Why do we like to be scared? – the psychology of horror

As Halloween quickly approaches, I find myself dipping deeper into the pool of horror films, books and media that always seems to be present, any time of year you go looking for them. I didn’t come to love horror organically, as an over anxious child and teen I was somehow drawn to true crime documentaries, sneaking peeks at the coverage of the OJ Simpson trial, and staying up late to watch E! “Murders of Hollywood”. My first experience with horror movies was staying up in my friends living room, her German Shepard was half blocking my view of The Ring on VHS, which was particularly ironic. So why do we seek out things that scare us, instead of those that comfort us?

The easy answer is : We like to be safe. If we expose ourselves to things that scare us in a safe environment, it’s like going on a roller coaster. Your endorphins spike, your heart rate races, but in two minutes it’s over, you’re back on solid ground. I’d rather know how horrible the world can be so I can prepared for what actually goes bump in the night.

The Horror of It All is a memoir from the front lines of the industry that dissects the hugely popular genre of scary movies.

Horror movies and novels are much the same. People chose entertainment because they want to be affected. You choose a romance novel because you want to feel the giddy rush of love, you choose action because you want to feel excitement. Horror is another sensation driven genre. You want to experience the rush with none of the consequences of the situation, which lets you enjoy the sensation and adrenaline spike. Quoted from a 2004 paper in the Journal of Medical Psychology by Dr. Glen Walters “the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unreal-ism.”(Walters, 2004)

So if you’re like me and looking for a thrill (while at the same time being wrapped up in a blanket fort for safety) then you’ve come to the right place for some recommendations. All of the things I recommend are available for checkout at the Cheshire Public Library, so let’s tuck in to my favorite genre:

hereditary_xlg.jpgHereditary  – When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited. Making his feature debut, writer-director Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage gone to hell.

This movie is fantastic, Ari Aster is a master of portraying agony in a way I haven’t seen in any other movie thus far. His characters experience the broadest range of emotion, and each scene is raw and beautifully acted. It’s really a treat to watch, both for the performances, and the scares. Prepare to have expectations subverted with this movie, Ari Aster is one to watch as a newcomer to the horror genre, and A24 is producing some outstanding content as well. If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself to Hereditary, as well as his newest film, Midsommar.

The Stand – The Stand takes place in a post-apocalyptic world triggered by the breakdown of society following the release of a biological weapon. The weapon is a virulent strain of influenza that decimates the population. It follows a few key characters across the United States, attempting to survive and make peace with the people they’ve become after the world has ended. It has elements of horror, elements of suspense, and in my opinion it’s one of the best post apocalyptic fiction novels ever written. Above all else though, it’s a thoughtful, well paced book. (One can’t have a list of horror titles and not mention King at least once, if not multiple times – The Tommyknockers, Salem’s Lot, The Shining…) The characters feel real and well flushed out, and the antagonist is ominous without becoming comic. It’s my go-to summer read, and I keep a paperback copy in my car at all times, so I can dip back in whenever the mood strikes, which is often.

I saw Gone Girl  before I had read the book (I know, the cardinal sin) and I had no context going into it. Gone girl? Sounds like a witty comedy about a girl who’s traveling cross country! I was very wrong. I had no idea about the twists (which I will keep to myself) and I had no idea what a treat I’d be in for when I read the book. They both play off each-other beautifully, and the book is written with punch and one liners that stick with you. The cool girl speech (look it up) is worth the price of the paperback alone. You should definitely treat yourself to this book, as well as Gillian Flynn’s two other titles Dark Places and Sharp Objects.

If you’re looking for something with real world ties, look no further than the masterpiece that is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by the late Michelle McNamara. McNamara devoted a larger part of her life to sitting up in her daughters old playroom, surrounded by stuffed animals and tracking who would be come to known as the Golden State Killer. Sure she had a day job, but she also somehow convinced retired detectives from the case to send over boxes of case files. She went over phone records, emails, connected leads to perps, and made some of the most important headway the case had seen since it’s beginning in 1976. The case had been unsolved for ten years, and just recently closed with the arrest of a 73 year old Joseph Deangelo, a retired policeman. The book is well written, well researched, and fascinating if you want to know more about detective work, but never had the stomach to do it yourself. You feel yourself dissecting the facts along with Michelle, and the fact that she died before the case was solved makes the ending all the more poignant. It’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of true crime and cases being solved.

Dipping into horror as a person with a chronically small comfort zone is more than just a little ironic. It’s taken me twenty five years to accept that strange part of myself, as a small portion of a largely complex whole. As an artist, a writer, and a creative, I find the darkness just as interesting as the light. Luckily, there are plenty of people who agree with me, and the horror genre is booming. Last summer, horror films accounted for 10% of cinema visits by moviegoers under 30-years-old. I’ll support any genre that encourages its artists and producers to push boundaries and visuals, and luckily, horror is doing just that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childhood Horrors

Sometime ago in the mists of the last century, there were only three TV networks. On holidays, you usually had the choice of a football game, a different football game, or the longest movies the network could find – usually Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music.  Chitty, an overly technicolor musical, scared the daylights out of me. As soon as that Childcatcher came prowling, I was behind the sofa holding my breath. Today’s kids would just send his photo to Instagram and beat him up.

Children see things differently. Some are easily spooked, some are skeptical from birth. Kids misunderstand and misinterpret things, and that alone can create unfounded horror.

Obviously, most children’s films try to avoid horror, but what’s marketed to kids is not always Barney and Big Bird – few Grimm’s Fairy Tales end happily ever after. Poltergeist –  ghosts, demons, peeling faces, and evil clowns in child-swallowing glowing closets – was only rated PG. PG, because PG-13 hadn’t been invented yet.

Young Sherlock Holmes (the food nightmare) scarred one of my children; to this day she won’t eat cream puffs. Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and its disembodied heads was another. Another didn’t trust Nazgûl (nor should you), and was terrified by Matilda. The 1971 Alastair Sim animated A Christmas Carol, with its writhing starving waifs and the faceless, voiceless Ghost of Christmas Future taints every incarnation I’ve seen since.

If your child likes spooky things and wants to be a part of the Addams family, here’s a list of kid’s films – honest! – that just might give your kid the shivers. If you have a child with a more sensitive nature, you might want to wait a few years on these:

Toy Story – Oh, doll-headed spider and hook-bodied Barbie, how we hate you! You may be Pixar, but you’re scary!

Coraline – Creepy button-eyed fake parents trying to steal a child?  Hmm….

Labyrinth – Sure, we adore Bowie, but these are Muppets who steal babies, chase girls with drill bits with intent to kill, and drop people into pits lined with talking disembodied hands. ‘Nuff said.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Disney likes to whistle and pretend this isn’t theirs, but Ray Bradbury didn’t edit the scariness out of his novel of two boys and an evil carnival run by Mr. Dark, complete with electrocutions and freakshow.

Who Framed Roger RabbitBut this is a comedy! you cry – and it is, until crying Toons get faced with The Dip. Be prepared for a talk on death.

Return to Oz – if the flying monkeys didn’t scare you, perhaps Dorothy’s electroshock treatments will.

Jumanji – sure, it’s a game, but a deadly one. Floors that swallow people are just some of the issues; the intensity and situations may be too much entirely for young viewers.

Harry Potter series – yes, the first one is a charming tale of an orphan boy who learns he’s a wizard, but the stories get darker, and major beloved characters start dying. By the third film, Voldemort is embodied evil and believably out to get Muggles. Like your child.

The Dark CrystalFraggle Rock it’s not. It’s a dark Muppet film with lots of dark themes. Preteens maybe, but there’s no Elmo to lighten it for the little kids.

Gremlins – another movie made before PG-13, so it was stuck with PG. Gremlins are cute little things until you feed them, and then they become psychopathic demons out to harm and kill.  If preteen horror films was a separate genre, this would be one of their cornerstones, along with perhaps The Witches, Watcher in the Woods, and Jaws (which is also only PG).

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – let’s face it, Roald Dahl is almost never nice to children. Here alone, he sucks them up pipes, dumps them down garbage chutes, and has them cornered by very scary men in dark alleys asking them to sell their souls for money. But the crowning touch cited by many critics is the boat ride  scene, all psychedelic and threatening – but that’s the way it is in the book, too – a disorienting journey where everyone believes Wonka’s looney.

Every parent knows their child best. Some kids like a scary movie, some kids will wind up sleeping in your bed for a week with all the lights on. If your kid shows interest in scary movies, these might be a gentler introduction over, say, The Exorcist. Just be aware that even a seemingly wholesome, kid-marketed movie can have some really scary moments when you least expect it.

From Apocalypse to Zombies

imagesThe concept of dead people returning to life is probably as old as civilization. Ancient Egypt and mummies aside, Child Ballads such as The Unquiet Grave and The Usher’s Wife (Lady Gay) date back to at least the 1400’s. It’s arguable that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) may be considered the first literary zombie (barring Lazarus), a man made of dead parts brought back to life, even if he wasn’t after brains.

The true zombie was born in 1968 with the release of George A. Romero’s cult classic Night of the Living Dead, about 0043396771796_p0_v2_s192x300grisly undead ghouls who feasted on human flesh – the term zombie hadn’t really been invented yet. Made for a paltry $114,000, filmed in black and white, it contained a level of violence and gore never before seen. There was only one problem – the MMPA rating system wouldn’t be in place for another month: Night of the Living Dead, the most gruesome movie ever made at that time, was essentially a General Audience film, and unsuspecting children (and adults) were never the same again.

ZombiesurvivalguideFor a few decades, hard core zombies were relegated to third-rate theaters and 2 am film slots, but began to stagger slowly into the mainstream. Although you have favorites like Scooby Doo at Zombie Island (1998), “Modern” zombies – those whose roots are usually virus-oriented – surged in popularity with the graphic novel The Walking Dead (2003), which spawned the highly popular television series The Walking Dead (2010-present). This was followed by the spoof Shaun of the Dead (2004), the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War which became a major film in 2013, and a veritable epidemic of zombie books, television shows, and films, including The Zombie Survival Guide, The Zombie Combat Manual, and The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse. Strangely, these books are more serious than they should be. Even the Centers for Disease Control got in on it, posting their preparedness recommendations for dealing with zombies in 2011 in a push to get people to be prepared for disasters .

If you’re hard core, of course stick to the masters:  Night of the Living Dead, and Day of MV5BMjEyMzMxNzA5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTkxNjMxMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_the Dead. If you’re nerves can’t handle that (like mine), there are plenty of other choices that are less gory or  humorous. Zombieland is an A-list take on the issue that is full of humor and lower on gore. Maggie stars Arnold Schwartzenegger in probably his most serious role ever, as a father whose daughter is slowly becoming a zombie. Z Nation is an enjoyable TV series that isn’t quite as serious as The Walking Dead. The Last Ship is a new television series about a group who survives the apocalypse on a boat, and tries to round up survivors.

prideprejudicesmall1If you only like classical literature, fear not. Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies will not leave you behind. There is a book and a newly released DVD, which is utterly delightful, full of classic period speech and women in romantic Empire gowns slicing zombies with ninja skill. Slightly different but still in the realm of classic undead, give Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a try. Like your films completely different? No mention of zombies would be complete without some reference to Michael Jackson’s 1983 Thriller video, which, at 13 minutes, would qualify as a short film.

Whether you take them seriously ozombieland2_758_426_81_s_c1r not, whether your zombies are what they are because of curses or disease, whether you like to watch saws cut through flesh or you’re battling nuisance zombies on a quest to find the last box of Twinkies, there’s a zombie book or film for you.

I (Finally) Read “It”

I am not a fan of horror. I would not shut the shower door for ten years because Kolchak: The Night Stalker scared the daylights out of me. My father’s description of the movie Killdozer made me terrified of construction equipment – as if I wasn’t already, from a preschool nightmare involving dump trucks. I watched the original 1931 Dracula and got a bloody nose in sympathy. I won’t sleep in a room with a vacuum cleaner thanks to Zenna Henderson. I like sleeping at night, and I don’t need any more anxiety in my life. I have kids for that.

ZX0AYe8 It was my mother who got me reading Stephen King. I was about twelve, sick in bed, and Night Shift, his book of short stories, came out. Wouldn’t you know it, the light from the bathroom at night struck every knob on the dresser at just the right angle so each one looked like an eye staring at me, just like the cover story. I only dared read half of them, and never enjoyed going to the dry cleaners again. But I read The Shining (I will NOT go into a hotel bathroom without a light on), read The Stand (his best, I think), Cujo, The Dead Zone (more my style), Firestarter (I needed a book for the train back from Canada) and Christine (Like I didn’t suspect that already). One thing you can say about King without ever reading his books: he doesn’t write short volumes.

Jacket.aspxBut by Christine, I was Kinged out. The books were were getting to be too similar, and I moved on. That was how I missed reading It, the book everyone seems afraid of. I avoided it for the longest time, but it popped up in a series of references this year, and I decided the time had come to tackle it. I’d re-read The Stand, and The Shining, but nothing new of King’s in 30 years.

“It” tells the story of an evil presence that takes over4775612-3278691654-IT.jp the town of Derry, Maine, until a ragtag band of seven misfit children decide to take it on. Although the entity takes the shape of what scares a person most (werewolves, mummies, giant birds, etc), it often lures children to their deaths by taking the shape of a clown, Pennywise. I’ve never been afraid of clowns, though I understand the psychology behind it (like Daleks, you can’t read a clown’s frozen face, and it makes some people uneasy). I’m still not afraid of clowns; but I’m now nervous about balloons. Calling the evil “It” is a brilliant stroke of semantics – think of all the times you use the pronoun It: It was calling me. I tripped over It. It snuck up on me. I’m scared of it. You can’t help it; you can’t escape it. You talk about it all the time. Because you know it’s there. “It” can be anything, and you know it to be true.

But for everything anyone told me about the book, I think this is his worst that I’ve read. He’s written 55 novels, 200 short stories, comic books, films, has awards oozing out his ears – he knows what he’s doing. I don’t mind the back and forth nature of the story, bouncing between 1958 and 1985. The characters and style are classic King, but it is soooo long (1100+ pages), it really, really could have had sections of character description cut. It drags in places. It’s not the length: Game of Thrones is 1200 pages, scatmanbut I read it with more gusto. King’s name-dropping of characters from his other works grated on me. One is cool, but not several. Don’t stick Dick Hallorann in your book, a man with a strong sense of Shining (or, if you’re a Simpsons fan, Shinnin’), and have a catastrophe or a presence about that he doesn’t get ESP on. You laid Hallorann out in detail in The Shining; you let him drift in It. Sometimes the action is too cartoonish: having a victim’s head pop out of a box on a spring and go boing ruins my tension. I understand it might be appropriate to scare a child, but I’m not a child. Dolores Claiborne smashing my ankles with a sledgehammer makes me lie awake in a sweat all night. Cartoon boings don’t. I won’t tell the ending, but after fighting tooth and nail to wade through 1100 pages, I wanted more of a bang for my effort. The original Stand was 800 pages or so, and that ended with a nuclear explosion.

Yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t criticize King because he’s one of the most successful novelists images itof our time, and I don’t disagree with his talent. But perhaps he set his own bar too high. No one – not even Shakespeare – hits the nail of perfection every time. From the man who brought you Stand By Me, The Green Mile, Under the Dome, and so many, many wonderful tales, I just don’t think it’s his best.

What do you think is King’s best work – book or film?