Friday, February 15, 2008

Why I Love Horror Movies

I love horror movies and some people just don't get that. These people think that horror movies are stupid and not scary. Normally, I think that these people are stupid and not scary, but for the first time, I'm going to try and verbalize my love of the horror genre, and I'm going to try to verbalize it into words.

First off, there is a term floating around in the English department of your local community college that goes a little somethin' a like this: suspension of disbelief. It is, in its most base terms, what happens when you ignore the fantasic, like you're reading a book about space aliens invading Earth, watching a movie where people act like Drew Berrymore is attractive, or playing a video game where you're a hero of the guitar. In terms of horror movies, this is the point where you forget that little drowned boys do not attack campers and aliens can't pop out of someone's chest.

The suspension of disbelief is an integral part of enjoying any form of entertainment at any time, but for some reason, people have a hard time getting past this in horror movies. So let me say this: I watch horror movies with the aim of being scared. Crazy, I know. If you were to sit-in on a romance movie, and prior to the opening credits decided that you don't believe Eva Mendez could ever love a no-good, rotten liar like Will Smith, well then, Hitch ain't the movie for you. That also makes an intelligent person, by that's neither here nor there.

For some reason, people tend to do this in horror movies on purpose. Don't deny it. We all have. Hell, even I do it, depending on whether or not I'm seeing the movie by myself, with my friends, or with females (ranked in ascending order of likelihood.) So I guess the first rule for enjoying your typical horror movie is shut the fuck up and watch it. Prior to watching a horror movie, I set myself up to be scared, I plan for it to happen, and I suggest you do the same. This might sound like a lot of hard work, but you do it for every other genre you watch, I assure you. When you sit down to a comedy, you don't want to cry, you want to laugh. When you sit down to a drama, you want to cry and then laugh. When you sit down to Blue Collar Comedy Rides Again, you want to ignore all human decency in the world and enjoy a good old-fashioned poop joke like a five-year-old.

The next thing that fascinates me about the horror genre is the psychology of fear itself, specifically the idiosyncratic nature of it.

Let me explain. Assuming that a movie from a genre like drama is flawless in its execution, we should all feel the same thing, correct? If we all enjoy the movie Free Willy equally, we should all feel happy when the stupid whale jumps over 2 feet of rocks. If there's an animal lover in the audience, they might feel just a bit happier than the rest of us, but they won't achieve a new zenith of happiness. It will still be the same emotion as the rest of us, but just slightly stronger. Not so in horror.

No matter how much I want to, and no matter how hard I try, a killer in a mask with a knife or a chainsaw or the ball-washer from golf courses will not scare me. I'm sorry, but it just ain't happening. A monster, on the other hand, or a creepy Japanese girl, those are scary. (I think probably because deep down I'm a pessimist, and if you tell me there's a killer in the woods, the only thing I can think about is how much it would suck if that killer were also a vampire.) And that's just who I am. My friend Alex isn't frightened by the ghost of an 11-year-old Asian, but he is scared of disturbing family scenes (ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hamiltons). My friend Kyle needs a mop nearby if he watches The Exorcist, because he will most likely piss himself, and I could go on and on.

Comedy works in the same way, but I think that's the end of it. Again, assuming that it's a good movie, we should all enjoy, say, a romance movie the same way. But some jokes are lost are some people, and this just can't be helped.

The fact is, we're all scared of something and the trick is discovering what that is, because what we're scared of says a lot about us as people. My experience with psychology is limited, but I like to take a guess sometimes. For instance, Cloverfield was probably less about giant monsters and more about 9/11, and there's much to be said about fear of vampires (cannibalism and the perversion of motherhood come to mind.) Whereas most movies aim to be all things to all people, horror movies aim to be one thing to some people.

And finally, I believe that horror movies are the closest thing to art in film today. I will vehemently fight for this stance. If you watch a movie like Free Willy, you have to realize that there are a multitude of scenes that can be shot and performed in several different ways, and as long as it's nothing too crazy, the end result is still the same, for the most part.

I say "for the most part" because the way a film is shot does affect the way we feel about it, but the fact is, most directors and cinematographers choose safer routes most of the time. If anyone recalls the scene in Pulp Fiction where Marcellus Wallace is talking to Butch in the bar, this is an example of a unique piece of camera work. Despite the fact that they're having a conversation (albeit one-sided) the focus remains on Butch and occasionally the back of Wallace's head. I'm sure you've seen many, many conversations between two people occur in movies, but this one stands out for the originality of the cinematography.

Now, in a good horror movie, the way it's shot makes a huge difference, not a little difference, a huge difference. I just got done watching Psycho, so I'll use that as an example. The very famous shower scene begins with an elevated shot of the woman in the shower and a view of the door to the bathroom opening through the shower curtain. If the shot was that of the outside of a shower curtain, watching the door open, it would have been entirely different (a better view of the killer, for instance, and a lack of connection with the woman in the shower) or maybe the camera is behind the killer (who are you rooting for now?) or maybe you can't see past the shower curtain to view the hand holding the knife, but can see the new light source from an open door. I could do this for days, but my point is this: There is an infinite number of ways to shoot any given scene and only a finite number to achieve the desired effect. In a horror movie, that finite number is much, much smaller, because creating an atmosphere of fear is much harder than anything else.

I suppose what I'm getting at is this: There are multitudinous factors at play when determining if a movie is good or not, and this is true of all movies. I think that all these factors skate on very thin ice in horror movies, which is why a good horror movie is a much better find. Think back to that scene in Pulp Fiction where the two characters are having a conversation. Is it a well-shot scene? Hell yes. Would the movie be any different if it were shot any differently? Not by much. And that's an example of a good scene. Think of how many mediocre scenes you've watched which had an even smaller effect on the movie as a whole.

Now, contrast this with one of the opening scenes in An American Werewolf in London. Our lead characters are stumbling through a dark moor, and think that something is following them. The camera would seem to indicate that they are all alone, as all you see is the two guys and darkness. At the end of the scene, a werewolf emerges, quite literally out of nowhere, and the resulting camera work is nothing but chaos. If you changed that scene in even a small way, it would be completely different. There is a big difference between thinking that a monster is after you and knowing that there is. There is a small difference between looking at one man during a conversation and looking at both of them.

This is turning into one of those situations where I think I've written too much and nobody has taken the time to make it to the end of this article. There can be entire volumes written on the subjects that I've touched upon here, especially the psychology of fear, but I think I'll abruptly end this article here. I will leave you with one final thought though: How does the whale know that the ocean is on the other side of the rocks, huh? He can't see over the wall, so for all he knows, there's just more rocks or maybe even a desert. I'd imagine whales don't like the desert too much. Or is he just jumping because the boy lifted his arm up and told him to? And if that's the case, well then this is a stupid whale and it's probably going to get captured again by someone with a raised hand and a net. I'm just saying, that's a lot of good food that's gone to waste by freeing it.
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