Part II - The Art of Watching Horror

horror icons

Back in the Swinging Sixties, when hallucinogenic drugs were transforming respectable professors into counter culture gurus, Dr Timothy Leary published The Psychedelic Experience a sort of field guide for taking mind altering compounds. And in this tome, extracts of which formed the lyrics for the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows incidentally, Leary stressed the importance of what he referred to as ‘set’ and ‘setting’ upon the experience generated by drugs such as mescaline and LSD. The ‘set’ was the frame of mind the user began the session with and the ‘setting’ the specifics of the physical location and environment where it would take place. Basically a negative attitude and/or an unpleasant or anxious environment would result in a bad trip, whereas going into the psychedelic otherworld with a positive mindset and in a comfortable and safe location, surrounded by meaningful sounds and images, would allow the user to shape the hallucinogenic journey to a degree and hopefully be able to use the drug as a key to unlock mystical states of higher consciousness.

But the rights and wrongs of taking chemical shortcuts to enlightenment aside, there’s a lot to be said for applying Leary’s set and setting concepts to movie watching. After all the circumstances of how you first see a film can greatly sway your judgement – I’m sure you can all name a couple of films that now you rate highly but on the first viewing failed to make an impact, or had an initial impression of a movie ruined by being surrounded by terrible goblins who insist on flapping their idiot lips throughout the entire running time.

Now, all films deserve attention and silence, and I know I am not alone in my despair that so often these days, cinema going can highlight the fact that certain sections of society are completely ignorance to the etiquette of movie watching. And as I get older, the more annoyed I become that we ever accepted commercial breaks in television screenings. However the golden rules of film viewing are even more important for films that are striving to build atmosphere or absorb you into their world – nothing will negate a carefully crafted sense of building dread than some automotive porn that assures you that it is necessary to buy a car that costs more than your house, or assorted lizards and meerkats pimping insurance quotes.

However in order to properly appreciate a movie that is aiming for the lofty halls of Pure Terror (see Part I for details of this and other definitions I'll be using), there are some additional caveats. Firstly a home viewing of a horror movie really should be conducted in the dark, preferably in the dead the night. Now obviously the sunless hours are horror’s natural domain, and viewing between the hours of dawn and dusk undoubtedly instantly adds to the mood and watching without any lights on – although candles are permissible – only enhances this. However there is an additional benefit to this practice: during the dim watches of the night you are less likely to be taken out of the film by the local kids downing alcopops outside your window or suffer the unwelcome noises of your car obsessed neighbour molesting his vehicle.

And the second unofficial rule for watching scary films should be ‘Choose your company carefully’. Now while Ghoulish Delights and Ghost Trains play well in a packed living room where the beer is flowing freely and snack food shrapnel is being ground into the carpet, this is not the ideal scenario for cultivating a case of the chills. Aside from the possible distractions of a large group of people refilling glasses and emptying bladders, psychologically speaking the old rule of safety in numbers may well lessen the impact of what is unfolding on screen. Fear is a very intimate emotion and no matter how appreciative your viewing companions may be, there’s nothing to equal the experience of being mesmerised into a state of sheer fright by the flickering screen in the dead of night.

So as I think we have ‘setting’ covered, the remainder of these additional unofficial rules for horror watching should address ‘set’. Now whether as a reaction to hype or just plain natural temperament, you may find yourself settling down to watch a scary movie with a somewhat partisan attitude; saying to yourself ‘Go on then, but you won’t frighten me!’ and generally taking the film as a personal challenge to your valour. Now, although it’s sometimes hard to not to slip into this mental mode, particularly if the film in question is swathed in hyperbole of the ‘most underwear staining film ever!’, I’d argue that this combative attitude is not the right frame of mind.

Whereas excessive hype and buzz about most films set up expectations that a movie will find hard to satisfy, in the realm of the horror film, such pre-viewing baggage usually will have the inverse effect, particularly for the seasoned fright film aficionado. The more frightening a film is alleged to be, the more we tend think it will turn out to be the same old clichéd claptrap.

However the merits of the film in question aside, going into a flick with the emotional hatches battened and the shutters locked down will make it exceptionally difficult for a movie to do its job. Due to the nature of cinematic artifice, it’s very easy to pick apart any movie, even a gold plated classic, with logical quibbles. No matter how realistic it is shot, or how convincing the performances are, you can always shoot down almost any film with the twin complaints of ‘that wouldn’t happen in real life’ and ‘real people don’t talk like that’.

Now I am not making a case for special treatment for horror films here, but as the genre seems to be somewhat unusual in the fact that it can often precipitate donning emotional armouring, I would suggest taking extra care and doing a spot of mental housecleaning before sitting down to take in a frightening flick. After all, we don’t go into thrillers resolute on being bored or into a comedy determined not to laugh. So be open minded and relaxed when checking out a scary movie, willing to suspend your disbelief rather than shouting ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” as soon as the credits roll.

And sometimes if you feel a film is getting overly hyped up as ‘the most terrifying thing since last week!’, then it can pay to put off seeing it until all the fuss has died down and you can appreciate the movie on its own merits rather than measuring it against all the hyperbolic baggage.

I think watching a scary movie should savoured like a fine wine or listening to classical music. And like these two other aesthetic pleasures, subtlety is a key feature for the most frightening films. Therefore so you shouldn’t be expecting buckets of blood and a lightning storm of special effects. I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard the complaint “but you didn’t see anything” levelled at some frightening flicks but this is, I feel, missing the point; it’s like expecting power metal from a Debussy recital.

If you are looking long lingering shots of hideous monsters or stomach churning grue then generally you are better off delving into Ghost Trains or Disturbing Visions which will deliver the graphic imagery you are expecting. Now I have nothing against the genre being explicit, but there is a difference between being horrified and terrified. While such hardcore fare like Cannibal Holocaust may have you wincing in your seat, and polished Ghost Trains like Drag Me To Hell leaping right out of it, they are both different breeds of horror than the dread induced by a Pure Terror film, the haunting fear that has you glancing nervously behind you and scared to put out the lights afterwards.

The crucial thing here is the role of imagination. Often the most frightening things are those which you don’t clearly see, the terrors that are suggested rather then being explicitly shown. Now in a graphic film, the director aims to shock with his use of visuals and if he is doing his job correctly you may find that images and scenes are burned into your mind for days afterwards.

If we are in Ghost Train territory, then it could be a spectacular creature that takes the breath away, an elaborate kill like the classic decapitation from The Omen, or just an iconic villain like Pinhead, Jason or Freddy. And if we are in the grimy dungeons of the Disturbing Visions, what will linger in the mind is probably going to be searing scenes of violence and depravity, the kind of things you really wish you were able to unsee.

However when the terrors are generated by suggestion and fleeting glimpses, the director is trying to get your own imagination involved. And if a film can do this successfully, the imagination carries on playing the movie’s game long after the screen has gone dark, and this is when the sleepless nights comes and we find ourselves afraid of the dark once more.

Now I should make it clear here that I am not suggesting that Pure Terror films are a nobler breed than Disturbing Visions or Ghost Trains. Indeed among horror fans throughout the ages, there has been a long standing debate on which approach is superior - suggestion or explicitness. Now although most of the films that frightened me tend to suggest and hint rather than show and tell, I don’t think the two approaches are mutually exclusive and skilled film-makers can induce the fear and reveal all the horrors in their full glory. For example, The Exorcist is very graphic but has had generations of movie-goers sleeping with the lights on afterwards.

And neither am I claiming that a failure to grasp the subtleties of scary movies implies a dearth of imagination. Horror is a very broad church, and really it’s a case of different strokes for different strokes. However judging from the reactions to a pair of recent flicks that I rank high on the fear scale, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project I rather suspect that often when this two films fail to impress a viewer the problem is not a lack of imagination on their part but a more basic structural fact. Neither of these flicks are constructed with the typical tropes and props of a horror movie, the kind of things you normally get delivered by a typical Ghost Train. And the absence of thunderstorms, obviously spooky mood music, jump scares and the like throws some viewers as the films are not giving out the expected cultural cues that they are trying to be frightening.

And indeed perhaps we can conclude that the biggest obstacle any frightening film has to conquer is the audience’s own expectations. A common feature of all good horrors is that they deliver the unexpected – whether it’s a decent jump scare in a Ghost Train, breaking the rules of what is acceptable in a Disturbing Vision or the “Holy Hell, what is that!” moments in a Pure Terror. And the mark of a poor horror outing is that everything that happens has already been predicted by the audience.

All which neatly brings us back to where we began - set and setting. And like a psychedelic odyssey, when you discover a film that truly gives the fear, it is a transcendent experience. By some strange alchemy, the correct combinations of shots, performances, music and effects can make us forget that what we are watching is only a movie. As James Marriot notes in his introduction to his book Horror Films (Virgin Books 2004) “the genre throws up a kind of wild creativity that just isn’t seen anywhere else”. And indeed what other genre of film besides horror can absorb us so deeply that we forget, temporarily at least, where the boundaries of reality and artifice lie?

Coming in the next IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS – The Films That Frightened Me...

JIM MOON, 22nd October 2010