Are Dated Horror Movies Really Not Scary Any More?

By  · Published on October 31st, 2013

By now, you’ve likely seen the article atYahoo Movies about ten college-aged kids who were shown John Carpenter’s Halloween for the first time to see if the film was still scary 35 years after it was released. The results would make a true horror movie fan weep: this group found the film to be silly, ineffective, and cheesy. In short, not scary at all. There’s even a Vine of these students’ reaction to the whole experience, which may or may not cause fits of anger in true horror fans. More over, this group claimed films like the remake of The Omen (easily inferior to the unmentioned original) and The Cabin in the Woods (a brilliant movie, but never intended to be actually scary) to be more frightening than anything in Halloween.

Let’s start by getting past a few completely unscientific elements of this piece. First, ten subjects is hardly a valid sample size for any study, so this is just an academic exercise. However, even more so, I question who the hell these people are that made it to their college years without seeing John Carpenter’s Halloween. I’m sure there are plenty of those folks knocking about, but honestly, would these people be qualified to evaluate horror movies? No self-respecting horror movie fan (or even someone who claims to passively enjoy scary movies) would make it into his or her twenties without at least seeing this film once, whether it’s on an old VHS tape or during one of AMC’s perennial Fear Fest marathons that drive the series into the ground the way TNT does A Christmas Story in December. Most likely, this unscientifically small sample size is a group of people who aren’t particularly interested in the genre to begin with.

So after we recovered from our fits of rage and attempts to Twitter-stalk the participants in this study, we asked ourselves: Is any horror movie really scary?

The Answer: Hell, yeah! (But to each his own.)

Fear is a biological reaction the body has to discomfort and the unknown. It’s an evolutionary response that keep animals alive by both helping them avoid or escape real threats. When a person is confronted with something unsettling, his or her heart starts beating faster in order to get more oxygen and glucose to the muscles for the biological “fight or flight” reaction. The hormone cortisol increases in the body, which makes tissues more receptive to adrenaline and norepinephrine. All of this works together to charge the body to get ready to run or to battle to the death.

This fear reaction has another effect: it gives us a rush. Not dissimilar to the excitement felt on a roller coaster, fear and anxiety can make you feel more alive and aware. It’s a fun, stimulating experience. Of course, some people don’t particularly like this physical and psychological arousal, and that’s one of the reasons horror movies aren’t for everyone. In fact, the rush felt from this fear (and its lingering psychological effects) can be so intense for some people, there are (somewhat ridiculous) web pages devoted to how to “come down” from the horror movie high.

What makes a horror movie scary is offsetting content. Back in the 20s, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari presented a subversive look at authority that upset the powers that be. In 1932, Tod Browning’s Freaks offered a disturbing look at real circus performers, which set audiences on edge simply because of the characters presence on screen. After the installation of the Hays Code in Hollywood, films like Frankenstein were edited to remove supposedly blasphemous dialogue and a scene of the monster killing a little girl.

These movies seem tame by today’s standards, but the imagery and themes in the films touched a nerve with their contemporary audiences. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho wasn’t just notorious for its grisly murder scenes, but also because the director had the audacity to show a real toilet on screen for the first time in Hollywood history. This technique of shattering cultural taboos works to set the audience on edge not with horror imagery but by just making them feel uncomfortable with what they’re seeing. Stanley Kubrick employed this technique throughout The Shining by layering subliminal imagery of sex and death in order to make the audience feel uncomfortable, which is why that film’s not entirely terrifying content seems so unsettling.

Horror is generational, and subjective

Instead of defining a generation’s horror film as being scary, it’s more about what is unsettling to a particular group of people. The masked stalker isn’t as terrifying to a generation with helicopter parents and cell phones that can immediately dial 911. R-rated movies are much more accessible, as we have an entire generation that can see thousands of hours of restricted content without ever leaving the house (or looking up from those same phones).

With reality television and access to truly disturbing real content online, it’s no wonder that torture porn (and its rise to prominence that coincided with real-life torture and beheading videos online) and found footage (see the previous reference to Vine) is more relatable to a new generation. Films like The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film still have the aim of being unsettling, which triggers the fear response, even if these movies aren’t actually scary in a traditional sense.

It’s what your generation fears that makes you scared. When real-life blood can be seen with a click of the mouse, it’s hard to be scared of it in real life. This is partly why the red paint blood in films like Dario Argento’s Supsiria and George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was considered gory in the 70s and 80s but might be laughable now.

Going back to John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was the first of its kind. While it borrowed techniques and elements from existing films like Peeping Tom and the aforementioned Psycho, it was something new to audiences. The violence, which is tame by today’s standards, was shocking back then. Sure, it may seem corny or cheesy by today’s standards, but it’s still effective. So effective that it launched a thousand imitators. For the right people in the right frame of mind, the stalking of Michael Myers can easily trigger the self-stimulating thrill of the scary movie rush.

So these kids are idiots, right?

Well, let’s not be so harsh. Like religion, what a person finds scary is a deeply personal thing. If a film doesn’t touch you personally – whether it be because you don’t find the situation believable or you are so locked into modern filmmaking that you can’t relate to movies made before you were born – you’re not going to be scared watching the movie.

This is why atheists may not find The Exorcist scary, or at least the demonology aspects of the film. (The torture and horrors that Regan goes through at the hands of “modern medicine” are still secularly terrifying.) What scares you is subjective. It’s what you find dangerous, and to dismiss an entire generation or set of films is insulting, whether it be arrogant college students puffing up their chests and declaring via Twitter that Halloween isn’t scary or old farts like me complaining that kids these days don’t know good horror if it bit them in the ass.

The bottom line is that any particular person may or may not find John Carpenter’s Halloween scary. But if you don’t, there’s no need to ruin it for the rest of us who like that thrill at the hands of Michael Myers and a batch of teenage suburban victims from 1978.

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