What Scares Us The Most In Movies

By @johng5150
What Scares Us The Most In Movies

Our monthly staff features of past have usually been reserved for top ten lists regarding a certain subject, genre or even anticipation lists pertaining to film festivals. With this monthly feature we went through a few ideas before settling on something a little different. The idea was to always have it be horror themed since October is synonymous with Halloween. But instead of having a top ten list of a certain type of horror film or even ranking our favorites, we’ve decided that each of us will share with the reader what actually scares us in horror movies. Whether it’d be actual subject matter or aesthetics applied by the filmmakers, we discuss the various ingredients in horror movies that make us put that pillow over our eyes or make us reach for a loved one’s grasp.

What Scares Us The Most In Movies

Someone Else Is In Control

Inland Empire Laura Dern

I thought a lot about what scares me in Horror films and the one thing that I kept coming back to is not being in control. I know it sounds weird, but when I’m watching a movie and if I can’t get a grip on what’s real or not or if I’m watching a living, breathing nightmare where I have no control, I freak. I think that’s why Suspiria is so attractive to me. The film is a master class of sensory overload where viewers are toyed with for 90 minutes. We are paralyzed to cheer for Susie Bannion, because we are so entrenched in this world where colors and sounds could never exist in our reality. Every time I watch the film, I can’t move. I’m transfixed and it scares me that I can’t move while I watch it. David Lynch is the master at creating films where the viewer is essentially his pawn and he attacks their stability with striking images. His final film (so far), Inland Empire, is quite possibly the greatest nightmare that I’ve seen in film. I was too scared to move while watching it. Laura Dern running in slow motion towards the camera that is suddenly sped up to a roaring orchestral cue haunts me to this day. Simply put, when David Lynch is in control, you are not.

I can also bring up that not being in control can also be applied literally as well. When a person in the film is shooting what you’re seeing (think Blair Witch), you experience what they are seeing from their point of view. I think the POV handheld genre has gone overboard, but there are some films that execute this to great extent. [Rec] and Grave Encounters are by no means great horror movies, but both feature great moments where someone else is in control of the camera and I want them to turn away or zoom out. By then it’s too late. [Blake Ginithan]

Trapped With No Way Out

The Shining Axe Scene

Nothing gets my heart racing more than the idea of being trapped with no way out knowing that impending doom is inevitable. For me the fear is that feeling of being helpless in a situation that is inescapable. This is a rather simple concept that has been used and modified several times over. I suppose the most rudimentary example of this is when characters are trapped inside a room where the walls on both sides begin to close in to the middle of the room. This sort of “Walls Closing In” stunt has been around forever and I likely picked it up as a child while watching cartoons, Star Wars: A New Hope, or even Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom. As I mentioned, that is just the most elementary of an example and it would be easy to confuse my fear of being helplessly trapped with straight-up claustrophobia, so let me explain further.

You probably remember that famous scene in The Shining when Jack Nicholson busts down the door and screams, “Here’s Jonny!” through a hole in the door. That scene is a great example of what terrifies me the most in horror films. In case you haven’t seen it (watch it here), Nicholson slowly walks with a deranged look on his face and an axe in his hands towards his wife who has locked herself in the bathroom from him. She seemingly has nowhere else to go and she knows that she will soon be killed if she cannot escape. Add in Stanley Kubrick’s methodically slow-pacing and ear-piercing score and it is the perfect setup the scare the living hell out of me. The combination of having no control over the situation and knowing that death is soon approaching is what scares me the most. [Dustin Jansick]


Kairo horror movie

I’m going to be a bit broad with my pick, but what scares me the most is simple: ambiguity. A lot of horror films tend to go in the opposite direction, showing too much or explaining every little thing to the audience, but there’s still plenty of power in deciding not to show or tell. When I watched Ju-On years ago what terrified me wasn’t the jittery ghosts, it was how the curse in the film wasn’t defined in any way whatsoever. It could be weeks, months, or even years before these ghosts would get you, but they will kill you at some point.. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo has one of the most terrifying first acts I’ve seen, as a rash of suicides and hauntings occur without explanation. Films like Insidious and Paranormal Activity also drew on elements of the unknown to scare audiences (to the point where people are now throwing money at them) but their inferior sequels built a mythology explaining every single thing that occurred in the originals. It’s an approach that shows how, the more you know, the less scared you’ll be. [CJ Prince]

Jack Nicholson As Joker

Jack Nicholson As Joker

As I get older, I find myself almost impervious to fright at the movie theater, which is more of a curse than a blessing. It’s a sad thing that most scary movies fail to make my skin crawl like they did to my 7-year-old, candy-corn-gobbling self. The upside to my time-hardened nerves is that when a film does manage to creep me out, it’s a delicious rarity that I devour like a starving dog. I relish horror flicks like Eyes Without a Face, Nosferatu, Last House on the Left, and The Descent for employing finely tuned filmmaking techniques–not hackneyed “jump scares” or “false-alarm scares” (as Roger Ebert brilliantly called them)–to create deathly atmosphere and a sense of inescapable dread.

But still, nothing–NOTHING–can compare to the terror I experienced back in the candy-corn-gobbling days when I got my first glimpse at the face of pure evil–Jack Nicholson’s Joker. I remember being so scared of that pale, perpetually grinning motherfucker that I couldn’t even look at my family’s VHS copy of Tim Burton’s Batman. It didn’t even have Nicholson on it, but I knew some form of his lipstick-wearing devil spirit MUST have been lurking inside the cheap card stock packaging and black plastic shell. It had to be that smile–the only way to make any movie monster scarier is to have them bear their grisly grills like a demented clown (fuck clowns). There’s something repulsive, twisted, and deeply unsettling about someone who smiles as they’re about to do something truly sinister. I wonder if my folks ever got rid of that tape…[Bernard Boo]

Everything About Horror Films

The Others Scary

So I will admit, I’ve never really been a huge fan of horror films. I’m pretty sure it all stems from watching Signs when I was in my early teens—man that film terrified me—the knife under the door, the creepy Alien sneaking out the hedges at that kids party. I had to keep the volume on 1 the entire time.

Then came my mid-teens when it was the cool thing to watch scary movies on a Friday night sleepover (Gothika, Amityville Horror, The Others – I mean what was up with that kid’s face?!) I think it’s the intense suspense build ups and the loud heavy Dolby Digital bass in the cinema that thumps through chest making you really feel like it’s all happening to you. I also find that the actual “knowing what’s around the corner” scares me more than whatever is there because your mind goes into a frenzy trying to prepare your body for it. [Amy Priest]

Suspense and Psychological Manipulation

127 Hours movie

I’ve never been one to actively search out horror films primarily for two reasons, the first being a belief (built from years of poor film choices by friends and family) that they all contained the same components, with slight variations on which “spooky” location and in which particular manner the unexplained deaths or disappearances happened. But in the interests of being truthful, the more honest—and embarrassing—reason is simply that I’m easily scared. Nevertheless, the films that really get to me are those that center more around suspense and psychological manipulation. Throw as much blood on the screen as you like, and it won’t bother me half as much as a mere second of something mentally disturbing. A perfect example of this is in 127 Hours (even though it’s not a horror film) when Scooby-Doo appears just for one shot; this one scene affected me far more than watching young Franco saw his arm off.

While finding suspense in films scary is a fairly universal concept, there is a defining line between the type of suspense we find dotted throughout films such as the Saw franchise and The Blair Witch Project, and the type we find in films such as Psycho and more recently, 28 Days Later. This difference stems from the basic intention of these films—are they attempting to provide us with a narrative that is scary in its essence, or are they attempting to thrill us with snippets of suspense loosely held together by some form of plot? I’ll jump (and perhaps even scream a little) at films that do the latter, but Joss Whedon has hit the nail on the head—at some point the majority of horror films devolved “into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances.” Perhaps this is why my favourite horror film has to be, in all its meta construction, Whedon and Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods; as much as it scares us, it simultaneously enters new territory, subverting our expectations of the genre. [Pavi Ramani]

Believability And Doubt-Producing Ending

Silence of the Lambs ending

My film genre of choice is horror, but because of that I’m actually quite a fastidious viewer and it takes a lot to impress me. The most obvious element of a scary film is actually the easiest to pull off: surprise. It’s not hard to startle an audience, jump out at them, or spray some blood in their direction, eliciting a few screams. The hard part, and what marks the best horror films from all the others in my opinion, is getting into our heads and keeping the fear alive once we leave the theater. The most memorable horror films have two elements that will get me every time.

First, is an essence of believability. I don’t care if it’s ghosts, aliens, murderers, or demons, if the film can show me that the scenario I’m witnessing could happen to me, than I’m much more likely to feel a sense of anxiety that heightens the fright. A virus that turns a majority of the world into zombies? Seems plausible. Found footage of the family-next-door being haunted? That looks like a house I’ve seen. Those look like people I know. I’m creeped out. Second, is a well-played, doubt-producing ending. At the end of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice may have caught her serial killer, but Hannibal Lecter’s final phone call reminds her, and us, that evil is never truly contained, just redirected. A hand popping out of a grave, a-la Carrie, just makes me laugh; zooming in on Jack Torrance in an old picture on the wall of the Overlook Hotel at the end of The Shining, reminds me that the evil within that hotel lives on. Because they have these two elements, I can watch my favorite horror films over and over again and still squirm. Because really, I never stopped being scared of them. [Ananda Dillon]

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