Horror, like comedy, is very subjective. There are certain things guaranteed to make most of us cry, but fewer things guaranteed to make most of us scream. Yet horror remains a favorite genre, tapping into different people’s terrors, inciting debates about how scared you really were. I’ve heard people complain that certain horror films just aren’t scary enough: if you’re accustomed to gore, you might be disappointed in a film that features very little blood at all. I’m partial to psychological horror, haunted houses with ghosts in the attic, strange demons stalking innocents in their own homes. But some of my favorite horror films don’t really scare me. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is an excellent example: creepy? Yes. Paranoid? Very. But is it really scary? Not so much. So rather than tell you what you should be afraid of, I’ll just share a few films that scare me.
Suspiria. Suspiria is a masterpiece. I will fight anyone who says different. A weird, otherworldly masterpiece, full of misdirection and bad dubbing? Yes, but that’s what makes it so amazing. It’s a rich piece of grand guignol cinema, the sort of film that gets under my skin and lurks there, waking me up in a cold sweat hours after I watched it. The dubbing of Italian, French, and English actors contributes to the general feeling of a fever dream: none of the voices quite match the lips, producing a mental disconnect that creates a sense of unease, even without the splashes of red and blue and deep black that punctuate the film. The story is of a young woman attending a ballet school in France with some sinister teachers and even more sinister events that lead her to suspect that it’s all a front for a coven of witches, but Suspiria is so much more than that. It’s a cinematic nightmare that defies even its rather rote plot.
The first time I saw Suspiria was on a Halloween night in college. My roommates and I watched Carrie, which frightened none of us, and then Suspiria, which also frightened none of us. Or so we thought. That night I did not just sleep badly – I slept terribly. I woke up shivering, with that haunting soundtrack by Goblin pulsing in my brain. I kept rerunning the piano wire scene in my head. It was one of my most memorable horror experiences, proof that a film can actually haunt your dreams.
The Haunting. As haunted house movies go, this is my favorite. Not only is it an excellent adaptation of an even more excellent book – eliding very little, including the lesbian subtext – but it’s also a template for later haunted house movies. What’s more, it’s actually scary, relying on psychological horror and careful aural/visual cues that reflect the inner experience of the protagonist Eleanor and make the viewer question their own psychological state. The plot is fairly simple: a psychiatrist tests the boundaries of paranormal phenomenon by bringing several people to a supposed “haunted house” to spend the weekend. He’s trying to find out if supernatural experience is “real” or influenced by the psychology of the people who experience it. The film is therefore filtered through the different experiences, desires, and repressions of the people within the house.
The Haunting surprised me the first time I saw it because I never expected it to be quite so scary. It features one of the few effective uses of voiceover – a technique employed all too often as a shortcut by directors who can’t tell a visual story. But here the voiceover manages to mirror and then influence the experience of the visuals: as Eleanor narrates her experience, we are sucked into her twisted view of what might (or might not) be totally normal.
Psycho. Oh, Hitchcock. I’ve written more articles about Psycho than about any other film, and probably there’s very little I can say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. I can only mention how very much I love it. The essence of a good horror film, as far as I’m concerned, is that sense of euphoria and exhilaration that comes with being properly scared. Psycho never disappoints me; I’ve never watched it and come away feeling calm. It’s a sharp, suspenseful, weirdly funny movie that only improves with each subsequent viewing.
The first time I saw Psycho I was fully aware of most of the twists and turns of the film, but somehow never quite believed them. It is a strangely precise film, different from any other that Hitchcock made, containing influences of the B-horror genre and even, to a degree, notes of cinema verite and neo-realism. Unlike many Hitchcock films that rely on certain familiar locations (London, New York, the French Riviera), Psycho takes place mostly in a backwater town, somewhere near Phoenix, Arizona. It’s an Other world, unfamiliar to most viewers and desolate. It’s almost a haunted house story, with the monstrosity of Mrs. Bates concealed behind curtains, a backlit shadow that looms into frame. It’s often called the first slasher film, but I think that’s limiting the scope of its influence: Psycho is a new and unique type of horror film, possibly the only work of horror Hitchcock ever made, and it stands alone.
I’m more nervous about introducing people to films that scare me than I am about any other genre. I know that many don’t experience these movies in the same way I do. But these are the films that make my Halloween memorable, and set my heart racing. They remind me why I love movies.