disappointed, I went in search for some reasons.

But who knows, in this world of progress and enlightenment, maybe thinking about being scared is an important step in getting to the true nature of scariness. Maybe someone will use this research to develop a "Science of the Scare," which will guarantee us more unsettling and efficient scares than ever before. But more likely than not, this post will just be written off as the ramblings of a bored thinker with too much time and not enough scary movies on his hands.

With the Hallowe'en season drawing to a close, we've got a whole year before the next crop of screamers is likely to rise. That's more than enough time for horror helmers to get their acts together.