Yesterday a friend of mine asked me what I believe the scariest movie of all time is. This is a very complicated question, but also a very appropriate question as we’re all gearing up for our own personal Halloween film festivals throughout the month of October. The first thing to consider is personal bias vs objectivity; am I answering the question of what has been successful at scaring large groups of people, or more simply put, the average scariest film? Or is my answer only what has frightened me? If I am only speaking from my own experiences with horror, things become even more complexly layered.
I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I’m fascinated by the topic of what it is that makes a fictional creation scary; what it is exactly that makes us squirm when we watch a film. So I’m kicking off this year’s You Won Cannes-oween coverage with some suggestions on how to freak yourself out. Over the month of October we’ll be reviewing lots of horror films, from new exciting indie horror to old-school video nasties, and lots of weird stuff that you may not have had on your radar in between.
If you recall, last year I attempted to watch and review 50 horror films. And I failed.
For me, pinpointing what scares me starts with my cultural bias: I am a mid-20s American female. My background of when, where, and how I grew up factors in heavily, along with my personal beliefs. Then there’s all the personal experiences that have shaped me. What’s been a threat to me? What can I relate to most? What gets my adrenaline going?
I like to imagine horror films for early mankind. It’s just footage of snakes, storms, and big birds. And a whole audience of hominids are losing their shit in the same way my companions and I kicked the seats in front of us and shrieked and squealed in terror the first time we saw The Orphanage.
I also think a person’s spiritual beliefs have a huge impact on their reaction to horror films; the genre spans from the scientific, to the supernatural, to the completely religious based. Horror might be the only place in cinema where this breadth of topics and ideologies is not only feasible, but commonplace. Someone might laugh at The Exorcist or another movie about demonology and possession while pissing their pants watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and vice-versa. It’s dependent on what you interpret as real.
I know full well that I am both fascinated and highly disturbed by the subject of real death. There is an odd line drawn in my brain that I cannot cross comfortably. It exists somewhere between the fabrication of real death, trying to push whatever the filmmaker has chosen to depict closer and closer into realism while still being a complete invention of fiction, and an actual portrayal of something tied to reality. To put it more bluntly, I am captivated by faux snuff that’s been completely invented for a narrative, but deeply disturbed by graphic war films. I’ve watched the Guinea Pig Series with a big grin on my face, but balked at the notion of viewing Men Behind the Sun or Andrey Iskanov’s Philosophy of a Knife. Or, considering the two examples I thought up are about the exact same thing, maybe I’m just really scared of WW2’s Japanese Army Unit 731. Then again, it’s nothing to do with war, but that it’s a recreation of something that actually happened, where real people were hurt.
Horror evokes a mix of emotions, and many will argue the test of true horror is its ability to cause dread in a viewer. This is much of the reason the classic monster films were so successful, they depict a new something, an impossible and unseen creation in a world unlike much of anything. The incomprehensible is one of the best causes of true dread. My concept of what constitutes as horror is more relaxed than most; I feel horror spans from dread, to shock, to repulsion. Yet when it comes to being really and inexplicably frightened, I find the supernatural affects me on a very deep level. To lose control of yourself and your world to something from outside the realm of standard human existence is a terrifying idea.
Equally to everything else I’ve mentioned, context plays a huge role in fear. It’s much of the reason older films won’t frighten younger viewers as much. We’ve already been told and shown too much to experience the classics freshly. Despite the waning effectiveness of older cinema, so many of the films that scared you when you were a kid still leave such a lasting impression. I didn’t become enamored with horror until I was about 15 years old, but a 10 year old me had an experience accidentally watching the first half of An American Werewolf in Paris, I repeat, PARIS, that sticks with me over a decade later. I have a ridiculous nostalgia for that movie, and revisiting it now, it’s clearly not the traumatizing peek into hell I thought I’d had as a child.
This has actually just been a very long intro for a list of the top eight movies that scared me so badly I was left sleepless, and why. I’ll be publishing my list shortly, and over the next few weeks, come back for more reviews and more essays from our writers. If you’d like to contribute to this open conversation on horror, fear, and Halloween (which is the best holiday ever and just so you know, October is a month-long and all of that is Halloween), You Won Cannes would love to hear your voice. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org