Reflecting, in 1967, on the experience of seeing old movies on TV, notorious curmudgeon/amazing writer Pauline Kael wrote, “Horror and fantasy films … are surprisingly effective, perhaps because they are so primitive in their appeal that the qualities of the imagery matter less than the basic suggestions. Fear counts more than finesse, and seeing horror films is far more frightening at home than in the shared comfort of an audience that breaks the tension with derision.”
As someone who just watched a bunch of old (and not so old) horror movies, often alone, on a laptop (not even a TV, fancy or otherwise), I will second that on several counts.
It’s true that there’s something reassuring when everyone giggles at the right time – we’re all in this together, after all, we say, and it’s just a dumb movie. And that dumb movie doesn’t even need to look that good: it just needs to look good enough.
But when there’s no one around to giggle, no one to point out the continuity error or how goofy everyone is behaving, no one to second-guess your identifications or chuckle when you tense up, you might find yourself a little freaked out.
Kael’s larger points about movies in that essay – that trash accumulates, that we can’t tell an epic chase scene from a shitty chase scene thanks to the proportions of “the box,” that everything is so simultaneously available that we lose historical continuity and can’t even determine which pictures were considered “good” back in the day (“as it is,” Kael notes, “people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago”), that everything is leveled out and presented simply as “classic” because it is past … well, these things are true, too. More true now, in my opinion, than when she was writing.
Horror, however, likes the small screen. Scary movies work in close confines, and especially in the dark. They’re “primitive in their appeal,” often unconcerned with finer nuances, and aimed at something visceral and barely-remembered and impossible to shrug off. They tap into the veins of those who hang around too long, and keep lookout for those who can’t turn away. The good ones are out to get us.
Recently, my cousin asked me why I even watched “horror movies.” I said we should come to a definition of terms (yes, I’m fun at parties). I sensed he was talking about gore, about exploitation, about “extreme cinema,” I guess – basically, what’s with all the stabbing and the eyeballs and the nasty shit really, c’mon? But underneath that, the question was … why do you want to be voluntarily scared?
Personally, I don’t get very enthusiastic about the stabbing and think most movies would do better without it (apart from the sweet opportunities for effects folks to do their thing, which is worthy and rad), and that’s only become clearer over the course of watching movies this past month. I have enormous respect for the technicians and artists who make gross-out scenes happen, but I generally am not that enthused to be constantly grossed out at the movies. (The works of David Cronenberg are hereby exempted.) This wasn’t always true; maybe I’ve gone soft. My thinking is there’s plenty of carnage to be had in the real world.
But the latter is a reasonable question. You could watch a funny movie. It could be sad or bittersweet or melancholy or wistful, it could be inspiring or galvanizing or revolutionary. It could speak to your better nature, or amaze you with its beauty. Why watch a scary movie?
My basic answer: I watched Night of the Living Dead on network television when I was 6 or 7, and it blew my mind. I was certain the zombies portrayed were coming for me. The people seemed more or less like people I knew – they weren’t hamming it up in a Universal product of the 30s or 40s, or whatever else Channel 20 was showing on Sundays at noon. They were regular folks, and they were scared.
So I was scared, too, and it didn’t wear off when the movie was done. That’s an accomplishment – what was the last thing you read, heard, or watched that kept you up at night, thinking about it? What was the first thing? To me, as a child, Night of the Living Dead was art that mattered.
As an adult, and presumably a more informed movie viewer, that basic feeling is still there, along with an awareness of other nuances and connections. Watching these older films – the Val Lewton movies, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Vampyr especially – and newer ones – Peeping Tom, Sisters, Santa Sangre, Trouble Every Day, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 – is to be reminded of all the ways we cloak what we have to say, rework identities to fit with the situation, and manipulate those around us. We make monsters of the other, and of ourselves. We can’t help it. And horror movies know this.
Horror also tells us: If you can’t name a thing, it becomes a monster. And this is a problem: there are a lot of things we can’t name. So there must be many monsters, and they definitely aren’t just outside. Some are basic aspects of who we are as a species, society, and individual. The monsters are real, and they’re coming for us.
We kind of knew it was true, but no one wanted to say it, except for horror movies. And it’s nice to be told the truth every once in a while.