Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Horror Doesn't Scare You

There's a phrase that I find particularly frustrating when applied to a good horror movie, especially one I happen to like: "It's not even that scary!" My reaction, usually, but not always, spoken silently to myself is, "Oh, shut up."

I know this will sound strange to some, yet obvious to others, but horror doesn't have to be scary to be good. It's basic quality of goodness or badness has, in fact, little to do with how scary it is and more to do, as with all art, with how effectively it conveys its meaning. If that means an overall sense of dread rather than a lot of scares, so be it. Hell, I like an overall sense of dread in horror.

On Facebook recently I posted a status update alluding to The Exorcist and Larry Aydlette chimed in to say he never found the movie scary. He was not, as some do, posing this as a criticism, merely an observation. Rod Heath did the same, carefully adding, "but that's not a fault, just a personal reaction." Marilyn, on the other hand, wrote, "I was terrified the first time I saw The Exorcist. The audience was freaking out all around me, people running up the aisle screaming. It was a happening." Sounds like it. My first experience with The Exorcist was quite different.

I saw it on an early cable showing in the seventies (it may have been HBO but I can't remember) with my sister, mother and father. Yes, I was around ten and my parents watched it with me. They were never the hysterical type, worried that if we were exposed to something with violence or language we would turn to a life of crime or insanity. And my father, and this is important, was a true believer, still is. He left college after his parents died to enter the monastery but left before taking his vows, deciding that marriage was the sacrament for him. His sister, on the other hand, stuck with it and became a nun who became Mother Superior of an order in Massachusetts. Finally, in our house, along the second bookshelf in the den, was and is the entire set of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism. So The Exorcist was a movie he had to see and, what the hell, might as well watch it with the kids.

My sister was decidedly scared and freaked out through most of it and I, while more fascinated than upset, was a little creeped out by things like the desecrated statue of Mary and the death mask flashing on the screen. By the time Merrin and Karras were doing battle with Regan in the bedroom at the end of the hall my father was more bemused than anything else. Bemused with my sister's reaction and the movie itself. He assured my sister there was nothing scary in the movie. It was a girl under the control of a demon, a demon that would be driven out by the faithful. No harm would come to her and, aside from exploiting an old man's weak heart, she could bring no harm to anyone else (Burke Dennings notwithstanding). Besides, he noted, this stuff doesn't even really happen like this. Yes, my dad's one of those types of movie viewers, the ones that too often let reality get in the way of a good story. But here's the thing: I agreed with him (on the "not scary" part, not the other stuff). I thought it was an excellent movie, but I couldn't be sure what everyone found scary about it. I mean, it's a girl. On a bed. Tied down, no less.

When I got older I realized that, while some people may be scared by it, what I felt was a sense of dread. A pall of death and familial collapse hangs over the house throughout the movie. Very, very little, if anything, in the movie actually feels good. And that is what makes it a great horror movie. To me, it's not meant to scare, it's meant to disturb, and those are two very different things. The Exorcist is disturbing, as in it disturbs our view of a normal mother/daughter relationship. It disturbs our view of faith, in ourselves and, if we choose, God as well. Most of all, it disturbs our view of what is right and wrong and good and bad. It is, in fact, one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. So whether I'm scared by it or not hardly even matters. The feeling's the thing, and the feeling is one of dread, a dreading of what's coming and how much worse it can still get.

I've had that feeling with several movies and some movies I consider the very best of the genre I would never consider scary, The Wicker Man for instance. I think it's brilliant but not because it's scary, rather, because it feeds on uneasy feelings of isolation, "us and them" belief systems and societal dysfunction. That it's not scary doesn't affect its quality one iota. It's brilliant, as is The Exorcist, in taking a feeling and building a whole movie around it. Sometimes people get the wrong idea about horror, even if they're a fan. They think it's about jump scares and gore and evil creatures and, actually, it is! It is about those things but it's also about so much more and whether or not it frightens isn't always the end-all, be-all of whether or not it succeeds. Sometimes, the best thing a horror movie can do is fill you with a vague, creeping sense of discomfort. Disquiet. Disorder. And when it's done right, it can be downright scary.