Horror 101: Startling vs. Scary

Gather around neophyte fright fans, it’s time for a long overdue lesson in what is truly scary. Somewhere along the way, you’ve been misguided, believing that being startled equals a feeling of dread or a shorthand for suspense. For the record, both emotional responses are completely and utterly different. Shock is a sudden sensation, one that comes from the unexpected or the unanticipated. A car pulls out in front of you as you precede through an intersection; the cat jumps on your computer while you are cluelessly chatting with your Facebook pals; a door slams or a vehicle backfires while you weren’t paying attention – each one of these situations produces a considered response, one that can have a deleterious effect on your psyche. You’re jumpy. You’re afraid. But unlike being truly scared, such a feeling is merely temporary, a momentary lapse before rediscovering your fairly consistent everyday comfort zone.

No, fear is literally spine tingling and chilling. It seems under your skin and raises the fuzz on the nape of your neck. It brings about sleepless nights, eyes open as the darkness descends on your already anxious thoughts. Being scared is being constantly reminded of the reason for your fright, of being unsettled for no obvious reason except for the subject of said terror. A loud bang might bring about a couple of minutes (or hours) of unease, but the sensation soon goes away. Terror should be something that sticks to you like a leech, sucking away your resolve until you can no longer stand the stress. Being startled therefore is not the same thing, and as a result, any movie that functions as a series of jolts is nothing more than the cinematic version of a defibrillator. It may be startling, but it’s not also scary.

Last weekend, Paranormal Activity was the Number One film in the nation, raking in almost $22 million at the box office. Declared by some limited perspective websites as “the scariest movie of all time”, this $15K clunker is really nothing more than 90 minutes of meandering followed by five minutes of predictable “BOO!”. No attempt is made to deliver suspense, to take the viewer through a collection of connected scenes leading to an unholy feeling of trepidation. No, like those YouTube video where people tell you to look closely at the screen before a photoshopped version of Regan MacNeil’s devil face pops up and causes you to jump, director Oren Peli realizes he can’t get you with style or storytelling. So he sets up a video camera, cranks up the stillness, and then systematically showers the viewer with nothing more than anticipatory, formulaic surprise. Again, it’s startling, but it’s not scary.

A couple of years ago, another unlikely hit, The Strangers, followed a similar format. Though we did have the notion of blood and gore as a byproduct of the shocks, the entire movie was made up of two people responding to door knocks, window crashes, footfalls, and the sudden appearance of masked mugs. Again, there was no attempt to get the audience to identify with the plight of the people involved (not the failed relationship aspect – the being surrounded by psychos part) and after the initial jolt, director Bryan Bertino went right back to boring us to death. Indeed, the false scare has been a scary movie mandate since the beginning of the artform. Before complicated elements and psychological chills became part of the fright flick landscape, the carnival dark ride ideal was the main creative ploy used by artists and hacks alike.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to define scary. Being startled is almost universal. You have to be incredibly laid back or uber-cynical not to flinch when something comes unexpected flying at you (as in Paranormal Activity‘s finale). But fear is a lot more ambiguous. It’s like phobias – some people can’t stand heights, while others would hang out at the top of a tall skyscraper if they could. Others hate bugs or certain types of animals while others embrace these subjective fear factors. Going back to something said previously, being scared is about being disturbed, about worry that won’t go away, about dreading the next image or idea coming up on the screen (or into your brain). True, some can mistake the adrenaline rush of a probable shock as something akin to the scary experience, but true terror comes not only from what is seen – it’s the unknown element or concept that is waiting around the narrative corner, claws sharp and fangs caked with grue.

As mentioned before, The Exorcist is an example of one of the scariest movies of all time. It’s definitely shocking and highly upsetting, but there is more to it than crucifix masturbation and a Satan influenced potty-mouthed adolescent. William Friedkin used the unusual setting to discuss the growing generation gap between ’70s youth and supposedly tuned-in parents, exploring divorce, separation, and selective parenting along the way. Author William Peter Blatty tapped directly into the lingering superstitions surrounding religion and its rituals while referencing a supposedly real life case of possession. The combination created a kind of perfect supernatural storm, the constant bombardment of evil and everyday explanations setting the stage for a finale so horrific it remains a genre classic.

Similarly, Dario Argento brought a Mediterranean view of macabre to his brilliant horror crime thriller Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). Using a standard whodunit set up (a famous psychic is killed, and a jazz musician tries to find out who…and why), the famed filmmaker takes us through a wicked whirlwind of childhood trauma, familial secrets, and one of the creepiest abandoned manors ever. All the while, blood sprays, gloved killers conspire, and a horrific atmosphere is manufacture out of pure visual wonder. Like The Exorcist, Argento’s movies (including Suspiria and Inferno) function as psychological stumbling blocks. They do not let you rest. You cannot easily forget them. And when the time comes to turn off the lights, to try and settle in for a little sleep, the visions created in both efforts lie right along with you, replaying in your tired, troubled mind over and over again.

Unless a tree limb falls on your roof overnight, memories of Paranormal Activity are not going to disturb your slumber. It’s like a rollercoaster or other amusement park thrill ride – a few moments of empty edge of the seat thrills followed by a slow fade into memory. Indeed, the embracing of this idea as scary seems indicative of the contemporary tread toward better-than-instant gratification. We want our pulse quickened and we want it now! No time for character development or careful plotting. Shock us, startle us, and then let us get back to our cellphones. If that’s all you want in a horror film, there are perfectly perfunctory examples of same currently showing. Once you’ve been jolted and jostled, why not give some real fear a try. Then you will hopefully know what truly is “the scariest of all time.”