Why we love to be scared at the movies
What scares people? Why do people want to be scared? And, much more importantly and puzzling, why do people think I know the answer to these things?
What people really want is safe fear. That's the real reason we go to see scary movies. It's the reason we ride roller coasters, why a few of us bungee jump. It's simple. Nobody loves to be scared in real life, not actual bone-chilling, heart-pounding scared. "Fake" scared is cool, however. It's about the thrills, the adrenaline blasting skyward, the gasp and the scream and the jump. Roller coasters are ever popular thrill rides, given that your head doesn't explode or your neck snap. Fairy tales, horror novels and movies -- they're all fine and dandy, thank you. But if you want to talk about real-life scared, don't. It's a state of being we avoid at all costs.
Ever since my early career as a horror movie director, I've been asked the same basic question over and over: what scares me? I suppose the assumption is that since I've made some horror films that I must be an expert on the subject. The truth is we're all experts on the subject because we're all afraid of the same things.
To one degree or another, we all fear the unknown, death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one, madness, dissolution and decay -- the list goes on (you can add your own). Some of us have phobias, often irrational but always deeply held and profound in their ability to render us paralyzed and shuddering. But despite all this fear going around, we love to go to the movies and get scared all to hell.
Fear welcomes us into the world. All that crunching and shoving and then, suddenly -- lights, camera, action -- that warm, safe womb is left behind forever. The first welcome is corporal punishment, noise, an introduction to the sensation of falling. There isn't a horror movie in the world that can match that rush.
Why shouldn't terror fascinate us? President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first big proclamation was that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was trying to soothe a nation out of the panic of a depression, so he took them to the heart of the matter. Fear is the thing we most fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the known.
If you're looking for a list of rules about fear -- and that's not what I have in mind -- you can start there: the two basic categories of fear. You see a pit bull barreling at you, foaming at the mouth…fear of the known. You think you hear something or someone under the bed…fear of the unknown.
But if you're in the fear business, rules are a bad place to start. If you think you're going to make a scary movie by the rules, you're going to make a scary movie that somebody else has already made. So let's forget the rules. But I don't mind sharing a few observations. If I get this right, maybe I can prevent the next thousand people I meet from asking me what scares people and why people want to be scared.
What's the most powerful word in the world? You could make a good argument for boo! See, I've already broken the only rule I was planning to give you. Apparently there aren't only two kinds of fear. There's fear of the known, fear of the unknown -- the anticipatory fears -- and then there's boo!, the fear caused by startlement. Two of the most powerful inducers of terror -- the sudden sensation of falling and sudden sound -- fall into the boo category. We're born with those two Pavlovian responses. A baby has to learn what that foaming pit bull portends. But Bang! and Whoops! knot our stomachs before we understand what speech is all about. And why do we actually say whoops! (or its more expressive synonym, shit!) when that ladder goes out from under us? It doesn't cause a mattress to magically appear. It simply articulates our lifelong fear of falling, as that scream in the theater gives eloquence to our fear of boo.
Stephen King, who knows a lot about these things, said that we sometimes want to look at horror that goes to that locked place in us. "The good horror tale," writes King, "will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of…the Stranger makes us nervous…but we love to try on his face in secret." Fair enough. In real life, we really don't want to visit that locked place or get to know the Stranger too well -- but we don't mind doing it in the safety of the theater.
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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