Tuesday 1 November 2011

Scary movies

What is it with scary movies? Lots of people love them, but not me.

The first scary movie I remember seeing was in the mid-60s. We didn't have a TV, but the lady across the road, Mrs Easton, did. She invited us over to watch The Secret Garden (the 1949 version) in B&W on Channel 6. Early on, Margaret O'Brien is in a huge, creepy old house, when she suddenly hears the sound of a boy screaming and screaming and screaming. I had nightmares about that for years.

For me, it was a rerun of my childhood. When I was three or four years old, and younger brother Ray was two or three, we lived in a cold house in Wangaratta (where Nick Cave was living when he first heard the Leonard Cohen recording that changed his life, so he tells us in the documentary, I'm Your Man). What warmth there was in the house came from a portable kerosene heater. My parents kept a kettle on top of it to minimise hot water costs. One day, Ray the toddler pulled the boiling water down over himself. For years after, he had nightmares in which he would scream and scream and scream. We shared a room, which meant I shared his nightmares. I've never understood why anyone would pay to listen to a child screaming.

Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960)
The second scary movie I remember seeing was an old British, B&W, Jack-the-Ripper, gaslight-and-fog, murder-mystery thing on late-night TV one hot summer in about 1969. It was school holidays and we finally had a TV. Mum was indulging herself—one of the few times I ever saw that happen. She was sitting up late, enjoying being scared, but too scared to do it alone, so I had to sit up with her to make the fear tolerable. 

I forget the details, but there was a terrifying figure who materialised out of the fog and stabbed nubile young women to death in a welter of blood and screaming. Whoever-it-was-we-cared-about in the movie placed a premium on walking in the fog, but shrinking into dark doorways at pivotal moments in order to avoid joining the list of casualties.

The sight of her hiding triggered another return to childhood for me. I used to hide from my father, a violent alcoholic who abandoned us when I was nine. He was a Polish-Russian refugee who'd seen the Nazis march into Warsaw in 1939. He was sixteen at the time. He never talked about it, but if you take a look at the end of The Pianist, you'll get an idea of what life was like at that time. His mother had escaped Russia after the communists took power and started killing people. She knew what was coming at the end of the war, and told him to flee westward. 

He spent a year dodging the German army and the American army and the British army, until he made his way to Paris. Once there, the only way he could earn a living was as a boxer. Trouble is, he wasn't good at it. He suffered a cut eyebrow early in his career. The cut reopened every week as he turned out in losing fight after losing fight for the entertainment of Allied soldiers on R&R. I suppose the alcohol helped sooth his sufferings. 

Fenella Fielding and friend in Carry On Screaming (1966)
He made a new life in Australia, married his English teacher, and had a bunch of kids.     I was the first-born son. His lost years, his frustrated hopes, his accumulated dreams, devolved upon me. And all he required was that I be perfect.

Yeah, right. 

If he ever felt I'd failed himand he felt that frequently—he would take an electric extension cord, double it over, and thrash me with it. I learned about terror from my father. In later life I hitchhiked across Australia, and lived and worked in many strange places. I've worked in psychiatric institutions. I've been face-to-face with angry psychopaths and paranoid schizophrenics. I've had people try to kill me. I've had bad trips on LSD. I've found myself at the mercy of drunken bikies in the outback, strung-out heroin addicts in big cities, and weirdos who picked me up on the road and wanted me to participate in exercises I didn't fancy. I've been afraid many times, but I've only gone down on my knees and begged for mercy once in my life. That was before my father, when I was nine years old. He walked out shortly after.
Paranormal Activity 3 has taken a swag at the box office lately, so experts are popping up in the media to explain why. One article appeared in Science + Religion Today on the subject of: Why Are Some People More Attracted to Scary Movies Than Others? Written by Stuart Fischoff, a professor of psychology, it opens with the comment that:
Movie monsters provide us with the opportunity to see and learn strategies of coping with real-life monsters should we run into them, despite all probabilities to the contrary, sort of covert rehearsal for … who knows.
Assorted zombies in Shaun of the Dead (2004)
After that unpromising beginning, the article goes on to discuss what he considers the major factors in the appeal of horror movies. They are: lifestyle, age, gender, personality, and physiology. To paraphrase, if you're young, aggressive and live a boring life, you're likely to love horror movies. 

In another recent article in The Daily Beast, called Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies, Sharon Begley tells us that horror films appeal to people who like predictability, neat endings, and a clear-cut moral code; and to young couples who are trying out frightened-woman/strong-protective-man roles for later in life. The more scared she becomes and the braver he remains, the happier both parties appear to be.

It's an interesting fact that, while horror movies make big money, they almost never appear on lists people make when asked to name their top 25 favorite films, presumably because horror films don't leave people with happy memories.

Me? I'll stick to action/adventure and romantic comedy, thanks anyway. 


Kathy said...

Wow Henry, that is a deeply emotional post. From previous hints I knew you had an unhappy childhood with a violent drunk for a father, but that description really brings it home.

I side with you in getting no enjoyment out of horror "thrills", except once when I went to pick up a teenage daughter from a party. A group of five girls were cowering in a chair which should have held three, wide eyes fixed on the screen in front of them, waiting for the next cue. Something happened and they all screamed at the top of their lungs. I went to speak to the mother and they screamed three more times with full strength. I finally got my daughter untangled and on the way home she tried to tell me she'd had a great party, but she'd lost her voice.

Michael said...

It's interesting that when true horror, like the childhood memory you revealed, is described in a film, that film would tend to be a drama, whereas horror films are often fantasy.

I think when it comes to children, Horror generally ends in tears and / or nightmares, but it was never meant to be a children's genre. Films today are especially "real" too which makes them all the more unsuitable for kids.

I have never been a horror "fan", but I'd say I'm not a "fan" of any genre specifically. I love great films, and there are some great horror films. I watched Hitchcock great, "Psycho" again recently (the original with Anthony Perkins), a terrific horror with a perfect score (music sound track). Horror's are often excellent examples of how sounds and music can effect an audience. It's often the music that really does the job on the audience.

Other Horrors that regularly pop up in favourites lists include The Excorcist, Alien, Aliens, Jaws (does that count?), and of course, The Shining.

I remember going to the cinema in 1981 to see "An American Werewolf In London". I was 13. I was late and there were only front row seats left in the packed cinema. I was with my two best friends from school and when we sat down I was shocked to be sitting next to another of my best friends known through family. When I walked out during an early dream sequence, he desire to stay and be tough in front of my friends (the links to nearly everyone I knew) was over-ruled by the sheer shock factor caused by the visuals combined with the soundtrack and the screaming hundreds behind me. So I walked.
Oh the shame...

I too prefer a great RomCom to a great Horror, but perhaps surprisingly, RomComs don't generally make the "all time favourites" lists either.