Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, NY
About Ryan:

I'm a teacher and writer living in Warren, PA. I love obsessing over books, movies, music, and television, and occasionally writing about it. My first short story "Writer's Block" was published in The Big Book of Bizarro from Burning Bulb Publishing.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How To Watch (And Appreciate) Horror Movies: An Opinion and Practice from a Lifelong Fan

As counter-intuitive as this might sound, I don't watch horror
movies with the goal of "being scared" by them.  Let me explain.

I think this statement is the feeling of most avid horror fans.  We know an appreciation of a good fright film is about more than simply feeling afraid (because let's face it, as adults we know a movie is a movie and there's nothing to really be scared of anyway).  No, the true horror aficionado is looking for much, much more.

Call it an atmosphere  

Movie lovers contend with predictability and cliches from all genres, especially when Hollywood is involved.  Hardcore horror fans deal with this more than most; we've been there and done that with every slasher, ghost-chaser, and demon-spawn imaginable.  Truly enjoying horror (and I'm using this as a blanket term with the assumed sub-genres of mystery & suspense, thrillers, etc. included) is about embracing what the film makers do right even if the material they're working with is not extremely original.  The question to consider is this: do the director/cinematographer/sound designer create an atmosphere of unease by marrying an archetypal plot and cast of characters to a unique creative vision?

Every fan is different.  For some it's about the gross-out of a nicely achieved practical special effect.  For others it's more about what's not seen, the terror of the unknown just outside of the camera's frame.  Sometimes the melding of these two approaches can be the most effective.

The visual language of a good piece of horror cinema is about striking images: a fog-drenched cemetery on a moonlit night; a shadowy corridor with the hint of a human figure lurking in a doorway; an isolated house on the moors.  Obviously it's not easy to put into words because it's a feeling, a palpable dread that the best directors know how to evoke and make it seem effortless.

Focus and set-up

Look, I realize it's not realistic for everyone to have a home theater system to match that of a movie theater.  That being said, it's important to remember that a good deal of a film's sound is designed for 5.1 surround-sound (especially horror flicks, which sometimes have scares that depend on it).  Even without a complete set-up, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Stay focused.  Turn off or at least put away your cell phone.  I know you're in your own house, but if you're watching a movie, watch the movie.  Oftentimes the scenes leading up to a scare are more important than the scare itself, and this build up is lost if you're checking Facebook or sending a text.
  • Turn out the lights and crank the volume.  Surround-sound or not, movies are meant to be loud, and the music and sound effects in a good horror film are integral to creating the right mood.
  • Allow yourself to fall under the creepy spell of a master.  Enjoying a scary movie is sometimes as much about your attitude and willingness to buy into an occasionally silly concept as it is about the mood created by said movie.

Know your sub-genre and directors

Lastly, know what you're getting into when you pop in a blu-ray or start streaming a movie on Netflix.  Be aware of what you're after, or at the very least do your homework about the movie selected: are you going to get blood and guts;  a subtle, dramatic ghost story;  a suspenseful nail-biter; a squirm-inducing torture porn?  Has the director made something else you've enjoyed?  

Horror fans are (and should be) obsessive about these things.  They have mental lists of legendary horror film makers and modern masters to keep an eye on.  

Past, present, or future, we never stop chasing the atmosphere.