It's that time of year again, where we immerse ourselves in all that spooky, scary and unsettling silliness. For this brief magical period even adults can tap their inner child and play dress up, albeit often with a sex-i-fied angle (it seems all costumes have a slutty doppleganger).
Halloween is the second biggest retail holiday in the U.S., with buyers spending in the billions annually on decorations, candy, costumes, and Halloween-related goods. Another vital component of this month of scare is the horror flick. Hollywood isn't blind to the seasonal ambience and wisely releases many offerings to fit the mood. Just last week, the Paranormal Activity franchise released their third film, with opening weekend sales grossing over $54M, making it the highest opening film for a September/October release.
Even before the advent of filmmaking, "horror" entertainment thrived. Books have been scaring us for centuries and long before there were haunted attractions, there were traveling carnivals, which frequently featured sideshows meant to disgust, shock, or terrorize us psychologically.
There's something primitive in the need to feel afraid, but at a safe distance or in a perceived safe environment. This is the same reason why amusement parks are so popular - the concept of being afraid, the adrenaline rush as it were, plays deeply within our psyche.
Once humans began transitioning from a world filled with terror — ravenous animals, unfriendly nature, perpetually violent societies and the like — to a world with at least a veneer of civilization, the need to invent fictional horror arose. Perhaps it is rooted in our fight or flight response, or maybe we are just more easily bored these days. Whatever the reason, artificially induced fear is a hugely popular distraction.
The easiest, safest, and, frankly, laziest form of scare comes from the big screen. From the comfort of our seats, we can take a journey into our darkest fears, temporarily suspending our disbelief, transporting ourselves into a frightening alternate reality.
Even at the nascent stages of filmmaking, the urge to horrify audiences was strong. One of the truly scariest monsters created in film to date is Nosferatu. The 1922 silent film conjures a vampire, not like today's sexy and misunderstood blood-suckers, but a true carnivorous monster.
Despite advances in film technology since then (including color and sound), this remains a classic of the genre, proof that psychological terror is just as effective as physical terror and gore.
Within the horror film genre, there is a broad spectrum of classics, new and old, which continue to terrify us, even as filmmakers become more and more graphic and creative with storylines and imagery. I've been watching scary movies since I was a child, my first memory of which is being terrified by the TV movie, Trilogy of Terror, at age six. To this day, I have a deep mistrust of dolls.
Then, at age ten, I amped it up a notch and started (at my request) seeing horror films with my dad, the first being Friday the 13th, and have remained interested to this day.
As a longtime horror warrior I'd like to think I've seen enough to warrant a certain level of erudition on the subject. There are certainly foreign films I've never seen, and some that are simply to gruesome, gory or pornagraphic for my liking, but of the classics, I've seen the vast majority.
So, armed with this vast array of horror in my arsenal, I am going to compile my list of the scariest films, why they to this day haunt me, and why I refuse to watch again — perhaps the hallmark of psychological terror.
The Exorcist (1973) — The Linda Blair original in all its glory. Back when I was too young to really understand the battle between good and evil, the significance of religion, or how the two intersected, I watched this film. It tells the story of a young girl who becomes possessed by a demon identifying itself as the devil. There are exorcisms, paranormal occurrences, blasphemous behavior, and in the end, two Catholic priests are dead. The soundtrack is now fully associated with Halloween and all things creepy, especially Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells."
Why I won't watch it (again): Demons, possession and the unholy. Some things you don't mess with and this is one of them, go ahead, call me superstitious! Let's not forget the curse associated with the film. 'Nuff said.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) — The George Romero classic and grandfather of today's zombie films. Zombie films have been done every which way possible, including the hilariously grotesque (Return of the Living Dead, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead), and some truly great modern takes on the subject (28 Days), but none compare to the first.
Why I won't watch it: The relentlessness of the zombies, the grainy, guerrilla style of filming, plus the utter futility of it all make this film truly horrifying. Gross, certainly, but the concept of being trapped, surrounded by murderous, flesh-eating ghouls eats away at our own hidden fears. Worst of all, every character dies. There is no happy ending to this one.
1408 (2007) — Stephen King is a genius and has brought us some of the most chilling books/films ever, but this is one of his most underrated masterpieces. This film, starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, emerged along with today's thriving paranormal investigation community, which has spawned a number of popular (many of which we've written about on TMR) reality-based TV shows and attractions.
The film centers on a jaded travel writer (Cusack) who appraises "haunted" travel spots. After the death of his daughter, he seeks confirmation of an afterlife through the paranormal, but finds himself consistently disappointed. Then he receives an intriguing warning/invitation to a hotel that boasts a haunted room: 1408. This is a psychological thriller with a truly sinister entity terrorizing our protagonist -- it's King at his "shining" best.
Why I won't watch it (again): Couldn't sleep for days. Nightmares and waking up in a cold sweat. Who needs that!
The Ring (2002) — The Gore Verbinski remake of the 1998 Japanese film of the same name is a bit overreaching, a tad on the arty side, and perhaps a bit overwrought with symbolism, but the end result is just plain creepy and unsettling. Starring the gorgeous Naomi Watts, who plays a journalist investigating the untimely death of a family friend.
The death and bizarre circumstances involve a video tape, which when watched will cause death within seven days. Watts of course watches the tape, and then becomes part of the cycle of death, while simultaneously trying to unravel the mystery and save her nephew who has also watched the tape. It's a truly convoluted plot, which at times is a bit hard to follow, but effective nonetheless.
Why I won't watch it (again): I was overcome by a painful week of dark depression after watching this movie. The imagery and atmosphere is unnerving and unsettling to the core, and ending leaves nothing but despair. This movie stays with you, don't watch alone.
Paranormal Activity (2007) — Hollywood learned a lesson or two about cost vs. profits on this one. The film's writer and director Oren Peli wrote the no-budget ($15K) film to help him overcome his own fear of the paranormal, and in the process succeeded at creating one of the most genuinely terrifying films to date.
All shot within a middle-class suburban home in San Diego, the guerrilla-style film ala Blair Witch Project follows boyfriend and girlfriend Micah and Katie as they attempt to document what Katie believes to be a haunting presence, which has followed her since childhood.
The couple's undoing is ultimately rooted in Katie's unwillingness to be truthful with Micah about what's happening to her (the audience gets the sense she is more aware of the evil nature of what's happening than she's willing to admit) and made worse by Micah's blend of arrogance and curiosity.
What starts out as creepy disturbances are made dramatically worse by Micah's attempts to capture the entity on film (particularly while they are sleeping) and then antagonizing it by engaging it directly.
When things spiral out of control, instead of taking immediate and decisive action, Katie defers to Micah who thinks they can handle the situation on their own. Despite a grave warning from a psychic they consult, compounded with a conveniently out of town demonologist (there is only one demonologist in all of SoCal?), Micah and Katie go it alone to deadly results.
While we never actually see the haunting and terrorizing presence, this film creates the kind of dread and terror one might feel if forced to face something supernatural, malevolent, and unseen. How DO you defend yourself from something otherworldly and possibly demonic? Therein lies the dark heart of this film.
Why I won't watch it (again): We made the mistake of watching this before going to bed, and I was far too (falsely) confident in my horror abilities. I literally found myself waking up every ten minutes with the distinct feeling something was watching me, utterly terrified, straining my eyes around the darkened room, seeing ominous shadows.
It's been several days since we watched it and I have yet to shake the feeling. I'd call that a success, and after grossing close to $200M and spawning two sequels, clearly the numbers don't lie.
So there you have it, a rundown of horror to start off your Halloween weekend right!
We would love to hear what YOU think is the scariest movie of all time. Feel free to sound off in the comments, or participate in the poll!