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Since Halloween is a week away, I thought "Horror Film Theory" might make for a nice late-night change of pace. I've done this diary in past years around this time, and it's always interesting to see what scares people.

Fear is an emotion that reflects our anxiety, paranoia and response to the world around us. Over the centuries, humanity has created stories to tell one another, expressing either individual or societal anxieties, whether it be what lurks in the dark or global apocalypse. Sometimes the scariest things in movies or books is not only the killer, monster, or demon jumping out of the dark, but it can also be about the mundane or the scariness of normal that you don't really see or think about. Some of the best works of literature & film scare people with what they can get the viewer or reader to imagine to be behind the creaking door, without ever spelling out what was really behind the door, or even if there was really anything behind the door. For a little kid, what lurks underneath their bed can be anything the fear of their mind can imagine. The best horror films & literature brings people back to that point for the story.

So with that in mind, what do you think is the scariest movie ever?

In C.S. Lewis' novel "The Screwtape Letters," there's a moment where a Demon worries that a true victory over the forces of God may be fundamentally impossible. His lament being based on the idea that "evil" is really a perversion of "good." Without good's existence, there can be no perversion & therefore no evil.

If you think about it, that same dynamic is at the core of most scary stories. They're all based around the idea of something disturbing (or perverting) our normal concepts of how things are supposed to be. It might be a house that's making noises, moving things and trying to eat a little girl. Or maybe there's something in the woods other than deer & squirrels. Or it could be a human being who is not quite as human as they're supposed to be for some reason or another.

Horror is a Genre of fiction that exploits the Primal Fears of viewers with things ranging from the Uncanny Valley, Body Horror, and Suspense to cause the viewer anxiety, fear, and ultimately thrills. It uses various Horror Tropes to cause these effect; however, partly due to the rise in complexity of Special Effects, overuse, and viewer desensitization, several of these are now cliché.
Beyond that, in horror movies bad things happen to the characters if they break certain rules:
  • Teenagers + Alcohol & Drug Use = They Will Die.
  • People being terrorized by weird shit happening in their home will care more about their mortgage than their children, and will stay inside of the house that is literally screaming for them to "GET OUT!"
  • When the shit hits the fan, instead of running out the front door when confronted by serial killer/monster/alien, characters will instead find a way to trap themselves inside their domicile by running up the stairs, or into dark basements & closets.
  • As a general rule, having a party in a horror movie is very bad. While it might seem like a good idea to get peoples' minds off of the killing & mayhem that is taking place all around them, all the party usually does is pool the teenagers together to die as a group.
  • Since one of the things people do at parties is have "fun" in various ways, Teenagers + Premarital Sex = They Will Die.
  • Also, as your friends/family are being hacked to bits day after day, it just sets the mood and always the perfect time to have sex with the boyfriend (who may or may not be the killer).

The basic slasher film has its roots in a myriad of places. For example, how about Number 333 in the Aarne-Thompson classification system of Fairy Tales, otherwise known as the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood."

The fairy tale we know as Little Red Riding Hood is derived from two sources; Charles Perrault ("Mother Goose") and The Brothers Grimm. However, the story is much older than either of them, and, like a lot of well known fairy tales, in Little Red Riding Hood's original incarnations it's quite gruesome. In some of 'em, the Big Bad Wolf actually feeds the grandmother to a naive Little Red Riding Hood, and then gets her to disrobe & get in bed with him.

  • In The Brothers Grimm version, the girl and her grandmother were rescued by a passing hunter, and then proceed to fill the Wolf's belly with stones.
  • Perrault's version is noted for adding the "Red Hood," which takes on some symbolic significance since there is no happy ending for his Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood... The End. Perrault intended the story to be a moral to young women about "all wolves" who deceive. The redness of the hood has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of sin, sexual awakening, and lust.

Variations of almost every element of Little Red Riding Hood appears in modern horror movies. The Big Bad Wolf is the archetypal "slasher" villain; a predator who shows almost (or true) supernatural abilities to deceive & manipulate his victims, which are almost always mainly women. Throw in Perrault's sexual symbolism, and you have the virginal "Final Girl" of many horror films.
The simplest definition of this is "the last character left alive to confront the killer" in a slasher flick. The character in question tends to follow a certain set of characteristics. The most obvious one is being (almost) always female. She'll also almost certainly be a virgin, avoiding "Death by Sex," and probably won't drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or take drugs, either. Finally, she'll probably turn out to be more intelligent and resourceful than the other victims, occasionally even evolving into a type of "Action Girl" by the movie's end.

It's also interesting to note how the Final Girl can be interpreted in film theory. On one hand, the character seems to be the living embodiment of stereotypical conservative attitudes of what women "should be". On the other, feminists have noticed that through this device the mostly male audience (or...not) is forced to identify with a woman in the climax of the movie. In practical terms, the makers of a horror film want the victim to experience abject terror in the climax, and feel that viewers would reject a film that showed a man experiencing such abject terror.

Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre, argues that all horror stories are centered around keeping the status quo & a fear of the change, with the "change" represented by the force that has invaded the Norman Rockwell-esque family, house, community, etc. And since that force is killing off the characters who "sin" and the character who's "pure" survives, some have argued that there's elements of moral conservative messaging to the stories.

1978's 'I Spit On Your Grave' was (and arguably still is) very controversial, having been banned in a lot of countries. The controversy largely stems from a very graphic rape scene, and how you interpret the film. Is it a movie portraying the horrors of rape, and the revenge of a strong woman that's not going to take it? Or is it misogynistic trash that titillates its audience with sadism against a female protagonist?

"This woman has just cut, chopped, broken, and burned five men beyond recognition... but no jury in America would ever convict her!"
This has long been the dichotomy of the 70s/80s era exploitation films. Some Feminists saw sexism in the T&A or the acts of violence directed at the female characters. However, the other side of the argument is some of the exploitation films were also the first films to have strong female characters that weren't dependent on men to "save" them.

From a 2009 Los Angeles Times article on Feminism & Exploitation films:

"Even in the mid-'70s, the kind of proto-feminist element was being written about," said Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. "Feminist film scholars were writing about Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman, locating a feminist impulse in the standard plot, where you have these powerful, self-assertive, one might even use the term 'extremely aggressive' women who are wreaking vengeance against forces, people, men who are trying to keep them down."
However, not everybody saw it that way. For example, with 'I Spit On Your Grave,' Roger Ebert wrote a scathing review, calling it "an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures."
July 16, 1980

A vile bag of garbage named "I Spit on Your Grave" is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters, such as Plitt's United Artists. But it is. Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life.

This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship. There is no possible motive for exhibiting it, other than the totally cynical hope that it might make money. Perhaps it will make money: When I saw it at 11:20 a.m. on Monday, the theater contained a larger crowd than usual.

It was not just a large crowd, it was a profoundly disturbing one. I do not often attribute motives to audience members, nor do I try to read their minds, but the people who were sitting around me on Monday morning made it easy for me to know what they were thinking. They talked out loud. And if they seriously believed the things they were saying, they were vicarious sex criminals.

Back in 1980, Ebert & Gene Siskel devoted an entire show to "Women in Danger" films. During it, Siskel proposed the theory that these films were a reaction to the gains made by the women's movement, and fulfills a fantasy for some men of seeing a woman cowering and being "punished" whenever they have sex or do something un-lady like.

From TV Tropes' "Sorting Algorithm Of Mortality":

Some more horror movie rules...

  • If characters should be smart enough to run out the front door, brand new cars, which had no sign of problems earlier in the film, usually have problems starting.
  • Cellphones, flashlights and any equipment that might be helpful either will not work, will be lost in a stupid way, or be just out of reach.
  • Do NOT go into the bathroom!!! Bad shit lurks in bathtubs & behind shower curtains.
  • Do NOT go into the woods if you hear an eerie sound coming from that direction! Whatever it is can stay in the fucking woods. Let nature deal with it.
  • If the lights go out, do NOT look for the circuit breaker! Look for the damn door!
  • If something from outer space should land near you, instead of running the fuck away, idiots will be curious and run up & poke at it.
  • Apparently all evil monsters, aliens and serial killers are racists, since people of color hardly ever survive, and usually die first in horror movies.
  • Words that should never come out of your mouth: "Hey, did you hear that? It sounds like screaming and a death rattle coming from the other room. Let's Go Check It Out!"
  • If they should be dumb enough to "go check it out" and with a group larger consisting of more than 3 people, the characters will not do the logical thing of staying together when trying to escape from the haunted house, scary-ass woods or other place in the middle of nowhere. No, they must split up so they can "Cover More Ground" and be killed off one by one.
  • People over the age of 30 are useless. This includes the police, your parents and anyone of any authority. No matter how much evidence you may have that weird shit is happening, your parents will not believe you. In fact, the more you protest, the more they will think you are crazy and take actions that will indirectly help the killer to kill you (e.g. the parents in the 'Nightmare On Elm Street' films loading their kids up with sleeping pills).

That last bulletpoint is interesting in that a feature in a lot of scary stories/horror films (and literature in general) is "the chickens coming home to roost" and that adults have secrets & can't always protect you. Freddy Kreuger was burned by the parents of Springwood, Ohio and now exacts his malice on their children. Jason Vorhees drowned while his Crystal Lake camp counselors were off having sex. The two sisters at the center of the 'Paranormal Activity' films suffer from a demon because of a deal made by their grandmother. One interpretation of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' is that it's an allegory for Native American genocide.

This also gets back to some of the stuff in the "morality algorithm" above. In a lot of films, the victims become "damned" by their own actions. They do something that allows the audience to accept/understand their death because they "have it coming." (see Asshole Victim) For example, if you should ever be in a situation where you have a camera and weird shit starts happening that could possibly harm you or those around you, please for the love of God just PUT THE CAMERA DOWN and get the hell out!

This also comes into play with a lot of Science Fiction based Horror where great minds of science can't just leave good-enough alone, and end up opening up an inter-dimensional portal to a hell dimension, or the miracle cure ends up being a nasty killer virus or has some unforeseen side-effects, which leads into the last set of rules.

  • No matter how much a scientist is told their experiment is dangerous, this supposedly smart person will ignore all the warnings staring them in the face and proceed to horrifically mutate himself and others, or put the existence of every man, woman, and child in danger.
  • The character set-up at the beginning of the film as the town drunk/idiot/batshit crazy person will always know more than everyone else by the end of the film. In fact, at some point toward the end, he will explain the entire plot to the main character (and audience), as well as the motivation for the monster/killer.
  • Politicians and military leaders will bring in scientists to analyze the weird shit that is happening, and then proceed to ignore every bit of advice that said scientists offer.
  • The lead female character, who has done nothing but scream, run, and cry for 90% of the movie, will display a clever genius-level intellect by film's end, when confronting the unspeakable evil.
  • Nothing is ever truly dead, even when killed in the way that is supposed to kill it once & for all. Also, the protagonist who has spent the last hour running for their lives from the horrible menace that was trying to murder them, will nonchalantly turn their back on said psycho just because he/she/it is lying still.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Have you seen Cabin in the Woods? (7+ / 0-)

    I thought it did an excellent job making a very pointed criticism of horror movie tropes. Basically, if this is what our society enjoys watching, we don't really deserve to live.

    Proud supporter of actually prosecuting rape, even if it requires extradition!

    by zegota on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 08:08:02 PM PDT

    •  Although.... (7+ / 0-)

      By the analogy of the movie, "we" are not the humans in the story.

      We are actually the "ancient ones" who demand that the characters die in formulaic ways and get upset when things don't obey certain tropes.

      It's the reason that the one ancient one we see is human shaped.

      •  I love the moment near the end - (5+ / 0-)

        I guess this is a spoiler, but at this point in the thread we're far past that - when Sigourney Weaver says something like "the world will end in 5 minutes", which is, of course, right when the movie itself ends.  She was right, as far as their world goes.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 10:34:18 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The Other Great Thing In That Scene..... (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          pico, Crazycab214, avsp, mythatsme

          ....Is when she explains what's been happening, and tells the lead female character that she's "the virgin" in the sacrifice, and the character looks back at her in befuddlement since she's NOT a virgin.

          Weaver's character says something to the effect of "we work with what we have."

          In fact, NONE of the characters fit their respective horror trope roles, and are only manipulated into them based on the stereotypes of their appearance. For example, the movie begins by telling the audience that the lead female character is not a virgin, since she's discussing her affair with her professor.

    •  Cabin in the Woods was amazing (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rimjob, Crazycab214, avsp, mythatsme

      "Scream" was the first to try to be a self-aware horror movie, but Cabin in the Woods took it to another level.  Scream just had characters that were aware of scary movies.  The latter was more of an analysis of why horror movies are the way they are (its answer: because American audiences demand it).

      And it was thoroughly enjoyable.  I did not see the last half hour coming, but damn was it amazing.

  •  we enjoy to stimulate adrenaline rush (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, avsp

    from the fight or flight response to get the high that billions of years of evolution created within us and modern society with all our protection does not stimulate

    its either that or bungee jumping

  •  hitchcock (7+ / 0-)
    There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

    We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"

    In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 08:23:00 PM PDT

  •  Phantom of the Opera (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, avsp

    This story has been remade in numerous films and of course for the stage. I remember, a few decades ago, being scared shitless by the opening sequence of one of the film editions on TV, as the camera zoomed in on the phantom's mask, and then intense closeup on the eye.

    I think that was the 1962 film starring Herbert Lom. Now that my mind has been triggered by the memory, I'll have to go and look for the film and (shudder) verify my recollection.

    But what often gets under my skin is music. I can be alone in the house, partner away on business, with the lights down, and watch a scary movie, and visually I'm ok. But if the soundtrack is really ... creepy ... my skin starts to crawl.

    Perhaps slightly on an off-topic tangent, the single most skin-crawling music I can recall is not from the movies, but from TV. And oddly enough, not a horror series, but a courtroom drama series. Perry Mason, to be exact. That opening music got me every time...and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up right now just playing that back in my mind.

    Pardon me while I go turn up some lights.

    Anybody else get creeped out by music more than visuals?

    "Please proceed, Governor" - President Barack Obama, correctly sensing that RomneyBot 2012 is about to make a huge blunder on terrorist attacks.

    by lotac on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 08:23:43 PM PDT

  •  Supernatural horror doesn't do it for me (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    crose, avsp

    I try, but I just can't suspend disbelief as easily as I could when I was younger. Or maybe it's my sci-fi bias, since movies like Alien and even Prometheus still get a jump out of me! :-D

    The scariest thing in the world are other people; we're all familiar enough with history and the news to know in ever-greater, ever-more disturbing detail, what twisted individuals do to their victims. Reports of these heinous actions don't scare me, they make me angry.

    I don't fear strangers, but I'm always wary of them. Unfortunately, strangers will always be scary to some degree, which means xenophobia and racism, and the crimes they prompt, will never be totally eliminated.

    Sorry, back on topic! Scariest movie for me: Silence of the Lambs.

    •  Most horror supernatural depends on you knowing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Berkeley Fred, avsp

      and maybe at some level believing in a certain set of theological  myths. Holy water, power of two sticks in shape of cross, etc. These movies are only saved by really horrific creatures and really likable protagonists.

      I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

      by OHdog on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 09:08:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Scariest movie to me? - '1984' (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Berkeley Fred, walkshills, avsp

    I can't get scared by supernatural thrillers, because I know there's no such things as ghosts, demons, vampires, etc. 'Slasher' movies just sicken me - watching innocent young people get brutally butchered is not entertainment.

    But films firmly grounded in possible realities that I can actually see happening are REALLY horrifying to me, and boy can I imagine '1984'!

    PS - my all-time favorite horror movie is a Hammer film from the '60s, 'Quatermass and The Pit' (also known as 'Five Million Years to Earth' in the US), about a Martian invasion of giant insects from five million years ago! Keep your 'Citizen Kane', to me this is the greatest movie ever.

    (romney)/RYAN 2012 - Look at those clouds. It's beautiful. Just look at those things!

    by Fordmandalay on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 08:46:37 PM PDT

    •  You said it better than I did (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      walkshills, avsp

      Have yet to read or see Fahrenheit 451, but I know enough about it that it scares the shit out of me.

      Of course, by that criteria the scariest movie of all-time is...
      Idiocracy! :D

    •  Loved Quatermass! (0+ / 0-)

      It was scary, not because of the invading insects, but the mind control. I think that's one of my fear triggers. Plus, the mind control emanated from a religious/Nazi kind of social-emotional conditioning-- definitely in the realm of the possible!

  •  Killer Klowns from Outer Space. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SamLoomis, pico, Rimjob, walkshills, avsp

    Seriously - it's hilarious, but it's also some of the darkest shit ever made.  As luck would have it, the whole movie is on Youtube:

    The only horror movie that only really scared me though (after childhood) was the Blair Witch Project.  The ending where she's screaming at the top of her lungs and then it just cuts off instantly and the camera falls to the ground with total silence following...that's chilling.

    I would like to a horror movie that just completely flips the bird to slasher conventions though.  One where the modest, chaste, "normal" characters get whacked first, and the final survivor is a pot-smoking nympho.

    Voter suppression is treason.

    by Troubadour on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 08:47:06 PM PDT

    •  Remake of The Blob did this when the blond (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Troubadour, avsp

      football captain type gets absorbed and the somewhat punkish, JDish Kevin Dillon character becomes the hero.

      I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

      by OHdog on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 09:04:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Iconic scenes of fright (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, avsp

    Like the Shape sitting up and turning his head -
    The first kill in Jaws
    The shower scene
    The Shining twin girls
    The first crawler in The Descent
    Any scene from Exorcist

    That is what lingers in me when I watch horror. Those primal images that haunt you long after you leave the film behind.

  •  Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (0+ / 0-)

    More disturbing than scary.

    "It strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems" - Kurt Vonnegut

    by jazzence on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 09:30:08 PM PDT

  •  ALWAYS Listen to the Effing Sound Track (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    crose, walkshills, avsp

    For Boomer viewers, if you hear bass clarinets, or trumpets sagging in pitch, or staccato shrieking violins--get the hell out of wherever you are.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 09:31:17 PM PDT

  •  So I guess future generations will look back (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, avsp

    on this generation of horror as the obsession with privacy and public recording, since we seem to be rolling out Paranormal Activitys, [REC]s, and the like with a furious clip.  Of course a lot of that has to do with the ability to make profitable films like that on the cheap and quick in a post-Blair Witch world.  

    I think both J-Horror and torture porn are finally past the saturation point, and we're back in a cycle of highly referential horror (Cabin in the Woods, House of the Devil, remakes of everything, etc.)  But we don't really have horror auteurs working now like we did twenty years ago - where are our Carpenters, Cravens, and Romeros?

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 10:39:45 PM PDT

  •  I don't understand it (0+ / 0-)

    and never will--why people choose to be scared, grossed-out and creeped out for entertainment. My fight-or-flight mechanism is too well defined and I see the experience of being fearful as something to be avoided by being vigilant. This has served me well--I have fought off three rape attempts--but I take my response to dangerous situations very seriously. I tend to be a lot more aware of my physical surroundings than most people and I certainly don't wish for that awareness to become blunted by horror films that make me hyper-vigilant for weeks after I see them. That is not normal and it is not entertainment.

  •  Ghost Story (1981) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    freaked me right the hell out.  And it was Fred Astaire's last movie.  And Alice Krige was hot.

  •  Most scary movies now are about torture (0+ / 0-)

    These movies are mostly created for young men and teenage boys and they are mostly about someone being held in a basement or dungeon or somewhere and being tortured. What does that say about us? I can't think of a more perverted theme for a movie.

    Also, I've noticed the position one has sex in in pretty much any film dictates their character. Rear entry sex is always indicative of bad people. Good people only have sex the missionary way. You have rear entry sex in a horror movie, you WILL die. You deserve to, evidently.

    O great creator of being grant us one more hour to perform our art and perfect our lives. ::: Jim Morrison :::

    by Kevanlove on Thu Oct 25, 2012 at 12:49:15 AM PDT

  •  We're stupid! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Crazycab214, avsp

    Anyone who has ever watched a horror film knows you should never investigate a scary noise in the basement rather than leaving the house or have sex surreptitiously but horror film characters always do both.

    "Remember, Republican economic policies quadrupled the debt before I took office and doubled it after I left. We simply can't afford to double-down on trickle-down." Bill Clinton

    by irate on Thu Oct 25, 2012 at 03:25:37 AM PDT

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