Are scary movies as scary as they used to be? Did the movies that scared you as a child still scare you when you watched them as an adult?
As a very young child, my fear-reflex was helped along by my older cousins, who used to lock me in a room with films like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist playing through a too-high-to-reach television. It was like being trapped in a PG version of Saw: “Want to play a game? Find a way to reach the VHS player and stop the Poltergeist tape before the clown pops out from under the bed, or be left with life-long phobias and mental instability. You have thirty minutes.” Thankfully, my cousins’ high-jinks didn’t leave me with any lingering psychological scars, else I wouldn’t find myself happily married to the murderous circus clown of my dreams today.
Most of the time, fears fade with age. Or else they go out of fashion, as a whole generation of scare-afficionados is swiftly desensitised to the horror bag-of-tricks employed by its predecessors (for instance, I now realise that the scariest thing about the original Poltergeist wasn’t the clown or the tree, but Tangina herself, the creepy little specster).
I remember watching The Exorcist for the first time with my friend Greig, circa 1996, when I was a lanky, spotty ne’er-do-well of sixteen. it’s fair to say that we were less than terrified. In fact, the movie’s prologue, which focuses on an archaeological dig in Iraq, elicited this classic response from Greig: “It’s like fucking Time Team so far.”
The rest of the movie nudged us between amusement and sheer, skull-splitting boredom. When the little girl pissed herself at the piano recital, we reciprocated by pissing ourselves laughing. By the time she’d went full-demon and stabbed herself in the lady bits with a crucifix, we were hankering after an actual episode of Time Team. This is the movie that had them fleeing from the cinemas in the early 1970s? What a bunch of flare-wearing, lilly-livered shitebags they were back then.
That’s not to suggest that the 70s wasn’t a scary decade. It was (and not just because of its sexually-demonic light-entertainment stars). For evidence of that, look no further than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and its iconic chainsaw-wielding posterboy. Leatherface was portrayed by the masterful, and sadly departed, Icelandic mayhem-maker Gunnar Hansen, his performance arguably setting places at the dinner-table-of-horror for such esteemed future guests as Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers and even Ash from The Evil Dead.
Gunnar, my friend. You scared me well, and you scare me still. Your legacy – despite the usual blight of sequels, prequels and remakes – will endure. So long as human beings possess beating hearts, you’ll be upping their tempos to salsa-techno with your lumbering gait, mask of human skin, roaring chainsaw, and murderously mercurial child-like disposition.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (more on which later) is one of the few horror films that still retains the power to send shivers down my spine, as well as precipitate a wave of cliches whenever I write about it. As a semi-tribute to the late, great Gunnar, I decided to take a journey back through my adrenal gland’s browser history and re-evaluate the fear factor of some of my favourite freaky films. After I’ve done that, I’ll probably have a go at trying to cure my annoying addiction to alliteration.
I first saw The Shining when I was around nine years old. I tagged along with my parents to the home of two of their closest friends, a husband and wife duo who were reasonably devout Christians. I say reasonably devout, because entertaining a bored nine-year-old by slapping on a VHS cassette of a spine-chilling psychological horror featuring madness, domestic violence and elevators of blood, isn’t exactly up there on the top ten list of things Jesus would do.
“Come play with us, Danny. Come play with us forever.” Those words were the mallets that tapped out the tune of fear on the Glockenspiel of my young mind, and they chime with me still. These days, whenever I find myself wandering the corridors of some tacky hotel or guest house that hasn’t bothered to update its décor since 1975, I always expect to turn a corner and find those creepy little twins blocking my way. And ever since The Shining, I still haven’t found the courage to get back on a tricycle. One day at a time, Jamie… one day at a time.
Let’s talk about Room 237, the contents of which played havoc with my psychosexual development. One moment I’m watching a splendidly lithe lady slinking out of a bathtub and giving Jack Nicholson a long, lingering snog, and the next I’m watching Jack getting it on with a half-rotted, cackling old corpse, her green-tinged skin festooned with leaking pores. My poor burgeoning erection – and they were tentative enough in those early exploratory days – wilted like a dying flower. Exposure to The Shining at such an impressionable age forced me to equate lust and arousal with fear and revulsion. Maybe those two Christian friends of my parents knew what they were doing all along, the crafty puritans. The jokes on them, though, because as an adult I’ve never been able to walk past a graveyard without getting a stiffy. (which rather upsets my maniacal-clown wife, but that’s his insecurity, not mine) Take that, God! (PS:I’d really like to get it on record that this is a joke, and your dead have nothing to fear from me)
I recently re-watched The Shining and found that the movie now acts more upon my intellect than my adrenal gland. I still find it a fascinating, atmospheric and haunting film, but any lingering childhood fear has been supplanted by my confusion over what message Kubrick was trying to convey. Is Nicholson’s Jack Torrance viewing the hotel through the prism of his insanity, or is the hotel a malevolent supernatural force that’s driving him to commit heinous acts? And, most importantly of all, why is the hotel closed for the winter when there’s clearly money to be made from ski-tourism?
According to the documentary feature ‘Room 237’, all of that speculation’s just surface gloss, because Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining was really about the massacre of the native American Indians/the faking of the moon landings/the Holocaust/ants working for the CIA/the Queen being a flesh-eating reptilian space-lizard called Keith, and any number of amusingly crazy interpretations.
Muddled, flawed and infuriatingly ambiguous the movie may be, but at least Kubrick’s take on The Shining is powerful, thought-provoking and chilling. Stephen King’s later stab at adapting his own source material was… hmmmm. How can I put this? I won’t even try, because I love Stephen King and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. I’ll let Danny Torrance do the dirty work for me by inviting him to scrawl his verdict on the back of a bathroom door with his mum’s lipstick:
You’re still the King, Stephen, but your Shining was shite.
Dawn of the Dead/28 Weeks Later
I first came across the original Dawn of the Dead when I was about seven or eight. I’d recorded a normal, non-horrifying programme on VHS, which ended, and was followed – after a brief transitional crackle of flickering grey lines – by the first five minutes of Romero’s mall-based masterpiece. On that first viewing I never saw a single zombie or a soupcon of blood, only a fat, bearded man in a TV studio speculating about the cause of the zombie uprising; however, that was more than enough to send a battalion of panic storming through my bowel. I hit ‘STOP’ on the VHS player, and spent the rest of the evening wide awake in bed, pretty much convinced that the broadcast had been real.
Years later, I discovered that the movie wasn’t really scary at all. Or perhaps by that point I’d been desensitised by a steady diet of Freddy Krueger and Pinhead. Whatever the truth, shuffling, grey-faced zombies just weren’t going to cut it. (the opening minutes of the modern remake are scarier than the entirety of the original) Dawn of the Dead is, however, a very good film, and one that has a lot to say about something even more terrifying than zombies: the empty, selfish, consumerist societies we’ve constructed for ourselves; that theme’s only become more relevant as the greed-is-good decades have flown by.
Zombies didn’t terrify me again until 28 Weeks later, when Robert Carlyle’s river-based escape from a legion of fast-moving zombies had my heartbeat thumping in my eye sockets. For me, though, the most chilling part of that movie is the claustrophobic scene where Jeremy Renner and his rag-tag band of refugees find themselves trapped inside a vehicle, encased in a cloud of poisonous fog. They’re forced to watch helplessly as a unit of soldiers slowly and soullessly works its way up the street towards them with flamethrowers – their fates switched from meat at the hands of the infected, to clinical waste at the hands of the government. The horror stems from the scenario’s unsettling plausibility in these post-Katrina times, and especially in the wake of global news reports on the on-going refugee crisis.
PS: I don’t know if I was just tired or super hungover when I watched it, but the fast-moving, spider-jumping zombies in the crappy 2008 ‘Day of the Dead’ remake (the one with Mena Suvari ) freaked me out so much that I had to keep pausing the movie to give my heart a rest.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3
Freddy Krueger is more fondly remembered for his wisecracks than his menace, despite both his genuinely unsettling appearance in the first film and back-to-basics reinvention in the disappointing remake. I do, however, recall being absolutely terrified of him as a child. What could be more jarring to a young mind only recently acquainted with the concept of death than a demon who leaps into the safety of your dreamworld and offs you while you sleep? Scarier still is the thought of this demon stalking you when you’re confined to a mental institution, where the people who might – just might – be able to save you are pre-disposed not to believe a word that comes out of your mouth. Watching as an adult, the Nightmare films make me laugh – especially once Freddy becomes more like a malevolent Dennis the Menace in entries 3 through 6 – but they definitely caused young me a few sleepless nights, Nightmare 3 in particular. The scene where Freddy rips the veins from a boy’s arms and legs and uses them to puppet him through a window to his death still makes my skin crawl.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
And, we’re back.
I first watched the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a teenager. I remember watching the first five-or-so minutes and being distinctly underwhelmed by its home-movie-esque production values and ropey dialogue. ‘Oh great’, I thought to myself. ‘A bunch of mildly irritating teens in a camper van. This one’s going to go Full Time Team’. I evoked my friend Greig’s trademark antipathy, stared at the screen and riffed a variation on his time-honoured classic: “It’s like fucking Scooby Doo so far.”
And then the gang picked up a disturbed and unpredictable hitch-hiker, and things started to get interesting. Furthermore,the van contained perhaps the most unsympathetic and abrasive disabled character that’s ever been committed to celluloid. This film did a good line in crazy; this film was going to bump off a guy in a wheelchair and make me glad about it. I decided there and then that I liked the cut of this rough, grubby, dirty little flick’s jib.
I expected little more from the movie than the usual bout of teen-dispatching a la every slasher movie I’d yet seen; what I didn’t expect was to find myself enveloped in a blanket of dread come the closing credits. I should’ve known better. This movie is the granddaddy of most modern slasher horror, after all. When I say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is horrible, I mean that as a compliment. It’s horrible in all the right ways: not gratuitously, nihilistically horrible like the Hostel films. There’s next to no blood, and most of the terror is psychological. The horror leaps out from the discordance between the banal and the brutal: ornate furniture crafted from bones, lamp shades made from flayed human skin, a family dinner that’s made all the more gruesome by how ordinary it’s perceived to be by all but one of its participants (here’s a little clue: it’s the non-cannibal).
The violence in the movie – Leatherface’s mallet swiftly thudding down on an unsuspecting victim’s head, a woman thrust onto a hook like livestock awaiting slaughter – is so business-like and empty of human feeling that it’s utterly chilling to behold. In the end, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s amateurish production values and lack of slickness amplify the scares a thousand-fold by making everything seem sickeningly real.
PS: The movie is loosely based on the exploits of real-life, serial-killing cannibal Ed Gein.
PPS: The modern-day remake of the movie is a slick cannibalisation of the original, and it’s … well… how can I put this? Can we bring back Danny Torrance again? Come on, Danny, get your lipstick out, son.
Blair Witch Project/Paranormal Activity
There are no half measures in your response to the Blair Witch Project: your imagination either places you so completely in the shoes of the movie’s characters that you can feel every second of their mounting panic as it builds to a crescendo of terror, or you shrug, roll your eyes and say: “This is crap. It’s just a bunch of middle-class pussies running about in the woods, and then some guy stands in a corner. When’s Time Team on?” (Rule of three: we’ve reached ‘Time Team reference’ saturation point. Henceforth there will be no further nods to that gentle, Tony Robinson-helmed Saturday tea-time larkabout.) (And Danny Torrance is out, too. No, no, stop whinging, Danny. We’re sick of you and your finger-based shenanigans, son. Beat it.)
I had my feet planted very firmly in the former camp. I imagined, I empathised, I shat myself. My susceptibility to the found-footage sub-genre of horror would later leave me at the mercy of Paranormal Activity, a film that somehow managed to sneak past my near-clinical scepticism and deliver a ghostly sucker-punch to my synapses.
I watched Paranormal Activity with friends, and spent the duration of the movie cracking sarcastic jokes about the quality of the acting, and mocking the startled reactions of the female members of the group. Now and again I’d feel a wave of goose-flesh running down my skin, but I put it down to too little sleep or too much coffee. The movie ended, I left the house, got in my car and drove off into the night. Then BLAM.
Gooseflesh claimed every inch of skin. I replayed scenes from the movie in my mind, or rather they replayed themselves in my mind without my consent. I felt like I was starring in every horror movie at once, fully convinced that everything from a vengeful poltergeist to an escaped mental patient was hiding behind my back seat just waiting for the right moment to strike. I couldn’t outrun my fear. It followed me home. I switched on every single light in the house, even in those rooms I had no intention of visiting. A 2am trip to the bathroom was undertaken at Usain Bolt speeds: I moved so fast I could’ve dodged Oscar Pistorius’s bullets.
I was a thirty-year-old man who didn’t believe in ghosts.
I haven’t re-watched Paranormal Activity since, although I have seen Paranormal Activity 2. And it was a steaming pile of scareless shit. Go figure.
Time Team and Beyond
Which films no longer scare you, and which ones still scare the living bejeesus out of you, even as a fully-grown adult? Which films are you ashamed to be afraid of? And which films never scared you in the first place – the films that failed Greig’s crucial ‘Time Time Test’?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or alternatively I could just go fuck myself.