What Was The Last Movie To REALLY Scare You?

By  · Published on October 30th, 2015

I was in middle school when I first saw Tremors II: Aftershocks. I’ve never been more scared.

That’s probably not the best way to begin an article on Halloween; it’s also probably not the best way to talk about horror movies in general. You’d have to dig pretty deep to find someone who would describe Tremors II as a terrifying film. The script rehashes many of the funniest moments from the first film – this time with Fred Ward replacing Kevin Bacon as the romantic lead, a prospect only the Tremors producers would equate with mass appeal – and loses whatever balance between comedy and horror the first film may have achieved. Tremors II is an unapologetic comedy and a lot of fun to watch with a group of friends. It’s also the source of my worst nightmares as a child.

While I don’t remember all the specifics about my Tremors II screening, I do remember watching the film at my friend’s apartment in the middle of the day. My family did not own a TV for most of my childhood; this prevented me from having the type of horror-heavy upbringing that most thirty-something genre fans take for granted today. I saw The Fugitive at least a dozen times in the basement of my grandparents’ home; meanwhile, my friend David had both a VCR and a Super Nintendo, making him one of the best people to visit on a Saturday afternoon. It was David who suggested we watch Tremors II during a particularly cheerful summer day. I would spend that entire evening sweating through my sheets and refusing to sleep, screaming at my parent’s closed door that the monsters were coming to get me. My parents vowed to never let me watch another horror movie as long as I would live. And four years later I was showing people Re-Animator on class field trips.

Every October I find myself thinking about that night I spent crying in bed over Tremors II. On the one hand, it’s a funny memory that highlights how stupid I was and how far I’ve come since then. On the other hand, though, the memory contains a bit of nostalgia for those days when a horror film could truly get under my skin. Like many of you, October is the month where friends and family members come out of the woodwork to ask for horror movie recommendations, and I, making sure that people who might only watch a handful of scary movies a year make the most of their choices, am only too happy to oblige. There’s only one problem: horror films don’t really scare me anymore. Sure, a good jump scare can still startle me as much as the next guy, but movies that deliver sleepless nights are nearly impossible to find. The best a film can offer is ninety minutes of the macabre, images and sounds that attract almost as much as they repel. Horror films have become something to be stylistically appreciated rather than feared.

For researchers who study the attraction of horror films, this is less about the things that scare us and more about the feeling of relief that follows. Most people obsesses over the horror film less because of the ‘scare’ – the onscreen mutilation and death that drives a film’s reputation – and instead for the sense of relief that floods your body once a potentially scary situation has been navigated. One article in particular highlighted the relief that comes from watching horror films as the “physical and emotional release that follows scary situations.” While audiences may or may not enjoy being scared, we are certainly addicted to the emotions that immediately follow our fight-or-flight response.

And as I grow older, I’ve found that the things that stress me out and bring me relief are quite different from monsters that look like bipedal Chicken McNuggets. The films that frighten me the most – that came the closest to replicating my childhood fears – are centered less on horror tropes and more on the types of anxieties and fears that my adult self has to deal with every day. Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, for example, wouldn’t be on most people’s lists of best horror films of the new millennium; it might not even make it onto the horror shelves in general. But no film of the last ten years has come closer to giving me a sleepless night. The prospect of not knowing if you’re crazy – of feeling compelled to do something for the safety of your family despite a ton of evidence that suggests you’ve lost your mind – is incredibly stressful, and I watched that film with a physicality that my twelve-year-old self would instantly recognize. Hidden behind a pillow, contorted into a ball of angst and discomfort, prepared to pause the film at any time to pace around the house until the feeling subsided. And the relief that followed was tenuous at best.

All of which isn’t to suggest that I’ve outgrown horror films. If anything, the horror genre is more appealing to me than ever before. Even as we outgrow the individual scares of the films, the deceptive simplicity of the genre – the ways in which complex social issues can be boiled down to one monster or one killer – offers the perfect blend of escapism and engagement. The best films strive to be both entertaining and challenging at the same time, and the horror genre – especially during this moment in time, regardless of what some may call it – is walking that line better than ever. My appreciation for the horror genre may be rooted in my childhood, but the resulting anxieties and intelligent debate are worth a few sleepless nights. Or, in this case, nights of uninterrupted sleep.

So maybe the message here is to appreciate the horror genre as one that ages alongside us, or maybe all you’ve learned is to take everything I write with a grain of salt since Tremors II once made me cry. I’m fine with either being your major takeaway. At any rate, here’s to those horror films that left a lasting impression on us in our childhood, and here’s to the ambiguous thrillers that appeal to our adult selves. As you settle in for the long Halloween weekend, we only ask that you think of one thing: when was the last time that you were really and truly scared?

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)