What Makes Horror Movies Scary What Makes Horror Movies Scary

01 Oct , 2019

It's FINALLY fall, and I just watched two scary movies in theaters, bought a pumpkin scented candle, and wore a flannel. Tis the season to be cozy and also afraid.

For those of you who don’t know, I very recently saw IT Chapter 2 with Leo and Stu. Honestly, it wasn’t that bad! That’s because I had my eyes covered for a solid 60% of the movie! See, it’s easy to sit through horror movies. Just don’t really watch them. 

Anyway, this has me thinking: why does horror bother me so much? Why do clowns bother me so much? Why did I agree to go see this movie with Leo and Stu? 

There are a lot of characteristics that make horror a unique genre, and I don’t just mean clowns. Horror is considered a “body genre”. Body genres are exactly what they sound like - they refer to works that elicit an intense emotional sensation, which in turn cause a physical reaction. Other body genres include melodramas (they’re supposed to make you cry) and pornography (do I have to explain that one?). This effect is particularly evident in movies like Saw or Hostile, which have been aptly referred to as “torture porn”. If you’ve ever seen Saw, you know what effect I’m talking about. Watching someone get their arm cut off or get stabbed by a bunch of needles really does make me physically uncomfortable. (Confession: I’ve only made it, like, halfway through a Saw movie. Why? Because I like myself.) A more subtle example of this effect is the way your heart starts pounding when Laurie tries to evade Michael Myers, or the way your palms sweat when Pennywise comes on screen in IT. 

Another defining quality of horror films is their preoccupation with the abject. I’m operating off of what I’ve learned from Julia Kristeva’s study on the subject. She basically defines the abject as things that threaten the distinction between self and other. I also had a film professor define this as, “things that are of us, but not of us.” I’m speaking (writing) very literally here. Think corpses, zombies, blood, etc. Things that are of the body, but not of the body. An easy way to think of it is that blood is all fine and good if it’s in your veins, but the minute Jason spills it on the floor, suddenly it’s not okay. The same can be said for your limbs, your hair, finger nails. Zombies are an easy example. They’re...people...but they’re...not? Spooky. Horror subgenres like slasher films and the aforementioned torture porn really revolve around the abject. 

Besides being gross, why is the abject scary? Kristeva theorizes this is because the abject basically reminds us of the one thing that we’re always trying to fight off: death. More specifically, the abject is the experience of death infecting life. What’s a zombie? A person infected with death. See? Spooooky.

Now we know why horror movies freak me (ALL of us) out, but what’s up with the clowns? Why are they scary? 

I know I should provide a picture of a scary clown here for reference, but I don’t want to look at it. Here’s a cat instead.

So...why don’t I want to look at the clown? Why is it scary? 

Sigmund Freud has been discredited on, like, everything, because there’s not empirical evidence to back up his claims. And some of his claims are pretty freaking out there. But, I think his idea of the “uncanny” is pretty interesting in this context. The uncanny refers to things that are familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Think of something that is almost human, like a doll. Dolls have heads and eyes and hair like we do, but there’s just something distorted about the way that they look. It’s this difference between them and us that makes them creepy. If you really want to understand the uncanny and why I dare evoke the name of Freud, try watching anything made my David Lynch. He has mastered the effect of the uncanny. 

Back to the clowns. They’re people, but they’re...not? Yeah, that’s super weird. 

I think the real answer here as to why clowns are scary is a combination of things. The uncanny definitely plays a role, but so does pop culture. The evil clown has made its way into popular TV shows like American Horror Story and more than 20 horror movies starring an evil clown have been made in the last 20 years (A lot more than 20, I really just got sick of counting them because I had to look at all of those movie posters). To an extent, I’m pretty sure I’ve just been conditioned to associate clowns with killer.

This brings us to my last question: Why did I agree to go see IT? Why do any of us watch horror films in the first place?

Honestly, I went because peer pressure. My friends were going and I wanted to be able to talk about the movie with them. I took a horror films class in college because my friends were doing it. Now I really appreciate the genre, as much as it makes me uncomfortable. 

The reason a lot of people go is pure entertainment. For some, jump scares are fun, gross-out horror is fun, turning on all of the lights in your apartment and not being able to sleep is fun. For a few, I think watching your friends get scared is probably the most fun. 

I may never understand why we are drawn to the genre that tries so hard to repel us, but I will keep asking anyway. 

It's FINALLY fall, and I just watched two scary movies in theaters, bought a pumpkin scented candle, and wore a flannel. Tis the season to be cozy and also afraid.

For those of you who don’t know, I very recently saw IT Chapter 2 with Leo and Stu. Honestly, it wasn’t that bad! That’s because I had my eyes covered for a solid 60% of the movie! See, it’s easy to sit through horror movies. Just don’t really watch them. 

Anyway, this has me thinking: why does horror bother me so much? Why do clowns bother me so much? Why did I agree to go see this movie with Leo and Stu? 

There are a lot of characteristics that make horror a unique genre, and I don’t just mean clowns. Horror is considered a “body genre”. Body genres are exactly what they sound like - they refer to works that elicit an intense emotional sensation, which in turn cause a physical reaction. Other body genres include melodramas (they’re supposed to make you cry) and pornography (do I have to explain that one?). This effect is particularly evident in movies like Saw or Hostile, which have been aptly referred to as “torture porn”. If you’ve ever seen Saw, you know what effect I’m talking about. Watching someone get their arm cut off or get stabbed by a bunch of needles really does make me physically uncomfortable. (Confession: I’ve only made it, like, halfway through a Saw movie. Why? Because I like myself.) A more subtle example of this effect is the way your heart starts pounding when Laurie tries to evade Michael Myers, or the way your palms sweat when Pennywise comes on screen in IT. 

Another defining quality of horror films is their preoccupation with the abject. I’m operating off of what I’ve learned from Julia Kristeva’s study on the subject. She basically defines the abject as things that threaten the distinction between self and other. I also had a film professor define this as, “things that are of us, but not of us.” I’m speaking (writing) very literally here. Think corpses, zombies, blood, etc. Things that are of the body, but not of the body. An easy way to think of it is that blood is all fine and good if it’s in your veins, but the minute Jason spills it on the floor, suddenly it’s not okay. The same can be said for your limbs, your hair, finger nails. Zombies are an easy example. They’re...people...but they’re...not? Spooky. Horror subgenres like slasher films and the aforementioned torture porn really revolve around the abject. 

Besides being gross, why is the abject scary? Kristeva theorizes this is because the abject basically reminds us of the one thing that we’re always trying to fight off: death. More specifically, the abject is the experience of death infecting life. What’s a zombie? A person infected with death. See? Spooooky.

Now we know why horror movies freak me (ALL of us) out, but what’s up with the clowns? Why are they scary? 

I know I should provide a picture of a scary clown here for reference, but I don’t want to look at it. Here’s a cat instead.

So...why don’t I want to look at the clown? Why is it scary? 

Sigmund Freud has been discredited on, like, everything, because there’s not empirical evidence to back up his claims. And some of his claims are pretty freaking out there. But, I think his idea of the “uncanny” is pretty interesting in this context. The uncanny refers to things that are familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Think of something that is almost human, like a doll. Dolls have heads and eyes and hair like we do, but there’s just something distorted about the way that they look. It’s this difference between them and us that makes them creepy. If you really want to understand the uncanny and why I dare evoke the name of Freud, try watching anything made my David Lynch. He has mastered the effect of the uncanny. 

Back to the clowns. They’re people, but they’re...not? Yeah, that’s super weird. 

I think the real answer here as to why clowns are scary is a combination of things. The uncanny definitely plays a role, but so does pop culture. The evil clown has made its way into popular TV shows like American Horror Story and more than 20 horror movies starring an evil clown have been made in the last 20 years (A lot more than 20, I really just got sick of counting them because I had to look at all of those movie posters). To an extent, I’m pretty sure I’ve just been conditioned to associate clowns with killer.

This brings us to my last question: Why did I agree to go see IT? Why do any of us watch horror films in the first place?

Honestly, I went because peer pressure. My friends were going and I wanted to be able to talk about the movie with them. I took a horror films class in college because my friends were doing it. Now I really appreciate the genre, as much as it makes me uncomfortable. 

The reason a lot of people go is pure entertainment. For some, jump scares are fun, gross-out horror is fun, turning on all of the lights in your apartment and not being able to sleep is fun. For a few, I think watching your friends get scared is probably the most fun. 

I may never understand why we are drawn to the genre that tries so hard to repel us, but I will keep asking anyway. 

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