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.