One of my four-year-old son Owen's most requested activities is to watch horror previews on YouTube. Mostly we watch old-school monster movie stuff, with some newer material on occasion. But in the process of warping his mind, I got to thinking about the easy access to horror that YouTube provides and whether it's a dangerous detriment to the genre's mystique. It's one thing to be able to pull up trailers but to be able to see random scenes out of context is something that can't help but degenerate the sensibilities of viewers.
Like every other young movie buff who grew up in the pre-home video age, I would scout the TV listings each week looking to see when classic films would be airing and make sure I was in front of the TV to watch them. To know that, say, Psycho would be on at 4 o'clock on Tuesday made it into an event. And in the specific case of Psycho, waiting for the shower scene was a source of obvious anticipation - to know that this infamous scene was coming and that I'd better be paying attention because once it was over I'd have to wait until the movie repeated maybe several months later to see it again. The fact that anyone who hasn't seen Psycho today who wants to satisfy their curiosity can go to YouTube, watch the shower scene and then move on to answering their e-mail strikes me as incredibly dispiriting.
I'm sure people old enough to have seen Psycho in theaters in 1960 would say that it wasn't the same experience to watch Psycho on TV with commercials and so on and while that's surely true, that seems ideal compared to watching it in bits and pieces on a computer - or on a phone, for that matter.
For past generations of kids, a large part of horror's allure was that it was inaccessible - a forbidden fruit. Either you couldn't get into theaters for R-rated movies or your parents didn't have cable or a VCR or else they did have all that but they closely monitored the television. That might sound like it sucked but to my mind, that early drive to have to find ways to watch horror movies - that need to be patient, resourceful, and dedicated - instilled a sense of passion that remains at the heart of many adult fan's ongoing love of the genre.
Now everything is just a click away - even the likes of Cannibal Holocaust or Zombie. Horror hungry kids don't even have to beg their parents to stay up late, to lie about what they're up to, or ask for money for a video rental. It used to be a real adventure to go to the video store to find a Fulci movie or some Italian cannibal flick (and to try and watch it someplace without any parents getting wise) but now anyone can watch the zombie vs. shark fight in Zombie on their computer with no hassle. I ask you - where's the romance in that?
I was so determined to see horror movies as a kid that I'd try to watch R-rated movies through the static of cable channels that my parents didn't subscribe to. Now if anyone wants to see Linda Blair spewing pea soup in The Exorcist or the chest-burster from Alien, the clips are out there 24/7. That's assuming, of course, that kids today even care about old crap that was notorious once upon a time. I'm sure they've moved on to much harder material.
Horror ultimately depends on context to work - from a classic like The Haunting (1963) to the cheesiest Saw sequel. While I think it's still possible to scare audiences today and that the internet can have a hand in generating excitement for a film (as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity proved), the age of YouTube could threaten to turn horror into a Greatest Hits collection. When future generations wonder why so many horror movies don't have the same impact that they did on earlier audiences, it won't be so much a case of "you had to be there to understand" but only that you just had to watch the damn movie.