What can horror movies do to terrify us more?

Calum Bradshaw terrifies himself in the name of student journalism

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Image: Pixabay

I hate horror films. I was a child who hid from Doctor Who. I watched Alien through barely separated fingers. My best friend and I nearly switched off Hot Fuzz after the grim reaper’s first appearance. Embarrassing, yes, but I think understandable. Fear is, in essence, a form of discomfort, and I’m a guy who enjoys fluffy slippers and hugs from puppies—the prospect of being scared out of my mind just doesn’t appeal.

So, in the name of student journalism, I’ve tried something new. That is not to say I’ve watched a horror film. God no. Baby steps. Instead, I opened my curtains, turned on all of my lights, and suffered through the two and a half minutes of pasty makeup, puddles, and creepy kids that is the trailer for the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s It. Then I looked at cute dog pictures for an hour. A harrowing experience.

In It, the classic trope of the ordinary made horrifying is writ large by Pennywise the clown, a leering sewer-dweller who eats unfortunate stray kids. His original screen incarnation, brought to life by Tim Curry in a 1990 miniseries, left an entire generation scared of clowns—this feature-length remake looks likely to compound that fear. Other horror releases of this year, including Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed Get Out and the hotly anticipated Joel Egerton flick It Comes at Night, seem to be doing the genre proud—horror movies certainly appear healthy. But if, for some twisted reason, we wish to scare ourselves more than me and my slippers did over It, what can film do to further innovate?

In the enjoyment of a horror film, there is a sense of safety—you personally are separate from the events on-screen so can spectate, and to an extent, gain confidence through distance. In an interview with The Atlantic, sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr comments that “To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment…people also enjoy scary situations because it leaves them with a sense of confidence after it’s over”. So what happens if this safety net is removed? What happens when the distance between horror and audience collapses?

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Last summer, a ‘friend’ forced me to play PT, the playable teaser for Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s discontinued horror game Silent Hills. It remains the single most terrifying experience of my life, and I’ve been on Nemesis at Alton Towers. It had the expected jumpscares and creepy whispering voices, but by far the scariest moments of PT were those in which you were forced to walk your character around a corner in full knowledge that a leering undead woman was lurking behind it. You were an active agent in your own fear, unable to passively sit by as terror is inflicted on you, as a movie or a rollercoaster allows. There was no looking away—in order to progress I had to choose to scare myself.

This level of immersion is not the sort to be found in 3D or surround sound. I also don’t think that some madcap choose-your-own adventure interactive movie is the answer. To an extent, the line of direct audience involvement is one which a film cannot practically cross while remaining a film. Despite this, in my limited but considered opinion, Hollywood has things to learn from the video game industry. A distinction must exist somewhere—Del Toro’s own involvement in PT shows that he at least believes some stories are best told through other media. However, if a film were capable of marrying the production value of cinema with the active involvement of a video game it would be a horrifying spectacle indeed, and one I certainly would not buy a ticket to.

1 COMMENT

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