Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Comfortable Level Of Fear

For a horror film to truly frighten viewers an element of surprise or mystery is essential. Audiences can’t be scared if they’re complacent about the movie they’re watching. They have to be uneasy, caught off guard. Above all, they can’t feel safe. In principle, this may be true but in contradiction to that, audiences have shown time and again that when it comes to horror, what they crave – and perhaps even prefer – is the comfort of the familiar.

From the earliest days of film, movie monsters have been willed back to life by the demand of audiences who didn’t want to let the likes of Dracula or The Wolf Man rest in peace. But yet the result of those return appearances was that the stable of Universal Monsters quickly stopped being scary and finished out their initial wave of popularity being paired with the comedy duo of Abbott & Costello. While modern movie monsters like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers escaped that kind of fate (never having to share the screen with the likes of Pauly Shore or Adam Sandler), they were still diminished over time - whether it be through increasingly gimmicky installments (Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason X) or by having the essence of the character diluted (in the case of the Halloween saga, any installment after Carpenter's original). While Freddy Krueger was never paired with a comedian, he himself became more of a jokester over the course of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, with actor Robert Englund’s later-day portrayal of the dream stalker marked by an increasing stream of quips and one-liners.

Actor Jackie Earle Haley's upcoming turn as Freddy Krueger in the Elm Street remake is being touted as a call back to a more serious interpretation of the character but aren't Freddy's days as a scary character over, no matter who's playing him? Trying to make a 'scary' Nightmare on Elm Street in 2010 seems like a put-on to me. A well-intended put-on, maybe, but still a put-on. The likes of Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, or Leatherface have long since become part of an odd charade in which audiences willingly pay for a horror experience without ever truly expecting to experience any horror.

It’s often said that horror films are like roller coaster rides in which people can experience danger without ever actually subjecting themselves to any risk and franchise horror movies are the ultimate embodiment of that analogy. Films like the original Psycho (1960) or the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) are movies that - upon their initial releases, at least - violently pulled the ground out from under viewers. They weren’t just roller coaster rides. They were roller coaster rides operated by untrustworthy madmen under the blanket of midnight - films that sparked angry outbursts and walk-outs. You just don't see that kind of livid reaction provoked by, say, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.

The fact that being pseudo-scared is something that enough people enjoy, however, says something about the social and psychological function that franchises provide. I'm susceptible to the appeal of these films myself - like, really susceptible! - and I have to wonder what emotional itch is being scratched. It's not about being scared so much as it is about the pleasurable memory of being scared. Revisiting characters like Freddy and Jason in sequels and remakes is like reflectively soaking in nostalgia for fear. It’s not a visceral experience that viewers are looking for. Instead, it’s the comforting phantom of that visceral experience.

As viewers, perhaps we become fond of the memory of being traumatized by films but are sometimes reluctant to seek out new and unfamiliar traumas (for myself, I can say that while I own the DVD of Martyrs, it's still sitting unwatched on a shelf). The famous (and often recycled) ad campaign for the original Last House on the Left (1972) gave viewers the hyperbolic advice that “To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating…'It’s Only A Movie, It’s Only A Movie'..." but sequels and remakes make any such psychological firewalls unnecessary.

Of course it's only a movie - it's the remake of Hellraiser. In 3-D.

11 comments:

Bob Ignizio said...

Every time there's some documentary about horror movies on TV, they always trot out someone to give the big serious explanation about why people watch them, and it always sounds so pretentious and flat out wrong to me. But your notion of chasing comfortable "pseudo scares" is about the most accurate way of describing why I watch horror flicks even though I haven't been truly scared or shocked by one in years. Great essay.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Bob! I do think that for a lot of fans, horror films stop being scary early on (with rare exceptions) and turn into the equivalent of 'comfort food.'

Arbogast said...

It often seems to me that the true dynamic of modern horror, for the horror fan base, is scaring or unnerving other people. So much horror product these days seems rooted in hostility, in upsetting someone somewhere with a wretched show of excess. When I watch something old like Vampyr I really get a sense of the artist plumbing his own psyche for what disturbs him. Almost 80 years later, the film still beguiles me if not outright frightens me, yet there are raw elements within to haunt my dreams.

Jeff Allard said...

Arbo, I agree. When it comes to the idea of current horror films meant to scare or unnerve other people, I think of the movies of Rob Zombie. As a horror fan (well, supposedly), Zombie is surely aware that diehard horror fans aren't going to be fazed by the content of his films. Instead the relentless ugliness seems to be designed to punish any non-horror fans who happened to get dragged into the theater.

J.D. said...

A good example of what you're saying is THE HITCHER vs. the crappy remake. Everything that was scary and unsettling about the original was gutted and replaced with boring predictability and obviousness with the remake. There was nothing remote frightening about it and as much as I like Sean Bean, he's no Rutger Hauer. I recently watched the original film and Hauer's performance still chills me to the bone. There is something about his facial expressions in that film, the madness evident in his eyes, that gets me every time. No CGI pyrotechnics or gallons of blood, just simple human interaction that is so effective.

Planet of Terror said...

Great points all around Jeff. You have GOT to see Martyrs. It will truly terrify you and it is a genuine horror film.

Sadly, on the whole, I think people like to revel in the familiar and would gladly trade being genuinely scared for something they know (the perpetual revisiting of franchises being proof). They don't like to be challenged and as a result, I think the horror genre as a whole suffers, with many indie artists falling by the wayside as a result. I don't know if its a continued dumbing down of culture and people as a whole, but it certainly feels that way to me.

Jeff Allard said...

J.D., PoT - thanks for the comments! And PoT, I promise that one of these days I'll force myself to watch Martyrs!

Penh said...

My favorite horror movies involve mystery. Films like The Last Winter or Shallow Ground, where you don't know what the hell the threat is, and thus don't know what it's capable of, can be truly scary in a way that conventional monsters or slashers just can't be. Paranormal Activity worked so well for me because of the gradual revelation of the extent of the demon/spirit's powers. It conjured up a real sense of dread that is sorely lacking in horror movies these days (of course, that was all ruined if you watched the trailer, but that's Hollywood for you). Remember in Aliens when Ripley asked, "So who's laying these eggs?" and you said "Ohhhhhhhhh FUCK"? You can't do that with familiar characters like Freddy and Jason because there's nothing left to do with them, and they weren't exactly full of surprises to start with. They can be inventive with their kills and generous with the blood spray, but you're never going to be left wondering what's going to happen next, and without that, they're just not scary. I think calling such movies "comfort food" is pretty apt, since their appeal really is that you know exactly what you're going to get before the movie starts. There's nothing terribly wrong with that, but if you spend every night eating the same stuff you had the night before, you're going to miss out on a whole damn lot.

Marty said...

Nice essay, Jeff. Well thought-out. Good points. Publishable.

Jeff Allard said...

Penh, there's not much mystery to be found in franchises - which I guess is why they're so appealing to so many people! I get it - especially with people who aren't that savvy about horror movies. Seeing a name they already know makes buying a ticket seem like a safer bet.

And Marty, thanks!

theverysmallarray said...

All the above, I think, is why a certain number of bad, or at least poorly made horror films get attention from true fans. It's like free jazz or why David Lynch has a career-that feeling of "you've got to be putting me on, let's see that again." Where I live, Holy-Rollers have five or six channels of their own on regular television, and it all just seems so patently absurd, and actually far more frightening than any movie I have ever seen. But if I come across it I can't stop watching, even if I'm bitching the whole time.