Emotional Health

Halloween, Scary Movies, and the Fun Side of Fear

People who are fear “junkies” may be attempting to gain mastery over traumatic experiences. Someone who repeatedly puts herself in danger may be trying to recreate a fearful situation in an effort to somehow control what once made them feel powerless and helpless. This is a common reason why some women who have been sexually abused continue to put themselves in sexually risky situations. It is also one reason why some people with that history become abusers themselves. They are trying to gain emotional mastery over a situation they once experienced passively by becoming the active party to it. In this way, we try to regain a lost sense of agency. It does not work, however, so it must be repeated over and over.

For most of us, the occasional thrill does the trick, and when the scary parts are too vivid or shocking, the effects are minimized or even backfire. The best thrillers use suggestion and atmosphere with artistry and nuance. Halloween is an example: its best element is the simple and eerie score that Carpenter himself added. Recently, Curtis said in an interview that when she saw a first cut of the film she thought it was a dud. It wasn’t until the music was added that it came to life.

Like Halloween, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws will always be remembered for its heart-pounding score that has become a cue to fearful anticipation for an entire generation. It was also a monster hit, and helped launch the director’s subsequent career as one of Hollywood’s legends. Another reason it works so well is that the danger—the shark—is not seen until the final third of the movie. Spielberg admitted that was less a directorial choice than a necessity—the “shark” had major mechanical problems when shooting began.

Another classic horror film in which the “monster,” in this case the devil, is barely seen is Rosemary’s Baby. Considered first-rate by every standard, this movie transcends the genre and turns many of the usual clichés on their heads.  For example, the main “villains,” Rosemary’s next-door neighbors, are a bourgeois old couple, and Ruth Gordon as Minnie Cassevets is particularly effective in what is almost a parody of a nosy old lady.

Once again, the music is central, and its recurring melody of a minor key lullaby belies the spookiness of the situation and Rosemary’s growing dread that witches are planning to use her baby in a ritual sacrifice. The real plan turns out to be worse than she imagined, again turning the “nightmare” scenario on its head.

In a tragic footnote to this film, the year after it was made, the director, Roman Polanski, experienced events worse than a nightmare. He had endured the horrors of the Holocaust as a child, and his subsequent attraction to the genre may have been an attempt at mastery. In 1969, just as Polanski was being celebrated for Rosemary’s Baby, a story about a pregnant woman in mortal danger,  his own wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson and his followers. She was eight months pregnant at the time.

One of the film’s producers, William Castle, believes for this and a few other reasons that the film was “cursed,” but the trick of horror movies lies in the distance they help us put between reality and fantasy. Occasionally, they may keep us up at night, but sometimes it’s also a relief to find there is something scarier than real life.


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