This past weekend as I was running in place on the mini-tramp and watching Nosferatu (1922), I began to consider the question what makes a movie scary?
I describe Nosferatu as possibly the scariest movie ever made. I am sure there are many who disagree (not even counting the ones who disagree just to be disagreeable) (you know who you are). However, having seen an auditorium of young children reduced to tears over it, I feel comfortable in calling it a scary movie.
As I ran, I asked myself, am I being scared right now? The answer was generally no. During a few shots I said, “Ooh, scary!” but in fact I was not frightened.
Then again, it was broad daylight. I remember once years and years ago reading the book The Amityville Horror. My sister had read it first. She was reading it one night when I came home from babysitting. As was my habit, I ran home, burst into the house and slammed the door behind me. My sister knew I was expected, knew it was me as I came through the door, and still jumped a foot in the air when I slammed it shut.
She proceeded to tell me every scary thing she had just been reading and made me walk with her to her upstairs bedroom. I came back downstairs and had to spend a good half hour reading the Bible and watching “Highlights from Bing Crosby Christmas Specials” (which I providentially found on the meager cable available in the ’70s) before I dared to go to bed myself. After all, we were the last ones up. ALL the lights were going to be off.
With this in mind, I looked forward to reading the book myself. I started it one evening. Yikes! I finished it the following afternoon. What a disappointment! I know, I should have just waited till dark to finish it. As a reader, I am almost completely incapable of such behavior.
But getting back to Nosferatu, I wonder if I would have been more frightened had I watched it in the dark. I can see where it would have disturbed my sleep as a child. I would have lain in bed and just seen that scary vampire somewhere out there in the dark. The big nose, the deep-set eyes — no sexy savoir-faire for this blood sucker. I’d be watching the wall for his eerie shadow with the long, claw-like fingers. Ooohh.
On this last viewing, however, I noted and admired his scariness, but I was not scared. I was pleased that my interest was caught enough that I ran a little faster and kept running till the dramatic conclusion. But my sleep patterns were not disturbed (at least, I had my usual insomnia, but that’s a whole other topic).
So I had to ask myself: what makes a movie scary? One answer is: that you think it might happen to you. Many people suffer from a fear of birds after watching Alfred Hitchcock’s movie about them. That’s a pretty scary movie by this criteria, because those were perfectly ordinary birds such as you might see anywhere, until… It could happen! Right here! Right now! EEEEEeee!
Monster movies, when one looks at them rationally, should not be as scary, because we know there are no monsters. Or do we? I will probably never see a vampire coming at me, of the Max Schreck or Bela Lugosi variety. But IF I did, it would be scary! This is where having a vivid imagination (as I do) can greatly enhance your enjoyment of a scary movie.
Next time, I’m watching that movie after dark. Maybe on the night of a full moon.