Friday, June 13, 2008

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s Friday the 13th today, and I am superstitious. I realize of course that superstitions like these are totally irrational fears—but fear is a pretty powerful thing. I’ve heard people argue before that fear can be fun and exhilarating, especially in reference to things like roller coasters or haunted houses, but I think they’re making a category mistake. If you are exhilarated and have fun on roller coasters (which I do) or in haunted houses (which I don’t), then you aren’t really afraid of them (which I am of haunted houses but not of roller coasters). This is why, even though most people thought this movie was lame, I thought The Blair Witch Project was particularly horrifying, because not only was the story scary in itself, but it was also a story about “being scared”—and the utterly miserable, helpless and incapacitating dread that real fear produces in us. There’s nothing “fun” about being really afraid.

Speaking of scary movies, today is also the day that auteur M. Night Shyamalan is scheduled to release his newest and scariest (and first R-rated) film, The Happening. I’ve seen a lot of hype about this film over the past few weeks and I think it looks like one of the most interesting things that have shown up in the theaters in a long while. But I won’t go see it. Because I don’t see scary movies. Because they scare me.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, almost all aimed at mediating the ‘scariness” of the film. I won’t ever go see a scary movie on the big screen, but I will occasionally watch a scary movie at home under the following conditions: (1) it’s been described to me as “not that scary” by someone whom I trust, (2) I already know pretty much everything about what goes on in the film, especially in the “scary parts,” (3) I get to watch it in my own home, on a television, in the afternoon, preferably a sunny afternoon, and (4) I get to hold the remote (so I can pause or stop it whenever I want).

So, under these conditions, I’ve actually seen all of Shyamalan’s other films and I really liked almost all of them. I think his films are smart and philosophical, and that he is a real master of his craft. But I also will concede that Shyamalalan’s previous films (none of which were R-rated) weren’t “that” scary. My aversion to scary movies has basically two roots—Poltergeist and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte—both of which absolutely terrified me and which explain my severe anxiety around clowns or psychotic-old-women-who-look-like-Bette-Davis even to the present day. I don't think I actually believe in ghosts or evil spirits, and I'm pretty sure I don't believe that either ghosts or evil spirits are able to inhabit otherwise inanimate objects (like clown dolls, televisions, or trees, just to use the Poltergeist example)... but I do believe in all the scary and evil things that human beings do, especially if they're psychotic and look like the older Bette Davis after being spurned by her community and locked away in an antebellum mansion for too long. And I also believe that it's entirely possible that one of them is hiding under my bed.

From everything I've heard about it, this is what Shyamalan's The Happening captures so well--that is, all the unlikely and improbable things that are so scary because, however unlikely or improbable they may be, they're also possible--and this is why everyone is reporting that The Happening is a genuinely scary movie. So, if you're one of those people who isn't "really" scared by scary movies, I hope you go see it and then tell me all about it.

9 comments:

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I am so glad to hear I'm not the only one who categorically (or almost categorically) refuses to see scary movies (I've seen most of Shyamalan's and I also saw the Others but other than that have pretty much kept to my vow since college, when I saw The Shining and Texas Chainsaw Massacre two nights in a row).

When I mention this to my students they always make fun of me for the pretty tame stuff I'm willing to call scary (Heather locked her jaw in midscream when we saw Scream, and I was more scared than she was).

I'm sure I miss some good movies this way, but that's a price I'm willing to pay.

And like you, I can trace mine back to a moment. For me it was when I was 7 and my 12 year old brother was babysitting us (in my family, at 10 you were old enough to watch your siblings while your parents were out).

He started watching some made for TV movie about Jack the Ripper coming back from the dead, which I can only imagine was extremely tame. When my five year old sister and I begged him to turn it off, he said we could just go to a different room.

But by then it was too late . . . We weren't going anywhere there wasn't someone even (marginally) older than us. . .

To this day, I am terrified of Jack the Ripper.

DOCTOR J said...

Funny, I also have a "serial killer" story...

I was in my apartment one late afternoon watching an A&E biography during "serial killer" week that was on Jeffrey Dahmer. I can't remember exactly, but I want to say that the show started at, like, 6 or 7 pm and was an hour long. At any rate, sometime during the program, it actually got dark outside, and since it wasn't dark when the program started, I didn't have any lights on in my apartment. So, by the time the thing was over, I was there sitting on my couch with a pillow and a blanket, totally terrified by what I had just seen, and I couldn't motivate myself to get up and go turn on the lights. Now that's "paralyzing" fear... and it was just a freakin' A&E biography, for goodness sake.

Speaking of The Shining (which, despite the absolute terror it produced in me, is an incredible film), that scene where the kid rolls around the corner on his big-wheel and sees the blood-soaked twins who say "Johnny, come play with us" is one of the most unforgettably horrifying scenes I've ever seen. Couple that with the opening scene of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and you'll barely be able to stand the presence of children (who, when scary, are extremely scary) again.

John said...

I also remember The Shining as a terrifying film. Leigh, I am wondering if you can expand on your comment, ironic no doubt, that when children are scary they are extremely scary. The vantage point of a child has become central to film seemingly, including as you are mentioning here horror films. I would suggest that the child represents true, unfiltered perception of reality-- so that when the child's world becomes filled with say imaginary friends, or spirits or ghosts we become terrified because we cannot rule out completely the possibility that these are real. If the child is innocence then something that represents the awreness of death, "from the mouth of babes" will strike fear in us. The figure of the double and the sense of the uncanny no doubt plays a role in the films you discussed.

Having said all that Hollywood sure knows how to manipulate us and hit "close to home" in our psyches!

John said...

Now that man in the poster is a BAD man. He's really scary!

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I see nothing odd about being scared by A & E.

And the Shining, unlike Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was definitely worth seeing.

I agree with John that the expectation of innocence has something to do with the potential freakiness of children, but then it would be the violation of that expectation that strikes as unheimlich. . .

I'm thinking particularly here of the origin of horror out of the Victorian genre of the Gothic novel; there is certainly a Victorian ideology of the child (one which supposes them to be unaware of both death and sexuality when actual children are unaware of neither) --- do children, as the site of that repression, also mark the horror of its failure?

John said...

I think you have hit on something, there is unavoidably an ideology of childhood. Everything we say about the child has been constructed by us the adults, or reconstructed in the memory of our own childhood. A problem with my comment was that I assumed there was some kind of "phenomenology of childhood" when probably there can be none because theorizing begins where childhood ends, in adulthood. But I guess I was trying to allow for the reality of what children experience or sense about the world. I had in mind something that would not be commonsense description but the world of the fairy tale, in which there are dangers but innocence is always vindicated. Would horror then be an inversion of the fairy tale?

I am rambling on somewhat but there would seem to be a common question of innocence and guilt , and a moral sense, in both readings for children (e.g. the fairy tale) and the "guilty pleasure" of jaded adults (the horror film).

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

That's true, and the fairy tale does precede the gothic novel as a predecessor of the horror story...

DOCTOR J said...

I don't know much about the histories of Victorian Gothics or fairy tales (or horror films, for that matter)... but what you both say sounds right to me.

But, to go back to another (even older) source, wasn't there a passage in Plato--I think it was in the Republic--where he claims that we can't help but look at things that horrify us. I have only a vague memory of this passage, unfortunately, but I want to say it involved someone looking at a corpse. Anyone else remember this?

DOCTOR J said...

I regret to report that, by all accounts I've heard, Shamaylan's new movie is no good.