How Horrifying are Horror Films?

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// WEEKEND

By the time you read this, Halloween will have passed, and hopefully you enjoyed a nice fright or two. After all, the popular point of Halloween is to scare the hell out of yourself. And what better way to scare the hell out of yourself than to watch a scary movie?

Some of the greatest films of all time are downright terrifying, though they’re not horror films per se. To be fair, that’s probably a good thing, because when you start thinking about it, horror films don’t stick around long. Sure, you can find and watch them, but after you’ve seen them once, the dark magic is lost. Or maybe I’m just being a little biased to relatively recent films — “It” and the entire “Texas Chainsaw” series come to mind.

I wrote a column two years ago that was a countdown of my 10 favorite horror films, and “Paranormal Activity” was right near the top of the list. My reasoning was straightforward: “Paranormal Activity” is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen in my entire life. (Katie and Micah’s home in that movie reminds me far too much of my own.) But after you know when to expect the demon, you’re not quite so scared anymore.

The same goes for pretty much most of the horror movies you’ve seen — from “Paranormal Activity” to “Saw” to every single Japanese gorefest and their American remakes. Simply put, their quality as a genuinely scary picture diminishes rapidly after that first viewing, though I don’t think most of us care that much. Horror films, after all, are something you tend to watch with other people, with the group collectively inhaling and exhaling and gasping and nervously laughing. The experience makes the movie.

The problem comes when we try sitting down to evaluate these works. Scary films should be scary, and if that scariness does not hold up well over time, were they ever really scary to begin with? In other words, were these films actually any good?

“Halloween” has always been my favorite horror film, but mostly because I was about ten or eleven when I saw it. I got to test its long-term scare appeal last year, when a buddy of mine and I caught a late-night screening at the Criterion. The audience was literally laughing for an hour and a half, and there I am sitting in the back of the theater, uncomfortable and uneasy. I wanted to be terrified, but the truth of the matter is, “Halloween” just isn’t all that terrifying — anymore.

And don’t get me started on horror films that predate Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — itself a classic example of when a scary film ceases to be scary and simply becomes an exercise in psychoanalytic over-examination. Basically, it’s not even worth trying to work out the demerits of a film like “Nosferatu” or even “The Night of the Hunter” — these movies are just too old. Audiences today openly laugh at “The Bride of Frankenstein,” though I bet if you took an audience from 1933 and screened “28 Days Later,” half a dozen patrons would die of heart attacks.

I don’t think any horror film stands up well over time, and that’s a shame. I’d love to feel the same awe today as I did when I was 10 or 11 and watching, for the first time, Michael Myers chase a young Jamie Lee Curtis all over Haddonfield, Ill. with a butcher knife. But it’s just not going to be the case.

Even so, what you ultimately can’t take away is that initial experience of excitement and fright. It seems, then, that what’s really at stake in these movies is whether or not you’re actually entertained. Like I said before, if you’re sitting down to watch a horror film with a group of three or four friends, it’s of no consequence that you’ve trained yourself on when to expect the blood and gore. At the end of the day, you’re having a good time. The actual horror is just an added bonus.

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