The stairs creak as she slowly descends. It’s pitch black, with the exception of the slight glow from the wax candle she grips. She feels a sudden gust of wind in the windowless cellar. Her candle blows out. Silence.
. . .
Cue the laughter of a little girl.
. . .
Or the eerily slow-tempoed song of a music box, the hair-pulling hysteria in the infinite nothingness between each note.
. . .
Or a pruney, lifelessly pale hand—blood-blackened fingertips and all—abruptly grasping the cellar woman’s throat.
And so goes the classic jump scare. Whether the impetus be a monster, a psycho killer, or a demonic spirit in search of a new host, I always find that there is something so cozy about this Hollywood-produced fear. I know, I know: who in her right mind curls up under the covers, sipping some Celestial Sleepytime tea (non-spons., just really great tea), and then willingly chooses to watch The Conjuring, of all things, as her calming nighttime media?! Maybe this does mean that I am not totally sane. Or maybe––similar to how the characters in The Ring who watch the haunted videotape are thus subjected to impending doom––I, in watching one horror movie too many, have inadvertently surrendered my soul to some force of evil that is to blame for the “cozy” way these movies make me feel. But, since I would rather not believe my soul is as damned and black as Hell, I will continue to relish in the comfort of cheap thrillers.
As much as I love horror movies, it is impossible to deny how similar their plots can be to one another. They tend to go something like this: life seems happy and good upon arriving in a new location; things begin to seem a bit out of the ordinary; someone rather proud or unbelievably naïve ignores all glaring red flags and endangers everyone; someone or something malicious wreaks total havoc; until finally, someone comes up with some elaborate ploy to contain the element of evil that currently roams free. Of course, plentiful gore and jump scares are dispersed throughout the film.
One of my friends likes to call horror movies “predictably unpleasant,” and he goes so far as to cover his ears during the absolute silence before a jump scare. When I asked him why he does this, he replied that jump scares are unimpressive and overused. Meaning, you know when a jump scare is coming, approximately, though the expected can still startle––and that is not to say that triggering human reflexes alone is any measure of cleverness on the filmmakers’ part. With that being said, I live for the suspense before the not-quite-human face pops out of seemingly nowhere in a dark room, with dramatic music that cuts in simultaneously. Not scared, not anxious, but at ease—excited to watch the events of the movie unfold in their predictable manner. Actually, I find that the fears evoked in horror movies, involving the paranormal and torture by the hands of some person or devil, are easier to understand than my real-world fears that I confront on a daily basis.
Being the analyst that I am, I tend to look for patterns everywhere, and I never stop trying to figure everything out. The quintessence of my existence is drifting off into thought mid-Tuesday morning lecture about whether the emergence of life as we know it has any inherent or particular meaning, or if it is just the product of randomness. Horror movies, on the other hand, are easy to figure out, and all fear factors within them are calculable. I know when to fear, what to fear, and what those fears feel like, as I have experienced them before. Perhaps this makes me a bit of a control freak. Or, perhaps it means that I watch horror movies in order to feel brave and deflect my fears about my own life that I cannot seem to put to rest. While I may spend nearly all of my waking hours wondering what my purpose in life is, what really matters to me, and who I am at my truest core, I enjoy having a two-hour break to become absorbed in pseudo-fears, a controlled chaos so removed from our reality that there is little room for earth-shattering, mental breakdown-inducing revelations.
When I sit and watch Insidious, I cannot help but smile at the Wish.com version of Darth Maul whom I am supposed to tremble at the sight of. No part of me can remotely relate to the experience of evil spirits possessing my body or anything to the likes of it, so I am more than happy to lean into whatever scares within the film are thrown my way. After all, this sort of a scare is, as my friend put it, a matter of reflexes and often a strictly physical response, rather than one much more emotional and existential in nature.
It may seem as though I only enjoy relatively outlandish and supernatural horror movies, since those are the least relatable to my life, but I can still enjoy horror movies that are more real world-oriented, even if they send shivers down my spine. The movie Sinister, for example, contains some typical tropes involving evil spirits and curses, but it also contains much darker images of children murdering their families in the most horrific ways. I do tend to be somewhat of an optimist, and I would like to believe that such nightmarish events could never occur in real life. But once I remove the ridiculous Mr. Boogie from these gruesome scenes, I am left horrified as I watch some of humanity’s most awful capabilities being executed by children on the big screen. There is a loss of innocence in this sort of content; and while it may be incredibly physically and emotionally painful to watch, these feelings of true shock and horror are a well-needed segue between my real life fears and the completely nonsensical ones that I am accustomed to seeing in horror movies.
No matter which horror film I choose, no matter what sort of demons and evils are involved, I know that I will have a near-cathartic experience watching it. And unlike with all other movie genres, horror movies allow me to simultaneously be on the edge of my seat and nice and comfy under my covers. I am then transported to the fantastical world of faraway fears––or what I really mean is a world far, far away from my fears. In the silence at the center of a horror movie’s storm, between every scream, I find myself at peace, sipping on my herbal tea as I patiently watch the rest of the story unfold.