Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from film editor A.A. Dowd:
What supposedly terrifying movie doesn’t scare you at all?
The Exorcist is a good movie. It’s atmospheric. It’s terrifically acted. William Friedkin directs the hell out of it. But when people talk about it as the certifiable, consensus Scariest Movie Of All Time, I’m reminded of why, exactly, it gets under so many people’s skin but not mine: This is a deeply Catholic horror movie. As someone who grew up in an entirely secular home, with no time spent in church or Sunday school, I’ve just never been especially susceptible to Satanic-possession stories, which count on at least a smidgeon of Old Testament fear. (You don’t have to literally believe that the Devil takes over bodies, but I assume those who find the film scary can tap into some ingrained religious anxiety.) And if the deep theological dread of The Exorcist doesn’t get to you, what you’re left with is an elegant but still pretty over-the-top FX spectacular—one that occasionally plays, I have to confess, like gross-out black comedy, what with the vomiting and the masturbation-by-crucifix and “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell.” Heresy, I realize.
Is The Birds supposed to be scary? I mean, really? As I was growing up, weekends at my dad’s house were spent watching a lot of movies, some of which were genuinely terrifying, but this particular Hitchcock film was always met with delighted anticipation from my sisters and me for our favorite (hilarious) scenes. First, there’s the kid’s outdoor birthday party where the partygoers are attacked by a swarm of seagulls, and—the best—one of the gulls pecks at the back of a girl’s head while she’s on the ground slowly kicking her little legs up and down. (My sisters and I would reenact this scene with practiced mechanicalness.) Our other favorite scene, closer to the end when the bird shit really hits the fan, finds Hedren holed up with the central family in its house. The birds get in through the chimney, and Rod Taylor cries out, “Cover your faces, cover your eyes!” Also very funny. The Birds can be tense and suspenseful, but to me it’s an exaggerated, occasionally grotesque film that offers entertainment on an entirely different level.
Is The Silence Of The Lambs a masterful exercise in suspense? Yes. Does Jonathan Demme successfully stitch together a suit of nausea-inducing imagery that fits over a taut adaptation of Thomas Harris’ cat-and-mouse thriller? Yes. (Though the TV version of the Lecter mythos bests it on the artistically disgusting front.) Is Anthony Hopkins’ first go-round as Hannibal Lecter so acute that he could make an unsettling impression on filmgoers in under 20 minutes? Ask the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. Is Silence Of The Lambs “scary”? I don’t think so. Like a lot of my colleagues, I think my response to this question hinges on my first experience with the movie: In this case, in the middle of the day, at a friend’s pool party. Why one of the party’s other attendees thought Silence Of The Lambs would be the ideal accompaniment to summertime fun, I’ll never know—but I do know I braced for a viewing experience that turned out to be more entertaining than terrifying. I love the film, and it served as a gateway to one of my favorite TV dramas of the past decade, but I really expected it to give me more nightmares about an epicurean psychiatrist trying to eat my face. At the very least, it instilled a lifelong skepticism about strangers trying to load furniture into custom vans.
I’m bummed and also vindicated that A.A. Dowd took my go-to answer of The Exorcist; demonic possession just doesn’t get to me, as I recently discussed on my podcast. As a second choice, I’ll go with the equally revered Night Of The Living Dead. I wouldn’t say that the movie “isn’t” scary—just that I saw it at the wrong time. When I was 13 or 14, I got super into horror movies, but more chasing the bonkers horror-farce highs of Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive. When I caught up with Living Dead during this phase, I found its stripped-down immediacy a bit dull, I’m ashamed to say. I think if I’d first seen it when I was either a few years younger or five or six years older, it would have had much more impact. But it’s hard to go back and get scared by something that you didn’t find scary the first time. On the bright side, Teenage Gorehound Jesse really liked the funnier, weirder Dawn Of The Dead.
For someone who watches as many horror movies as I do, I am still remarkably susceptible to their tricks. (Just ask A.A. Dowd about the time we saw The Conjuring 2.) But hype can really dull a horror movie’s impact, and I’m quite certain that’s what happened with It Follows. I saw the movie under ideal circumstances—in a gorgeous old movie palace, with an appreciative crowd—and sat down ready, after months of hearing about how scary it was, to get the bejeezus scared out of me. But as the movie went on, I found myself appreciating it as a work of art more than as a visceral experience. There was one part that kind of got me (the part in the house, you know the one), but I’m not going to lie, I willed myself into jumping in my seat. Everyone else was freaking out, and I guess I wanted to fit in. I still like the movie, a lot. But it didn’t really scare me.
I’m not sure what reaction people are supposed to have to Srdjan Spasojevic’s highly controversial, atrocity-filled A Serbian Film. It’s classified as horror, so I guess it’s supposed to be scary. It has certainly had a powerful effect on many who have seen it, judging by the reviews. To be honest, the movie was not what I was expecting. It was more stylized than I was anticipating, with the editing, camerawork, and music choices all constantly reminding me I was watching a movie. Only Srdan Todorovic’s performance connected with me emotionally. More than anything else, A Serbian Film seemed like a mutated, fermented version of an Eli Roth gorefest, only minus the bratty Americans. I was left mostly numb, maybe a little depressed by the experience. But terrified? Nah. I couldn’t even have been that shocked, since I remember singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to myself over the end credits. I was already planning A Serbian Musical.
Even if they’re not really intended to be “scary” so much as horrifying or depressing, the Saw movies have never worked for me on the level they were intended to hit. Instead, I find them profoundly irritating. Poor old Jigsaw—this master puzzle builder—spends years and millions of dollars designing elaborate escape-room-style games for people. And then, instead of trying to follow the rules, they inevitably just blunder around, act selfishly, and screw things up. I’m sure there might be some scary, upsetting lesson to be taken from all this, but I’m too busy screaming at these idiots to just follow. The damn. Rules. The worst example might be Saw II, where the cast members ignore the clever solution at every possible turn. And sure, having to dive into a pit full of used hypodermic needles is scary. But it’s nothing on the wrath of a dyed-in-the-wool puzzle nerd like me watching interesting designs go to waste.
How about any slasher movie film ever made? The proto-slasher shower scene in Psycho scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid, but that’s the exception, and The Shining doesn’t count. There’s just something about characters being offed one by one by a masked, knife-wielding menace that has never connected with me as a source of fear, whether it’s in Halloween (which I love), a Mario Bava or Dario Argento giallo movie (ditto), or in one of the countless Friday The 13th-alikes that came out of the 1980s. I have a personal theory about this. Most of the stuff I find myself creeped out by no matter how many times I see it (e.g., Cure, the Winkie’s scene in Mulholland Drive) is just on the border of the irrational, but slasher movies—in which the narrative is almost always a process of elimination—are really easy to rationalize, which is probably why there’s so much academic literature about them.
When I was a kid I found pretty much everything terrifying. I would run out of movie theaters if a frightening trailer would play before whatever I was going to see. I wouldn’t walk into Halloween-themed stores for fear of an item freaking me out. Even though I’ve matured a lot since those days, I tend to carry those childhood anxieties with me and avoid horror films, but earlier this year I really wanted to see The Witch. What can I say?—I love me some crazy 17th-century Puritans. I kept putting it off, until I finally bucked up and dragged myself (and a buddy) to a screening. Before the movie began, I was in a state of total panic, but I had nothing to worry about: I loved i,t and it didn’t turn me into a quivering mess. Though I found it unnerving, it wasn’t what I would call “scary”—more along the lines of beautiful and weird. The experience made me reevaluate my internal policies on horror, and wonder what I’ve been missing all these years by being a ’fraidy cat.
Practically everyone I know around my age points to Poltergeist as the horror movie they saw before they probably should have. They still speak of that clown doll with the same fearful reverence our hut-dwelling ancestors would whisper to their children about the devils that surely walked the Earth among us. I avoided the movie for years while, being a ubiquitous piece of pop culture, exposed to its highlights; the aforementioned doll, the static TV screen, the corpses floating to the surface of the rain-swollen backyard. So by the time I did finally see the movie in its entirety, the tension was completely drained. It is a really good movie, though. I imagine if I were 9 or 10 when I saw it for the first time it would be the indelible red mark of fear on my brain. As it is, that honor goes to Pet Sematary. Holy shit, did that movie ever do a number on me.
As a kid, I scoured the video-store shelves for every horror movie I could find, the grossest, most transgressive (according to Fangoria magazine and other disreputable sources) being the most sought after. Raimi, Cronenberg, Romero—all gleefully rented and devoured, as were the films of the so-called “Italian masters of horror” like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Mario Bava, and the like. The thing is, while those other directors progressed, and even their ’70s-’80s movies remain genuinely frightening and/or disturbing, the Italians remain the figures of gross-out silliness they were to me at 13. Argento’s Suspiria, long held as the exemplar of Italian horror, fares the worst simply by virtue of its lofty esteem as the best of the genre. (Certainly, Argento’s revealed himself as an enormous hack since.) It’s got the young, enduringly strange Jessica Harper as lead, and some showy, garish visuals. (That fluorescent Italian blood.) Not to mention the enjoyably bombastic score by Goblin. But the whole thing partakes of the signature, cheesy melodrama that makes me chuckle rather than shiver.
Perhaps I’ve been desensitized from numerous viewings, but I don’t find The Sixth Sense scary. Insanely clever? Yes. Nightmare inducing? No. This may be because I’m neither a ghost nor a medium and therefore will experience none of the shenanigans portrayed in this movie. It could also be attributed to the happy and resolute ending. Whatever the case, at this point in my life, this is a movie I reference when joking about realizing something too late, a movie I watch while packing or doing other mundane things. If you want a real horror movie starring Haley Joel Osment, however, watch Pay It Forward.
While Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe isn’t “scary” in the way we associate with horror films, its portrayal of a suburban everywoman’s descent into (supposed) chemical sensitivity is deeply unsettling. Or at least that’s its reputation: “This spooky film’s ostensible subject… is merely a starting place for this mesmerizing horror movie,” wrote The Washington Post. “Grips you with its air of antiseptic malevolence and leaves you gasping,” said Toronto’s Globe And Mail. It had no such effect on me. While Julianne Moore’s performance is great (as usual), and Haynes never explains what exactly is happening to her, it’s more intriguing than unnerving. When I returned the DVD to Josh Modell, who’d recommended it, he treated me like a sociopath because Safe hadn’t shaken me to my core. Well, at least it taught me what freaks him out for pranking purposes.
I love Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, but I’d never call it terrifying. The image of little Tomás, the rambunctious ghost boy with a sack over his head, is certainly a haunting one, and the story that unfolds as Laura—played with quiet, captivating strength by Belén Rueda—searches for her missing son is full of turns that get more and more tragic as it closes in on a stomach-churning finale. Like Kyle’s reaction to Safe, though, I’ve always found it more distressing than straight-up scary. The film’s few attempts at overt horror—there’s a single scene with not one but two absurd jump scares—stick out like sore thumbs, and when you get down to it, the supernatural presence that’s driving its tensest moments is a bunch of adorable ghost children. Is its final twist one of the most brutal, soul-crushing revelations I’ve ever seen? Absolutely. Is it “scary”? Not quite.
I’m the opposite of Esther in that I started off with a high tolerance for gore and horror, but have become increasingly squeamish. Growing up, Thursday was horror-movie day at our local video store, and my family would dutifully rent three fright flicks at a time, which we found funny for the most part. Maybe I’ve become too aware of my own mortality, or I’m just a chickenshit, but I don’t stomach eviscerations so well anymore. So I prepared to be terrified during The Babadook, which everyone I know had found to be one of the scariest movies ever. And I was riveted by Essie Davis’ troubled widow in the film, but not once did the spooky presence in her home really startle me. It felt more like a meditation on grief and PTSD to me, which made for an engrossing movie, just not a scary one. And I know the Babadook’s presentation was inspired by a twisted take on children’s books, but it just reminded me of those pharmaceutical commercials with anthropomorphized depression.
I share the opinions on a number of films above, while also—like Katie—being a hardcore horror fanatic who still manages to get scared by things like The Conjuring 2. But after looking at everyone else’s submissions, the film I’ve had the most people tell me they were scared by, and that has never even slightly raised goosebumps on me, is Hellraiser. Much like A.A. Dowd’s view of The Exorcist, I admire the film a lot. It’s one of those cases where the stars aligned and Clive Barker managed to translate the best aspects of his novella to the big screen, an endlessly fascinating and intellectual exploration of fantasy, desire, pain, and gender. But its very erudition, for me, saps it of any power to frighten. Gruesome special effects don’t creep me out, the jump scares are minimal, and while it’s an easy film to appreciate, weirdos from another dimension just don’t rule my nightmares these days. That mental real estate is reserved for breaking my teeth.