Halloween is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, tomorrow is the day of candy and witches and ghouls. Of bad pun-based costumes and sexy vampires/pikachus/Donald Trumps/literally everything else. It’s the time of year when we gather around the Netflix and frantically search for the scariest movie we can find. And we want the biggest bang for our buck, right? If we’re going to watch a scary movie this Halloween, it better be the scariest movie we can find. Which brings us to an interesting question:
What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? Obviously, if you ask different people, you’re going to get different answers. Our personal fears are largely based around experience and trauma that shape the way we view the world when we’re adults. And the same could be said about cultural fears. Things we experience as a culture shape the way we look at the world. It used to be that Nazis were the scariest thing. Then Communists. Then the nuclear bomb. Then terrorists. And so on. Different things are scary as we change as a society. This is also true of the metaphorical monsters we use as stand-ins for our fears. Vampires aren’t really scary to us anymore. Nor are werewolves or mummies. But there was a time when Nosferatu and Vampyr were among the scariest movies people had ever seen. As society matures and becomes more sophisticated and our fears become more intangible or abstract, it becomes more difficult to scare viewers. There is a baseline cynicism to the horror movie viewer that can be difficult to overcome with even the most skillful of direction. It’s part of the reason why the genre is so often maligned by film critics: it’s simply harder to make a good horror movie than it is to make, say, a good drama. It’s why when a horror movie is truly good, it makes such an impact on the culture. It’s a rare event that critics and audiences alike laud a horror film. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, The Sixth Sense and The Conjuring took theaters by storm, partially because they were covering new territory and partially because movies like those are so rare. Audiences are lucky if they get one truly good horror film a year. And it’s part of the reason our sense of what the best of the best is in horror tends to stagnate.
The possessed Regan in ‘The Exorcist’
What’s the scariest movie of all time? 9 out of 10 film experts will probably pick one of the following: The Shining, something by Wes Craven, or, far and away the most cited: The Exorcist. When The Exorcist first came to theaters, it shook the filmmaking world and ushered in a new era of horror film excellence. Part of the film’s success was director William Friedkin’s willingness to take a genre that had been muddled in mediocrity for decades and lift it up to a place of true prestige filmmaking. He treated the genre with the respect it deserved and it resulted in reports of audience members fainting and puking. The film opened the door for other auteur filmmakers to dip their toes into the genre. It laid the groundwork for people like Ridley Scott with Alienand Stanley Kubrick with The Shining, two more films that are often cited in the so-called “scariest movies ever” lists. It’s true, The Exorcist is an extremely well made film that also happens to be watch-through-your-fingers scary. But is has been 42 years since The Exorcist came out. The baby boomer generation came of age when movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and yes, The Exorcist were still rolling into theaters. These were the movies that were solidified in our parents brains as the scariest movies ever made. But people have a tendency to stop watching scary movies when they hit a certain age. And so between about 1980 until now, the people in charge of saying what is scariest, haven’t really been paying attention. Have we really not topped Friedkin and company in their ability to scare us? I really don’t think so.
The first time I remember being truly frightened by a movie was when I was eleven or twelve years old. My parents rented The Sixth Sense. It was one of the first PG-13 movies I was ever allowed to watch. With my parents supervision, of course. The film ruined me in two ways: 1) it made sleeping alone incredibly difficult for a number of months and, 2) it ignited a life-long love and fascination with the horror genre (and a brief and heart-breaking love affair with the filmography of M. Night Shymalan). Often it is the things we are exposed to at a young age that dictate our fears as we get older. I have an exceptionally active fear of “things not seen.” That is, the idea or suggestion that there is something just out of my field of vision, watching me. I know people who saw Stephen King’s It at a young age and are now deathly afraid of clowns. Other people accidentally saw one of the Jason or Halloween movies at an impressionable age and are now afraid of serial killers. We all have different fears. It’s part of what makes a person unique and part of what makes our struggles so personal. No one will truly understand the specificity of your fears.
Cole in ‘The Sixth Sense’
That being said, there is a universality of fear. There must be if we, as a culture, have been willing to rally around The Exorcist and movies like itas paragons of fear in filmmaking for so many decades. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the grandfathers of the modern horror genre, had this to say about the nature of fear:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
I think that scans when it comes the genre. It truly gets at the heart of the difference between horror and suspense. It’s why many of Alfred Hitchcock movies are not considered horror: the monsters and villains in his movies are ultimately knowable. They are (usually) men with a knife or a gun or a length of rope. It is when his movies start to slide into the realm of the unknowable that they start to enter the genre of horror. Why are birds attacking people in The Birds? Who is really killing everybody in Psycho (and why)?It is this understanding that separates good from mediocre horror filmmaking. Take, for example, the movie Intruders. Have you seen this film? The answer is probably no. It’s a Clive Owen movie from 2012 that got mediocre reviews. Part of the reason it was panned was because it misunderstood a basic tenet of horror: the audience will always, always be able to conjure something scarier in their imagination than you could ever reproduce on screen. We see the monster in this movie within the first five minutes. So now the audience knows what the monster looks like. Within fifteen minutes we learn exactly what the monster wants from our protagonists. Now the monster is not only knowable, but predictable. Because we know what it wants, we have a basic sense of how it will go about trying to get it. Then our eyes glaze over and we wait for the jump scares. Once you remove the uncertainty and mystery from your horror film, it stops being a horror film. Now it is a chase film. And more often than not, a bad one.
The Ghost Face Killer of ‘Scream’
On the other hand, let’s take a movie like Scream. Part of this movie’s success is the way it draws our attention to horror film tropes only to subvert them. It’s ostensibly a satire. But part of what makes a good satire is understanding a genre and having the ability to not only poke fun at it, but be a good example of the genre working correctly. Scream is a scary movie. Why? Because we don’t know why the killer is doing what he’s doing. Even at the end, in a chilling monologue that compounded the terror even as it released it, the killer says, “Well I don’t really believe in motives. I mean did Norman Bates have a motive? Did we ever find out why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people? DON’T THINK SO! See it’s a lot more scarier when there’s no motive.” We Craven spells out exactly what makes a scary movie successful. A monster with no motive. What’s more unknowable than that?
Keeping all this in mind, how does one go about crowning a new “scariest movie ever”? Well, first we have to understand what makes a successful horror movie. Being a bit of a horror movie nerd, I have an extremely high tolerance for scary movies. So after spending over a decade taking in every scary movie I could, I came up with a few basic rules for creating a successful horror movie, based around the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s broken down into four sections. It’s about to get a little academic, so I won’t blame you if you glaze over this part.
1. Remember that different people are scared of different things, but EVERYONE is afraid of being trapped
2. Remember that gory does NOT equal scary
3. Remember that a jump scare will startle in the moment, but will quickly fade. Atmosphere and suggestion will linger long past the credits
4. Playing with visceral fear is a lot more effective than playing with intellectual fears
5. Remember H.P. Lovecraft’s quote
Creating an effective monster or villain
6. Show as little of your monster or villain as possible
7. Do NOT give the monster or villain a motive. If you must, save it until the last possible moment
8. Do NOT give the monster or villain a back story
9. An unresolved or mysterious history in regards to your monster/villain/setting will be incredibly effective in building tension and fear
10. Remember that whatever monster you create, the monster in the audiences’ imagination will be much, much scarier
9. Present a few simple questions for the audience, and leave as many unanswered as possible
10. Metaphor is an effective tool in horror
11. Establish rules and then break them
12. Your characters must act realistically to danger or the film will not be effective
13. Prolong the audience’s sense of helplessness for as long as possible
14. Make the terror as universal AND as specific as possible
15. Remember that your protagonist is a person, not just a witness
I’d go into specifics about all of these rules, but that’s a lot to take in. Perhaps for a later article. But basically what all of this boils down to comes back to what H.P. Lovecraft said: the scariest thing is the unknown. Let’s use an example. Watch the trailer below for the upcoming film The Witch.
This film may yet be not very good, although plenty of reviews suggest the contrary. But what makes this trailer so effective is the lack of context we’re given. We know that there’s a witch terrorizing a family living at the edge of the woods, and that’s about it. And that might not even be accurate. The trailer is all suggestion, all atmosphere. Our fear comes from our protagonist’s fear, not from a scary witch jumping out at us. And even though we do get a brief glimpse of what is possibly the witch herself, it is very brief and undefined. The bottomline is, the holes in our imagination are allowed to gape wide open, open to be filled with whatever scares us the most. Everyone will project their own fears onto it. And really, that’s the key to the most effective of horror. Getting specific as possible while still leaving enough room for the audience to fill in their own gaps.
So now that I have talked way too long about the theory behind the horror film, what movies are worthy to fill the place that The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and other movies like these have filled for so long. For my money, here are some films that have been released in the last twenty years that should be considered:
Berbian Sound Studio, The House of The Devil, The Ring, The Babadook, The Descent, The Orphanage, Let The Right One In, Mulholland Drive, Frontiers, The Woman in Black, It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, The Conjuring, Sinister, Antichrist, The Mist, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Session 9.
Gilderoy listens to his sound effects in ‘Berbian Sound Studio’
Granted, most of these films wouldn’t make general best-of film lists. There’s no Casablanca in the ranks here. But that’s besides the point. The criteria used for deciding what the best movie is and what the best horror movie is are entirely different. My guess is that if you asked 100 film critics what their top ten movies of all time are, maybe 2% would include a horror film in there somewhere. That’s because the horror film is unique in the sense that the goal of a horror film is so fundamentally different than every other genre. The experience of watching a horror film is much more active than watching a comedy or a romance or a drama. Your most base emotion is being accessed. And if it is not accessed properly, the entire film will fall apart. You can still have a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh out loud, but is still a good and enjoyable movie. A drama doesn’t have to make you cry to be considered excellent. But if you don’t jump or cover your face at least once during a horror film, that film has failed. It’s a uniquely difficult problem that the genre has to deal with.
That being said, I would nominate one of these three films to be considered the scariest of all time:
The Blair Witch Project
(Dark Horse: The Babadook)
The possession scene in ‘The Conjuring’
Samara in ‘The Ring’
The basement scene in ‘The Blair Witch Project’
These are the three movies I believe the film community would be able to garner some sort of consensus around. This is based on the guidelines I wrote above, but also for the large audience base these movies have and how well known they are (that’s why The Babadook is the dark horse. Compared to the others, it’s relatively new and comparatively unknown, but utterly terrifying). It would be difficult to garner consensus for a movie like, say, Session 9 or Berbian Sound Studio, two excellent movies that more or less fit my criteria, but are so unknown as to not be included in the conversation.
Fear is a unique emotion. It is fluid. It takes many forms. As we get older, our fears manifest in different ways. When we were children, we may have feared what was under the bed or what was in the closet. When we’re teenagers, we might be afraid of a serial killer on a dark road. When we’re adults, we might fear the abduction of our children or the threat of terrorism. Our fears evolve with us. It’s not 1973 anymore and we can do better than a vomiting Regan. Yes, The Exorcist is still an excellent movie. But that represented a different time. Those were our parent’s fears. It’s time to look back at the canon and decide what really, truly scares us.