Ode to… Scary Movies

Why do audiences love to be afraid, and why does it take a master filmmaker to terrify them?

As the anxiety mounts, you start to shiver and break into a cold sweat. Your throat goes dry, your muscles tense up. You grab your neighbor’s arm and shrink back into your chair. Quelle horreur!

Fear like this, to be avoided at all costs in real life, is one of the great pleasures of movie-going. There’s no paradox here: every film buff knows, consciously or not, that he or she is safe in a movie theater. The threat is on the screen, not real. What a thrill it is to face great danger, knowing that you are perfectly safe and will soon leave the cinema unharmed. Some films require the public to suspend disbelief, but they always produce a double, contradictory effect: you “believe” what you see on the screen while knowing very well that it is fake; you believe in the fiction without losing sight of the fact that it is fiction. Fear is undoubtedly the emotion that best embodies this double effect of belief and nonbelief.

Many filmmakers are experts at the game of frightening the audience. Alfred Hitchcock springs to mind, of course, as well as Jacques Tourneur, Georges Franju, Roman Polanski, Wes Craven, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, John Carpenter and David Lynch, among others. These masters of fright are also masters of film, as if knowing how to terrify an audience is the test of good filmmaking. For proof, just look at the number of great directors who have excelled at making thrillers or gore or slasher films, among them Stanley Kubrick, with the unforgettable The Shining; Steven Spielberg, with Jaws and Jurassic Park; and Ridley Scott, who made the first Alien film.

'Jaws' (1975) by Steven Spielberg.

Horror films are not the exclusive domain of leading directors, however, but are also a fertile field for B-movie makers like Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Another example is Neil Marshall’s The Descent, one of the most terrifying films in history.

It’s easy to identify the genres, filmmakers and types of movies that are supposed to be scary, but it’s more difficult to figure out what really makes a film frightening. Like any emotion, fear is an extremely subjective phenomenon linked to each individual’s genes, personal history and culture. What terrifies one person will bring a smile to the lips of another.

Then there are the different ways fear is induced on the screen. One is the shock effect produced by a sudden bang or image, startling the audience but inspiring fear that lasts only a few seconds. Much more powerful is anguish, which keeps you in a state of tension during an entire scene, sequence or film. Fear can be personal (fear of mice or insects, for example, or of walking on a dark, deserted street) or collective (the anxiety caused by war, the advent of a dictatorship, global warming, etc.). Obviously, since fear is an eminently personal emotion, my own fears, described below, are totally subjective.

I’ll start with what doesn’t frighten me in movies. No unrealistic monster has ever caused me even one second of fear. All the dragons, proto-prehistoric creatures, triple-jawed aliens and creatures with evil intentions have never aroused in me anything but an amused appreciation for the creativity of the filmmakers and the credulity of those who scream when they see creatures with a thousand teeth or a thousand claws growling ferociously on the screen.

'The Birds' (1963) by Alfred Hitchcock.

Realistic beasts also leave me cold: the shark in Jaws never scared me because I never believed in it. Or rather, I believed in it as a Hollywood prop, not as a shark. The problem with all these latex, cardboard, rubber and digital monsters is that they are physical. What I am really afraid of in the cinema is the invisible, the unknown, a threat whose appearance and exact nature are a mystery. The fear of the invisible goes back, of course, to our childhood fear of the dark and perhaps a more archaic fear inscribed in our genes for thousands of years. Tourneur, who was considered the master of off-screen action, understood this well. In I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People, the source of the threat is barely visible; it lurks in the shadows or is relegated to the background, making it even more frightening.

Other masters of off-screen terror are Hitchcock and Lynch. They know how to create gnawing anxiety in the spectator by filming dark staircases, rooms with lots of nooks and crannies, and badly lit corridors, images that are in themselves banal but can be terrifying when the right music or unnerving sound effects are added (this is an important detail: in cinema, the sounds are often more frightening than the images).

Alien is most terrifying when we don’t see the Thing, when it is a diffuse danger that lurks in the spaceship and might pop up at any moment at a bend in a corridor. And, while The Descent is one of the most frightening films I have ever seen, it is undoubtedly because it takes place at the bot- tom of a cave, in the darkness of the depths of the Earth – a darkness that is perhaps a metaphor for the darkness of the movie theater or the ghost train, places that are conducive to all kinds of frights. Fear of the dark is also a basic fear of death and the definitive return to nothingness.

Some physical presences, however, have also inspired delicious cinematographic frights. I wonder, for example, why Hitchcock’s The Birds has always frightened me, whereas Spielberg’s sharks and dinosaurs have left me unmoved. Hitchcock’s Mephistophelian talent surely plays its part, but it seems to me that the fear this film inspires comes from another source. Birds are part of our daily lives, and we see them all the time (even in cities) and hear their charming chirping and cooing without paying much attention. That is exactly what makes Hitchcock’s film so frightening: harmless animals that have brightened our lives since the dawn of time suddenly begin to attack us. They have the double advantage of superior numbers and the ability to fly. The Birds shows us an epistemological rupture in the world order, with an animal species attacking humans, and we never find out why; Hitchcock does not bother to explain it. It just happens, and we have to deal with this newfound violence and the mystery associated with it. A film in which cats, dogs or cows decided to collectively attack us would probably be just as scary.

Similarly, seeing mice or rats on the screen scares me more than seeing sharks or dragons. The reason is simple: in my daily environment, a big city, I am likely to come across mice or rats, whereas my chances of coming face-to-face with a shark or a dragon are rather low. Perhaps an inhabitant of a coastal area where sharks are plentiful would be more likely to flinch while watching Jaws than a city dweller like me.

What I am really afraid of in the cinema is the invisible, the unknown, a threat whose appearance and exact nature are a mystery. Serge Kaganski

It’s not just horror movies that can scare me, but any scene in which a person is threatened by a blade, a needle, broken glass, scissors, a hammer or a bat, especially if they are aimed at the eyes, ears, genitals or fingers. When I see one of those weapons approaching those body parts, I tend to avert my eyes. This might happen in a horror film or in an Ingmar Bergman psychodrama (remember the famous scene in Cries and Whispers in which Ingrid Thulin mutilates her vagina with broken glass?) or in an erotic and metaphysical film by Nagisa Oshima (at the end of In the Realm of the Senses, the woman saws off her lover’s penis so she can keep it forever). I was so horrified by these scenes that I didn’t dare look directly at them, even though I knew they were created with makeup and special effects.

In scenes where sharp metal objects meet human flesh, fear is also linked to the talent of or the register chosen by the director. Let’s take, for example, two emblematic scenes from Quentin Tarantino films: the cutting off of an ear in Reservoir Dogs and the confrontation in the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill: Volume 1. In the former, a gangster slowly cuts off a policeman’s ear; in the latter, the heroine kills several dozen yakuza with a sword, slashing their bodies and chopping off heads amid the spurting of gallons of blood. The first sequence is terrifying, while the second is as enjoyable as a game of Carnival Massacre. Why does one induce such terror and the other none at all? It depends on how it was directed. The first sequence is realistic, with the torment lasting for some time. The second is like a choreographed dance, a cartoon; the severed heads waltz around the room at high speed with hyperrealistic (therefore unrealistic) excess, and the camera does not dwell on the wounds or the blood. We might as well be at a Punch and Judy show: reality is kept at a distance.

Another thing that can frighten me in a film is collective political anguish. Movies that can keep me awake at night include Doctor Strangelove, Don’t Look Up, A Clockwork Orange, Minority Report, Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner and any dystopian film that fictionalizes a contemporary issue that has the potential to cause devastation. Forget about sharks, mice, aliens and dark corridors; what’s really scary are the many risks we face today: economic collapse, depletion of the planet’s resources, dictatorship, war and social chaos. Based on the reality of their era, such films anticipate a terrifying future that is possible but not certain.

Other movies that frightened me focused on violent episodes from the past that are scary because such horrible events might recur. In my view, the most terrifying Spielberg film is not Jaws, Minority Report or War of the Worlds, but Schindler’s List, a film that gives you nightmares because the horrors it shows really happened and are not just the product of a pessimistic director’s imagination.

The journey from historical fiction to documentary is a short one. If any films are as anxiety-provoking as the works of Hitchcock or Lynch, it is documentaries, especially those that have documented the ravages of totalitarianism, such as Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Rithy Panh’s S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and The Missing Picture, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. They are the true horror films. By showing the atrocities committed by humans on other humans and the so-called rational political systems that generated these irrational acts, they shed a blinding light on what the human race is capable of. They are more powerfully and lastingly frighten- ing than the most anxiety-provoking of John Carpenter’s films. If my long film-going career has taught me anything, it’s that the reality of what human beings have done is far more terrifying than anything we can make up

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