Fear is subjective. We need to agree on that right now or there’s really no point in continuing. What scares you and what scares me are likely to be very different things. And that’s normal, because those things we are afraid of, like those things we desire, are based on our collective life experiences. But there are some fears which are almost universal. The unknown, for example – something unfamiliar, something outside of our realm of experience can be full of great potential, but also great peril. A fear of the dark is largely an extension of our fear of the unknown – anything could be lurking in the shadows, and anything that spends so much time on the lurking part probably isn’t doing it because it wants to give you a big, warm hug and a kiss on the cheek.
And of course, we fear the monsters of this world, both literal and figurative, real and imaginary. And sometimes, we even fear with reason.
Despite that, though, we like to be scared. For thousands of years, we’ve gathered around camp fires to hear the stories of the Things in the woods around us, the vampires and werewolves and cannibals and madmen that creep about in the dark. For the past hundred years or so, we’ve gathered around a different fire: the bulb of a movie projector, allowing modern storytellers to terrorize us in new and different ways. We scream and we jump, we feel that jolt of adrenalin that comes with such fear and we laugh with relief when that fear passes.
We love scary movies for the same reason we love thrill rides and roller coasters – we get that rush of fear that can be so intoxicating without putting ourselves at any genuine risk. It’s remarkable what we, as a species, have devised to scare the crap out of ourselves.
But if what’s scary changes from person to person, how much does what is considered scary change over time? Look at the early icons of horror cinema, the Universal monsters. Dracula, Wolfman, and the Frankenstein monster were envisioned as chilling figures, but by 21st century standards they’re so tame they’ve become beloved by the smallest children. When I was growing up in the 80s, the Big Bads were Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, and my parents steadfastly refused to let me see their movies. In retrospect they were right. I was a nervous child and I grew into a nervous adult, and I can only imagine the image of Kevin Bacon being impaled from beneath would have necessitated an entire ring of incredibly hot stage lights shining under my bed at all times, an effect which really should be reserved for the likes of Charlie Sheen. Today, though, watching those films doesn’t phase me in the slightest, nor do Freddy and Jason haunt the dreams of children today who are of the age I was then. And it’s not because they’re unaware of the monsters – kids these days are more aware than ever. It’s because, like Dracula and Doc Frankenstein’s bouncing baby boy, they no longer find them frightening. The horror icons of the past now walk a line between being macabre clowns and anti-heroes.
And new horror icons roll in, like Jigsaw, while old ones are recycled in sequels, remakes, reboots, relaunches, whatever it’s in vogue to call them today. And so it continues, because horror evolves with culture.
That’s what this little project of mine, Story Structure, is really about: the evolution of stories and story tropes over time. I want to look at stories of a kind and see how the telling changes over the years, and see if I can’t parse out why, and I’ve decided to start with horror movies as part of the most ambitious Evertime Realms Halloween Party of all time. With the help of my lovely girlfriend Erin (herself a horror fan much longer than I’ve been) and a few other friendly suggestions, I’ve complied a list of 35 of the most significant horror movies ever made. I don’t claim this list necessarily represents the best of all time (although many of these films would deserve a spot on that list as well), or even my personal favorites (some of which were lost when I pruned the original, much longer list down to 35). I do think, though, this represents a good cross-section of horror since the birth of cinema, with each film being a cultural milestone in one way or another. As I write this, on May 31 (yeah, I started that early) I’m planning to start watching these films in the order in which they were released, and discuss my thoughts on the film with you. Why is this movie important? Where did it come from? How did it influence the films that came later? And was it ever really scary?
If nothing else, it makes for a hell of a discussion topic, don’t you think?
At the time I did this project – spring through fall of 2011 – all of these movies were available via NetFlix, either streaming or on disc, so if you’d like to play along, throw ‘em in your queue!
And I’ll see you tomorrow, when the terror begins with the 1920 silent classic The Golem. Happy Halloween!
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.