A complaint heard all too often about modern horror films is that they aren’t very scary. Our own Jess Hicks even wrote a piece on how horror movies don’t have to be scary to be good, which is true but still doesn’t mean that horror films don’t have to at least try to be scary. It got me thinking though: what does scare people nowadays? All too often, we will see a movie like The Babadook or It Follows get touted as “the scariest film you will see this year,” but all too often the majority of viewers find films like that to be the opposite of scary.
Personally, I find It Follows to be absolutely terrifying. The Babadook, not so much. The release of The Witch last weekend brought back familiar feelings, with many audience members having the same reaction to it as they did to The Babadook and It Follows (just look at its C- CinemaScore). Just looking over Facebook and Twitter, I’ve seen a slew of criticisms ranging from “that was boring” to “there was some weird ‘subplot’ about a cup that no one in the audience understood” (seriously, I actually read that somewhere). It’s absolutely mind-boggling to me.
Similar statements are made about any film made before the year 2000. I get nervous showing someone John Carpenter’s Halloween out of fear that they will find it either boring or not scary. Comparatively, Ti West’s The House of the Devil fell victim to the “that was boring” complaint from mainstream audiences, as the entire film was a buildup to the final 15 minutes. How can some people find a film utterly terrifying while others find it boring?
Of course, what people find scary is going to be subjective and completely up to the individual, but it seems that more and more people are desensitized to the horror that is happening on-screen. I should point out that in no way am I qualified to make an educated assessment on the subject of fear (my degrees are in public relations and radio/TV/film), this is merely a jumping-off point to start a discussion. What do you think qualifies as scary nowadays? Let’s look at the four main scare tactics that horror movies use to instill fear. I will provide examples of each them using moments/films that actually scare me.
Ah, the jump scare. It is probably the scare tactic most maligned by horror enthusiasts but loved by general audiences. When used in moderation, the jump scare can be a powerful way to scare the living crap of viewers. Whether it be by the sudden appearance of a terrifying figure or a loud clash of musical instruments (it’s usually the latter), a jump scare is a great way to get a good jolt out of the audience. Whether it be the loud chainsaw sound effect in John Carpenter’s Halloween or the iconic final moments from Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, the jump scare will never go out of style
An example of a recent film to have an incredibly effective jump scare would be James Wan’s haunter Insidious. I think you all know the scare I’m referring to:
Then of course there is the famous hallway scene from the completely underated The Exorcist III: Legion:
These are all examples of effective jump scares, but all too often movies rely on them to much, and they become cheap. Think about the overuse of dream sequences. You know what I’m referring to: something jumps out at a character and then the film cuts to that same character suddenly waking up in bed. It was just a nightmare! Look at this years The Forest for plenty of examples of that type of scare. It’s lazy and just included to pad the runtime of whatever movie features it.
How about the mirror/refrigerator scare? This is when a character has either a refrigerator or medicine cabinet open and when they close it either the villain or a totally harmless character is revealed to be there! What about the animal scare? This is when a character is walking around innocuously and then an animal (usually a cat) jumps out at them! This particular scare was made famous in the opening sequence of Friday the 13th Part 2 (which is ironic since the first movie features one of the best jump scares) when a cat jumps through Adrienne King’s open window.
So what do we make of the jump scare? Since it is the one scare tactic featured most prominently in horror films today, it seems to be the litmus test audiences use to determine whether or not a horror film is actually scary. The problem with the jump scare is that it’s too easy to get lazy with them. The Witch features a total of three jump scares, each one of them effective. When used in moderation, the jump scare is scary. When peppered throughout the entirety of a film, it becomes too predictable. That being said, many people seem to disagree with that opinion.
When it comes to jump scares, I always go back to that famous Hitchcock quote:
“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.”
It’s probably clear by now that I prefer suspense to surprise, but what are your thoughts on the subject?