We all know the feeling. After watching a scary film, we have to go outside alone or sit in the house alone. No matter who you are, the brain plays its trick on you and you feel the fear. But which of these movie evils scares you most? Let’s break it down looking at how they get into your mind.
The monster is the earliest evil in film. From Nosferatu through Boris Karloff’s 1930’s collection of Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy and others, the monster was used to terrify audiences, drawing inspiration from literature, it evolved through the Hammer films in the 70’s. Now I would classify a monster as something non-human that gives us an immediate shock on-screen because it is so unnatural to our daily lives. Think of the werewolf, we all know it isn’t real or possible but seeing one on-screen gets us thinking. With the monster usually we don’t feel the fear after the event. The shock is there and then in the cinema. the visceral feeling of something ridiculous murdering the innocents on-screen. The monster really has its victims in the young. Show a younger child a film with a monster and they will feel the fear long afterwards. They haven’t had the life experiences to easily dismiss the creature as impossible, therefore it can live and grow in their imaginations and nightmares. Adults shouldn’t be as scared as most monster films have a resolution. The vampire gets staked, the werewolf is killed with a silver bullet and generally the monster movie is like a roller coaster, that takes us on the thrills and deposits us safe and sound at the end. The monsters can come from anywhere, thy can be mythological or Alien. The titular Alien in Ridley Scotts’ classic, had no comparison before or since, yet nobody can deny the terror they felt when seeing it for the first time. The face may of a beast may come back in a nightmare but the fear is usually short-lived and entertaining, because our minds know it doesn’t exist.
The twisted being grounded in reality
Now things get interesting. When you start giving your monster a plausible back story, some members of the audience begin to doubt themselves. Here I think of icons of the horror genre. Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. Each of these characters have a distinguishable face that taps into a fear within some people. By rooting their back story in reality before introducing the monster, it tricks some people enough to bypass the logical side of their brain. Krueger, is a child abuser and murderer. Immediately people identify with this form of evil and are invested in the story. The fact that he is caught and burned to death before returning to haunt the residents of Elm Street in their dreams becomes suddenly more plausible because we have already associated him with realism. Had he just began killing without any back story the fear wouldn’t have took hold as much. Jason Vorhees was a child, bullied and drowned at summer camp while the councillors ignored him. Again plausible, realistic and horrifying back story,which leads into the murders at camp by Jason’s mother. Imagine the film had started with its brilliant ending instead. No one would have bought into the monster child rising from the lake without the realism of the back story. Michael Myers, is that crazy brother that did something horrible, in this case the murder of his elder sister on Halloween night. The supernatural and unrealistic events that follow are palatable because of the back story. The next time you hear a sad story like this, think of the monster it may create. The fear in these cases dissipates the same as the monster but events in the real world may set it off again.
Religion and the spirit world
This is where the fear gets me. Because there are no definitive answers about religion and the afterlife, horror using these themes can be lasting and psychological. A well made film can be shocking on-screen and long-lasting off it. When starting to look at this genre, you have to begin with the daddy of religious horror, The Exorcist. Forgetting the mythical status the film has taken on due to censorship and deaths on set, the story of the Exorcist is completely believable to anyone with a religious upbringing. The film begins with the psycho-religious angle, then cranks up the tension further, by introducing monster elements and gore. The effect watching is disturbing and shocking. The general feeling of unease that permeates the early part of the film doesn’t prepare audiences for the assault on the senses that the final act brings. In this movie nothing is sacred as slowly the violence, language and imagery get more and more shocking. This is still the most damaging film I have seen. The spirit world’s unexplained nature means that films can draw on any kind of mythology or boogeyman story. The influx of asian films fall into this section, Ringu or its American remake The Ring start with the same ‘normal’ life scenario, then drop the paranormal on top. In the case of The Ring, the malevolent spirit of Sedako or Samara depending on version, takes its revenge through a cursed videotape. Having normal world elements manipulated by spirits also runs through American cinema. Poltergeist, which is being remade, Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring all have the spirit world taking over a house. Because there is a true-life story behind some of these tales the fear instilled in the audience is long-lasting. In The Conjuring, we have the interesting proviso that this is based on a true story. This is correct, however the dramatic license needed to make this a piece of entertainment, means the mind of the audience is completely open to what happens before them.
For some people, this is the ultimate face of fear. The serial killer. No supernatural, spiritual or mythological background, means the audience don’t even know they are in for a horror film. Serial killers are actual people, evil living in our midst. Films focussing on them can traumatise an audience member for life. The brain is completely open to let the fear of these on-screen killers directly in. Hannibal Lecter is one name that springs to mind immediately. Despite not being the main killer in each of his first two cinema outings, he remains a face of fear, that can terrify an audience as effectively as Krueger or Vorhees without supernatural abilities. John Doe in Fincher’s classic Se7en is another example. A man so twisted, he remains shocking though his actions more than his appearance. Serial killers can remain with the audience because unfortunately they exist in reality. Even when the film is fictional the acts portrayed are often found in real life. The most shocking killer on-screen could be Christian Bale’s portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. A man who has it all, good looks, money and success, he kills because of enjoyment or personal slights. Someone has a better business card than him, so he hits them in the face with an axe. You walk out of the cinema and the person beside you could be Patrick Bateman or worse, that’s why the serial killer is an effective face of fear, it could be anyone.
What horror character scared you the most? Was it a realistic killer like Bateman or was it a monster?