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On Scary Movies

Much as my Twitter friends and I suspected, watching Stephen King’s It last night before bed did, in fact, induce creepy dreams. Oddly, enough, though, my nightmare nemesis was actually more like Michael Meyers (the 1978 one, not the lame 2007 Rob Zombie version). I guess that could be because I grew up on the Halloween franchise, and the 1978 version is still one of my favorite movies.

Thursday is Halloween, and my Reel Success class voted that we should watch a Halloween film to mark the day.  This was not part of my original plan (complete oversight on my part), but as an instructor, it’s important to be adaptable.  I told them this, though:

To be clear, when I say “horror film,” I am speaking of the horror genre designed to truly scare people—not gross them out. I draw a careful line here. I do not consider movies like Saw or Hostel appropriate Halloween fare. I just think those are gross. And filled with gratuitous violence, gore, and language. A truly good horror film needs none of those to successfully scare you. Also, the film clearly has to be related to something we’re learning in class, so it has to be something with substance.

Thus, I am currently debating between 1968’s Night of The Living Dead and 1959’s House on Haunted Hill.

I love scary movies at Halloween time (this is actually the extent of my participation in the “holiday.”). I enjoy seeing what AMC and TCM decide to show.  I also like pulling from my DVD collection to watch some old faves.

Last night, I saw that Spike was playing Stephen King’s It (1990), and I decided to watch that (hence the statement that began this post).  I read the book bazillion years ago, and it scared the bejeesus out of me.  I have since watched the movie a number of times (the book is WAY scarier, FTR).  Here’s the thing about It: Most people who watch the film get really creeped out by Pennywise the clown, and he is creepy.  But for anyone who’s read the book, it’s actually surprising how much screen time Pennywise gets.  In the book, It manifests more frequently in other ways that scare the children (Werewolf, Frankenstein, etc.). Because that is what’s scary about It. It is the embodiment of some evil we can’t really know or understand—and it feeds off our fears, our nightmares.  It takes the shape of whatever our greatest fear is.  Which makes It the scariest villain of all. And it’s what makes the movie so terribly frightening.

Here are some of my other picks for Halloween scares:

Halloween (1978) is frightening for much the same reason as It. This is why I hate the Rob Zombie (2007) version. Zombie turned Michael Meyers into a human being with a traumatic past that turned him into a serial killer. And in so doing, ruined everything that was great about the original movie.  Michael Meyers, like It, is the embodiment of evil (it’s why he keeps coming back to life—humans don’t do that!); he’s not a man. In fact, in the original screenplay, he’s referred to simply as The Shape.  We’re supposed to be terrified of The Shape because we don’t know what it is. I don’t need all the gore of the 2007 one (or the ridiculous back story) to be scared. Michael Meyers never runs, but he always catches up to you. You can shoot him, push him off a building, mow him down with a car—and he keeps coming. For no reason (no, not because he was traumatized as a kid)—no reason. He’s just evil—and undefeatable. And that’s scary.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a little gorier. After all, zombies, as we all now know, eat people, which is a little gross.  But in comparison to what we see today, this film is really tame. And, as with Halloween, much more of the violence takes place off screen. We know people die, but we don’t (always) see the details of it.  For example, a woman is dragged off by a group of zombies. We know they’re eating her—but we don’t see it.  Perhaps more importantly, this film is iconic in that it defined what zombies would be for…well, all the way until now.  They’re not even called zombies in the movie! And yet, all the zombie movies and TV shows that follow Romero’s original are based on the film’s “ghouls.” The concept of zombies as reanimated dead humans who feed on live humans is Romero’s invention.  And for that alone, this film is a much watch.  Also—it’s the unknown that frightens us again with this movie: we don’t know why the dead people are coming back to life or why they want to eat the living, and we certainly don’t know how to fight them and win. From an instructional standpoint (since it is one of the two I’m considering), I think my students are perfectly capable of culling some valuable life lessons from this film—particularly with a little historical research. Also, it only has one bad word.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) makes my list for a few reasons (I actually own the first four in the franchise and tend to put them on rotation for a day during Halloween. I let them play in the background when I do other things). Yes, it’s rated R, but let’s face it: the scariest thing about Freddy Krueger is that he exists in your dreams. And if he kills you in your dream, you die in real life.  It’s an actual nightmare come true. We get a little backstory on Freddy but not as much as we do in the remake (again, a reason I prefer the original). I actually don’t care why Freddy wants to terrorize the kids of Elm Street. He scares me because he gets you through your dreams. What’s scarier than a movie that makes you not want to sleep because sleep isn’t safe? (Bonus: it has Johnny Depp. So.)

Psycho (1960): I was actually just mentioning to someone on Facebook that I’m not really sure why I don’t own this. It’s a must-watch because Alfred Hitchcock is a master of suspense. And because you never want to take a shower again. Again, the remake has information I don’t really want or need…although I’m totally addicted to the TV show.

The Birds (1963) is another Hitchcock, but this movie is scary. Why are those birds so mad? Why are they attacking people? I have no idea! But I still look at groups of birds with a little tiny bit of fear. And Hitchcock didn’t need gore to do that to me. And that’s why this one’s on my must-watch list.

The Exorcist (1960): I grew up Catholic. Demonic possession is scary.

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