June 10. 2018 / Jesse Rintoul

When the sun dips below the horizon and all the day’s work is done, what better way to unwind than to throw on a scary movie and let someone else do the screaming and running and fighting for their life? There is a certain amount of comfort in knowing it’s not you that’s in danger. Before Netflix it was movie rental outlets like Blockbuster, Video Ezy or even the archaic Civic Video that held the key to a cozy friday night. When it boils down to the reason adults watch a horror films it’s a subconscious need for our childhood fears to come back to us as a way of topping our day to day fears in an imaginative, unexpected way. If the film fails to deliver greater, more plausible fears than ‘have I paid my bills on time?’ then a grown audience simply stops looking for the next fright and takes warm fuzzy comfort in knowing they’re not the one being hunted by a knife-wielding, ghost-face wearing serial killer.

Settling in for a weekend, you would rent a few choice movies, and if you were renting movies as a kid you’d look for the most adult rating just to make sure you were scared stiff. As we get older, the scare that movies put into us stifles and peeters out. It has something to do with being a kid, being a lot more carefree, that allows the horror genre to steer open and wild imaginations to the point of real fear. It taps into the child’s psyche,  filled to the brim with fears and doubts about the adult world and because the evils that live in the adult world are still a mystery to them. Kids are the best audience a horror movie could hope for. When a scary movie presents a world where demonic clowns, ghosts, monsters and evil forces are dominant for a good portion of the film, it is an adult audience that is comfortable watching their hero flee in a mad panic through the rain and lightning.

With maturity comes an awareness of things that ‘go bump’ in the horror movies, not to say that all those moments are predictable, they still make the ordinary movie-goer spill their popcorn in fright, but the jump-scares are owed to amplified music and red herrings. Characters that creep up behind the protagonist for no reason, it’s the fear that is already making our hero paranoid that lays the foundation for jump-scares. If we hear a loud burst from the string section and see our main character jump in fear, we will also jump. Once the fear washes over us and subsides we can laugh at ourselves for even feeling it.

Setting can make the fear more real for the character experiencing it, for an audience it provides a backdrop where someone else is the mouse in the lab. It’s what makes stopping on the side of the highway a risk, (The Hills Have Eyes, Urban Legend, Psycho, Silent Hill). For our hero there is a road ahead that they might never continue down, a road that might put them through hell. Setting is even revisited for trashy sequels, Freddy Vs Jason went back to Elm Street (where it again stormed a silly amount, lightning every other second and bathtubs of rain). This weather isn’t only disarming and cozy for its audience, this rain and thunder forces all these characters to run for cover. In many scary movies the weather is the first sign that our characters are up against forces beyond their control, forces already in motion.

The opening scene in Wes Craven’s 1997 horror masterpiece, ‘Scream’, is a perfect example of how cozy it really is to watch someone’s normalcy disappear before their eyes, over the phone no less. We’re welcomed into this upper-middle looking house where Drew Barrymore donning a blonde bob-cut is making herself some popcorn, readying for a scary movie. She is courting fear; as an adult she has seen them all and not one of them has put the scare in her, she can throw on a scary movie, snack and get some cheap thrills out of the odd jump-scare. What is it that makes her stay on the phone when a complete stranger calls her? Real fear. There is no substitute for the paralysis that real fear can provide. She is alone and petrified, this is the sort of naked truth our characters must have in order to retain any appeal to us. Being a big name actress no one really expects Drew to get hung the neck in the first ten minutes of the film, but that’s if you go to the movies to watch celebrities instead of watching characters, and in horror movies they’re all disposable.

What draws an audience to horror films is a test of their own fortitude. Before the scary movie even begins, its audience knows more than the characters do. The audience knows they will witness death, the only variables in scary movies are who dies and when. The eerie music, the flickering lights or secondary cast members being picked off one by one, these things should make us feel uneasy and insecure but they don’t. There is a formula at work, scary movies are cozy, they allow us to be voyeurs, they are life affirming cautionary tales.

(If getting cozy to a scary movie is your kind of thing, we recommend: Scream 1 and 2, The Shining, Urban Legend, Final Destination 3, I Know What You Did Last Summer).