|Photo illustration taken at the Cinedome Theater in Riverdale.|
It all began in the 1930s, really, with "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." And it's continued right up to today. The latest love affair with shockers was kicked off by "The Exorcist" in 1973, but began to die out in 1985 with "Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning."
After all, a discerning public will take only so much.
The numbers of horror films being produced may have declined, but the fact remains that people love them. Or, rather, people love to be frightened by them. Horror movies present an undeniable attraction: If it's a good one, you'll be terrified -- the ultimate movie-going experience.
It's one thing to be moved by a love story, challenged to think by a whodunnit, or stirred to cheers by a sports movie. But to be scared out of your seat -- well, that's where it's at, man. It doesn't get any better than that.
But what is it that makes us want to be frightened? What prompts us to put down $5 at the theater box office or $1.99 at the video-rental shop for the pleasure of having the stuffing scared out of us? What makes being terrified so much fun?
It is fun. We love to scrunch down in our seats, waiting for something to happen -- just what that "something" may be, we don't know. We cover our eyes, then peek between our fingers so we don't miss anything important. And at the moment of truth, when Norman Bates swings the knife or Bruce the shark comes out of the water, we revel in a cathartic scream or a leap from our seat.
"We're not really sure why people like to be frightened," said William McVaugh, a professor of psychology at Weber State College. "There's a lot of speculation -- the emotional lease, or stimulation -- but no one's really spent a lot of time researching it."
Another reason may be that people like to challenge their environment and exert mastery over it, and movies permit them to do this vicariously, McVaugh, a specialist in the field of child psychology, explained.
"There's an element of 'there but for the grace of God go I," he said. In other words, a release of one's anxiety.
The professor stressed that his opinions are speculative, that the reasoning behind why people love to be frightened hasn't been a priority in psychological research. But he agreed that moviegoers seem to enjoy the emotional rush associated with horror films.
"One of the interesting things I've noticed," McVaugh said, "and I really don't understand it fully, is that a lot of kids in this (teenage) generation have unreasonable fears of water."
Many of the children, he said, have seen one or more of the "Jaws" films. McVaugh thinks those movies had a significant effect on children who were too young to understand that sharks exist only in the ocean, and not in the rivers, lakes and streams of the Intermountain West. Many teenagers and younger children, he said, refuse to swim in any water other than a clear swimming pool -- where they can see the sides, the bottom and that there are no fierce predators lurking beneath the surface.
The sort of horror in slasher movies featuring decapitations, amputations and all manner of gore galore, he said, may not affect youngsters to such an extreme because the violence isn't altogether realistic. The truly terrifying stuff, he said, is a depiction of some circumstance with which people can identify from their own experience.
For example, my button gets pushed when someone on screen starts drilling on teeth, since I've always hated trips to the dentist. The torture scene in "Marathon Man" and the comic send-up of dentistry in "Little Shop of Horrors" are the movie moments that have disturbed me most. I, like everyone else in the world, barely flinch when Jason or Freddy start hacking away on innocent teenagers with butcher knives and fire-axes.
Therein -- and here's my chance to diagnose the problems of modern-day horror films -- "lies the problem with the current state of movie horror: They show so much it's not very realistic. Alfred Hitchcock was the one who did it best because he let most of the violence take place off-camera -- suggesting it but rarely showing it. Nowadays screen terror relies on graphic bloodletting that leaves nothing to the imagination.
It's probably a pipe dream, but maybe the reliance on goo and guck has been taken about as far as it can go. Think about it. We've seen heads explode in slow motion, endless vomiting, cannibalism, bodies ripped in half, eyeballs gouged out -- you name it. There isn't anything left. It would be a challenge for someone to fall back on real terror, the kind that "comes from within.
And there's a ready and willing market for it, because, hey, we love to be frightened.