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Insights: Culture

Why we love to be scared at the movies
John Carpenter
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, Sep/Oct 01

(continued from page 1)

Why? Maybe because it gives us release from something we carry with us all the time, our fear of fear. Release? That's worth ten bucks anytime, if that's what they're charging now. You see what we're back to? Safe fear. Think about that roller coaster. We believe that the safety belt is a bulletproof vest -- these things never crash -- I'm going to live forever. Safe fear. The goose bumps are real, but the danger is let's pretend.

It occurs to me now that I've been asked to think about it, that when we go to the movies, we may make our most serious and most personal investment in comedy or a horror film. Laughter is real and present, a very concrete personal response. So is that rush of ice water down your spine.

I've noticed -- just an observation, not a rule -- that audiences go to the movies to
project their own emotions and feelings upon the characters they see, and the payoff is the emotional release we personally feel when the story resolves itself in an artful way.

Hollywood has this annoying conviction that scary movies are most eagerly anticipated by young audiences. "Young males" is the aggravating catchword. But in a way, Hollywood is right. As adults, we still get fulfillment from being held on the edge of our seats for the better part of two hours, but we're not really as eager to rush out to see it as we were when we were kids. We know we'll be entertained by our fear, we know we'll be better people for the release it affords us, but we're not going to camp out to be first in line like we did when we were 16.

I think one reason -- but not a rule -- for that is we really do seem to be most open to the enchantment of fear when we're young. We're still exploring our feelings about fear and danger, and it's the optimum time to satisfy curiosity with terror. Different things scare us at different times of our lives. One of the first films to put me gloriously over the edge was the original The Thing From Another World. I was riveted, and a couple of times I shot up from my seat, the popcorn flying. Twenty years or so later I saw The Exorcist. When the Devil told Father Karras about the sex act his mother was performing in hell, I laughed out loud. What a cheesy Devil. All that projectile puke, all the head spinning…but then, again, I was older.

Finally, let's consider why people seem so insistent on asking me why people like to be frightened. Maybe because one of our most compelling fears when we're older is fear of masochism. We see a film, crap in our pants, and come out saying it was great. What does that say about you, you wonder? Am I a guy who someday is going to be slamming my fingers in the door just to enjoy the pain? I think the answer is no. You're not a masochist. You're just human. Or, at least, I hope so.


John Carpenter is the director of Ghosts of Mars and The Thing.

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