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In praise of scary movies

The Bates' house from the 1960 movie "Psycho."

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published October 25, 2017

“We talk all the time about the American Dream. What horror movies do is force us to pay attention to the American Nightmare.”
David Schmid, associate professor
Department of English

No better testimony to the enduring culturally pervasive and haunting power of scary movies exists than the shocking story of Liliana Schmid’s 13th birthday celebration.

Schmid, daughter of David Schmid, associate professor of English whose courses on crime fiction, mysteries, Hitchcock, celebrity culture and pop culture are perennially popular among UB students, didn’t hesitate when her father asked her what she wanted to do with her friends to mark the occasion.

The movie version of Stephen King’s classic horror story “It” was opening right after her birthday. She and her friends really, really wanted to see it.

“Are you sure about this?” Schmid asked his daughter.

“Absolutely,” she said.

“And so I took a bunch of them to the movies to see it,” he said.

There you have it. Once again, Schmid was reminded of the popularity and interest in horror films. His surprise perhaps wasn’t as shocking as the famous shower scene in “Psycho” or some graphic scene from “Saw VI.” But he still didn’t see his daughter’s answer coming.

Despite the bad or dismissing press, and all logical evidence to the contrary, scary movies live on. It’s more than that, actually. They thrive, both in the unseemly, grisly and consistently profitable slasher films, as well as what Schmid calls the “slow burn” suspense movies that try to “unsettle” the audience by creating psychological suspense more than scattering body parts across the screen.

There is no doubt about it. As Liliana Schmid and her friends so clearly demonstrated, we love to scare the stuffing out of ourselves, at Halloween or any other time of the year.

For Schmid, who has published widely on various aspects of violence and popular culture, there are identifiable and understandable reasons why scary movies have outlasted trends and criticism. That first quality became clear during the collective birthday viewing of “It.”

“The thing that really struck me about ‘It’ was that when we are talking about the appeal of scary movies, we often begin from a false premise,” he says. “That false premise is, we consume them by ourselves, by isolation. And I think it’s in the nature of cinema arguably, and even if you are watching it on the computer or the TV, you watch it with other people. It’s a group community experience.”

Not only does going through the horror-movie experience together make it less frightening, Schmid says, it also makes it more “participatory.”

“I would argue, in a way you establish a kind of temporary virtual community of people all going through the same thing and sharing this experience with you,” he says. “And in a world where we are increasing disconnected to each other in various ways, I think this serves a valuable function.”

So not only do you share the experience of watching scary movies with those close to you, but you can talk about them later with your friends and family.

Schmid follows the we’re-in-this-together scary-movie explanation with what he calls the “venerable catharsis argument. ”

“By watching a scary movie, we find a way to work through and manage our fears in a safe, non-threatening environment,” he says. “Despite the fact it’s a venerable argument, I still think it’s relevant.”

Schmid says credible studies show the rates of violent crime have been declining steadily for years, and hopefully will continue to do so.

“But there is still a kind of disconnect between the reality of violent crime and people’s perceptions of how likely it is they are going to become a victim,” he says. “Those numbers (of people being concerned about their safety) have remained remarkably steadfast in the face of evidence to the contrary.

“And that leads to an atmosphere of what I call ambient fear a lot of us experience,” he says, “which is like a low-level of anxiety with us all the time, so much so that we’re completely used to it. We don’t even notice it any more. But it’s one of the things that defines our everyday existence.”

So, Schmid explains, arguably, watching these scary movies gives us a way to manage these ambient fears.

“Or at the very least to sort of focus it, to say, ‘OK, this is what I am scared of.’ Going through the experience of actually feeling that fear, enjoying yourself at the same time and leaving the movie theater afterward — that’s an important therapeutic process.  So I thing that is part of it as well.”

Schmid is just getting started. The diversity and richness of the horror movie genre also earns his respect and admiration.

He says most horror films know exactly when to pull back and don’t make the audience feel too uncomfortable. There are psychological “escape hatches,” he says, techniques that don’t surprise the audience too much or make them feel uncomfortable.

“For example, we may complain that every time a basement appears in a scary movie, we know someone is going down into it within five minutes, and you know they’re going to get killed, shortly afterward.” The movie “It” is a great example, Schmid says. “You can see it coming a mile away.”

Compare that, he says, with the extraordinary films that actually attempt to unsettle the audience, known as “slow burn” horror movies. They often are not very violent or gory.

The “psychological suspense” they create comes about through “development of characters or their gradual elaboration of plot that you intuit is working up into some kind of big reveal,” he says. “But you can’t be sure what that reveal is and what’s going to happen. So when you do actually get the violence, it has much greater effect than the blood-soaked gorefest that, you know, has body parts from start to finish.”

Well-known examples of this: “Psycho,” “The Exorcist” and “The Shining,” as well as ”Funny Games,” which Schmid describes as the most frightening film he has ever seen.

So the horror film market is now diverse enough to support both kinds of movies: the straightforward and the slow burns. And that leads to another strength of the horror film category, he says.

“As the genre has gone on, not only has it become more popular, it’s developed more and more niche markets, partially because audiences have become more sophisticated as the genre has developed,” he says. “Very few of which will appeal to the same audience, but they each have a particular kind of audience and they are still able to make money.”

With all of horror films’ strengths, virtues and contributions to society — establishing a communal, shared experience; creating a rich and diverse art form; the catharsis that allows us to work through our fears; crafting a sophisticated and discerning audience —what’s not to love?

Schmid doesn’t shy away from the obvious question, especially given the pattern of American mass shootings, and especially given the horrific killings in Las Vegas. Do horror films — show burn or otherwise — incite acts of violence?

Landmark horror films:

Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Arguably the founding film of the horror genre, this silent film introduces what would become a classic trait of the genre: exploring doubts about the nature and stability of reality.

James Whale, “Frankenstein” (1931)

One of the first — and possibly the greatest — of the “monster” horror movies that would dominate the 1930s. Also notable for the way Whale gets the audience to identify/sympathize with the Monster.

Don Siegel, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)

“Invasion” is a great example of the melding of science fiction and horror. In this film, that mix is used to address anxieties about the spread of social conformity and/or communism in 1950s America.

Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960)

A landmark in both the horror genre and in Hitchcock’s career. This film showed that the horror genre could have a depth and complexity that few had ever dreamed it could, and made horror a legitimate viewing experience for adults and cinephiles alike.

George Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

The figure of the zombie already had a considerable pedigree in both literature and film by the time Romero released “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, but Romero both modernizes and Americanizes the zombie in “Night,” and this makes it a completely revolutionary and hugely influential film.

William Friedkin, “The Exorcist” (1973)

A rare example of how a genre film can become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Part of the reason this happened is that audiences were ready for a new level of explicitness in cinema, both in terms of sex and violence. This movie provided both.

Tobe Hooper, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)

A much-reviled film that remains an essential reference point in the genre. This film raised the bar significantly on the amount and intensity of violence that could be included in a horror film.

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

This is the film that, for many, elevated the horror genre to the level of cinematic art, which is a contentious claim, not least because many of its fans want it to remain in the gutter.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)

A landmark film in the “found footage” sub-genre of horror film, in which all or a substantial part of a fictional film is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings.

Writer's choice: Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

I’d call it a “slow burn” movie if it weren’t so much more. Loss. Love. Work. And that extra dimension of consciousness that often invades, then retreats from your awareness. “It’s all about seeing your own death, fate,” says Roeg’s peer, director John Landis, in introducing the accompanying video. And it takes place within the otherworldly beauty of Venice. “Like all truly beautiful places, it can be really creepy.”

“I’m very skeptical about that argument,” he says, “not just in relation to horror films. I tend to be skeptical about any argument that says ‘X inspires violence.’ Because the only proper answer is ‘A to Z inspires violence.’ And then some. You always look in those situations that an event or behavior is determined by multiple causes. And any time you just point the finger at one thing, you’re not identifying the cause, you’re scapegoating. And that is something very, very different,” he says.

“Horror films are an easy target, for various reasons. But I tend to think they don’t really inspire real acts of violence. And I do think they can have a positive social function. I wouldn’t argue that about all horror films. But I do think just as in any genre there are better examples of this genre. And the best examples of this genre cannot only confirm viewers’ sense of reality and the world and themselves, but also challenge that. And get them thinking in new directions.”

 You can tell a lot about a culture if you can identify what it is that scares people and how we deal with those fears, Schmid says.

“From that point of view, horror movies provide a wonderful archive of evidence about what it is that makes American culture tick,” he says. “We talk all the time about the American Dream. What horror movies do is force us to pay attention to the American Nightmare.

“And we can tell just as much about our society from the American Nightmare as we can from the American Dream. That’s the beauty of the genre.”