From July 20 to 26 the Civic Theatre is showing some great summer festival movies, including First Reformed (2017), Hearts Beat Loud (2018), The Seagull (2018), Won’t You Be My Neighbour (2018), and Hereditary (2018). The last of these, Hereditary, has been variously described as terrifying, disturbing, harrowing, deeply frightening, disquieting, a new kind of horror, and the scariest movie ever. This will no doubt put a lot of people off, but have others eager to experience its thrills. You’ll know straight away whether it’s for you from the preview.
Horror is a fascinating film genre. As Danish media researcher, Mathias Clasen, states in his 2017 TEDx Talk, Lessons From a Terrified Horror Researcher, “Of all the strange things that humans do, watching horror films has got to be one of the strangest.” Clasen has recently written a book, Why Horror Seduces, which explores the human desire to be frightened and why scary movies have been and continue to be so popular. Clasen’s main argument is that the horror genre is a product of human nature, that it’s part of our DNA.
John P. Hess touches on this idea in his comprehensive overview of why we go to scary movies in the Filmmaker IQ lesson, The Psychology of Scary Movies. He lists three factors behind the allure of horror: tension (mystery, suspense, gore, terror, or shock), relevance (whether universal, cultural, subgroup, or personal), and unrealism (“it’s just a movie”).
He also talks about eight incomplete theories on our attraction to horror, including psychoanalysis, catharsis (purging fear through art), excitation-transfer theory (e.g., initial dread intensifying a later feeling of elation), curiosity and fascination (events outside our everyday experience of normal behaviour), dispositional alignment theory (victims deserving of punishment), sensation seeking (the rollercoaster analogy), gender socialization theory (“snuggle theory”), and societal fears. People respond in different ways to each of the theories and according to different sub-genres within the horror category. I don’t often watch horror movies, but when I do, I would guess that my motivations align mainly with the excitation-transfer, curiosity and fascination, and sensation seeking theories.
I’ve definitely seen quite a few super-scary movies over the years, however. Here’s a list of my top ten, including some great and some not-so-great movies, but all of which scared me silly at the time I watched them. In order of release date:
- Psycho (1960) – Classic horror masterpiece that I’ve watched many times on VHS. Although it is the ground-breaking shower sequence that endures, it is the fruit cellar scene that has stuck most in my mind.
- The Exorcist (1973) – I was curious about this notorious film for many years before I finally watched it to see what all the fuss was about. Probably deserves its reputation as one of the best movies of its type.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – I was working in the United States one summer during university and a fellow worker persuaded me to watch a couple of movies with him that were banned in the United Kingdom at the time. One was this movie, and I found it quite the most sickening, disturbing movie I’d ever seen up that point in my life. Brilliant in its own way though, and it has many scenes that haunt me to this day.
- Jaws (1975) – Not really horror, but made going to the beach scary. I remember watching this on television at home with my parents and having to curl my legs up underneath me so they wouldn’t be dangling off the edge of the sofa.
- Alien (1979) – I saw this in the cinema at far too young an age because I had a friend who loved the art of H. R. Giger. I’ve previously discussed my love of this film in this blog post.
- The Shining (1980) – This great film chills and enthralls in equal measure. Some great scenes and Jack Nicholson gradually, relentlessly going off the rails.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – For some reason, my high school friends regularly rented movies like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The latter film is the one that stuck with me, however, perhaps because at the time I often rode my bike at night along a poorly lit road through a forest, scaring myself witless as I imagined lengthening shadows from spiky tree branches to be Freddy Krueger’s razor claws coming to get me.
- The Fly (1986) – Sci-fi horror from Canadian David Cronenberg that is intense and unsettling to watch despite its patent absurdity.
- The Vanishing (1988) – Not a horror film in the usual sense, but contains a scene of primal terror that I won’t spoil by revealing. This refers to the original Dutch film, originally titled Spoorloos.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – The Oscar-winning film that heralded the renaissance of the horror genre as capable of producing great movies. Outstanding in all regards.
Iain Pardoe is an online university instructor who enjoys the movies of Hayao Miyazaki even more than the kids and loves rewatching favourites from his youth with his family when he’s not playing soccer or skiing.