Maureen Searcy is a friend I made back at Northwestern’s Masters in Creative Writing program. One of the reasons I like her is her gleeful and comprehensive knowledge of the horror genre. I asked her to share her love with you today, the most horrific of days. You can read more of her at her blog LOLHorror!
Do you really want to know why I love horror movies, or do you just want me to make the list? People always want the list, and I get the request all throughout the year, but especially around Halloween. You want the cheat-sheet. You want to know how to get the best scare without putting the work in, without having to watch the boring, cliché, laughable, stupid, and on occasion indefensible* movies that come out. Well, lucky for you I’m a completist and also perpetually single and lonely.
But because I do love lists and long clauses separated by semi-colons, I’ll give a quick run-down on what I personally get from horror movies: simple adrenaline rush; escapism; social mores; controllable fear to help quash the anxiety I feel every day; psychological self-testing in hypothetical situations; a stand-in for religion and the desire for there to be an after-life; camaraderie with fellow horror fans**; extremism; a way to feel viscerally alive; a way to fight gender stereotyping through female horror fandom; costume ideas; the darkness.
Disclaimer: When I was very young—let’s say 6-10 years old—my parents would rent movies for my sister and me to watch while they went to night school. Anna wanted to watch The Breakfast Club, but they refused because it was rated R. I, on the other hand, gathered handfuls of horror movies that were rated UR. My parents assumed “unrated” meant so innocuous they didn’t even need a warning. These were the most depraved, gory, violent, sinister, sexualized, brutal movies lining the shelves. A few years ago, I decided to try and track down one of the movies from which my most vivid (though flawed) memory came: a man in a trench coat slaughtering a woman in a 70s era Cadillac, her cherry-red blood spewing down a yellow dress. My best guess was Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, and a few minutes into the film, and certainly after hearing the killer’s duck-voice, I knew without question I had seen it when I was a kid. I can’t even link the trailer here because it is so NSFW. I tell you this not to indicate in any way that those movies scarred my psyche, but to explain that from a young age I learned to distinguish shocking from scary.
So without any further ado, some of the movies and/or scenes, in no particular order, that make me leave lights on, check the closets, and watch at least 30 minutes or 4 musical performances from Glee before hitting the sack:
1. The Orphanage (El Orfanato) 2007
The Orphanageis beautiful, creepy, and scary, but what sets it apart from most horror movies is that it’s genuinely sad. Like, someone’s chopping onions and burning ragweed in here sad. Character development in horror is rare and magical, and it makes the fear even sharper. Also, burlap mask. It’s never good for a child’s self-esteem.
2. The Others 2001
I almost never have nightmares, but I love when I do. It’s like actually being inside a horror movie. The Others gave me nightmares. It, too, was very sad. Now that I’m making this list, I see a pattern; there’s at least one more heartbreaking film. Apparently I like to cry while I cringe. The premise of this film, which I won’t spoil, is revealed at the end and will likely make you feel sick to your stomach because it’s a little too real for our modern lives, despite being a period piece. Also, marionette.
3. Lake Mungo 2008
Last sad one on the list. Might as well get them out of the way. This Australian horror mockumentary was released in the US as part of the After Dark Horrorfest, 8 Films to Die For, which I highly recommend because each year, I’ve found at least one amazing film worth watching multiple times. This one feels like a real documentary and will keep you wondering how it all turns out.
4. Pet Sematary 1989
Most Stephen King adaptations are awful. The Langoliers, anyone? But Pet Sematary will always freak me out, no matter how many times I’ve watched it, in broad daylight, with tons of people in the room. This scene in particular is the worst, even worse than Gage slicing through Herman Munster’s mouth, because you can’t really see where Zelda is until she turns her pasty face away from the wall and runs towards the camera. I also get a Hoarders vibe from the room.
5. R-Point 2004
How do you make a war movie more horrific? Add ghosts. Or how do you make a ghost story scarier? Add war. “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”
6. Audition 1999 (graphic clip)
Most horror fans have at least heard of if not seen work by Takashi Miike. He has made a name for himself by making the most disgusting and offensive films out there, including the infamously banned Masters of Horror episode “Imprint.” This film is not one of my favorites, but this scene, where the female protagonist “feeds” her prisoner, is one of the most nauseating few minutes I’ve ever watched. Just finding this clip made me queasy.
7. Gravedancers 2006
Another film from After Dark. This one gets a mention for having big scares amongst terrible acting, unbelievable characters, and a ridiculous premise. Bear through the first embarrassing 20 minutes to get to the good stuff.
8. Martyrs 2008
The French are on a tear to make the most jaw-dropping horror movies in theaters today. I also recommend Inside (À l’intérieur) and Them (Ils). Martyrs is a grab bag of horror styles, but they seem to work synergistically. Some might tell you this is torture-porn, but that section is so short that it doesn’t define the movie. Overall, it doesn’t make much sense, but that doesn’t really matter here. It’s an experience—not a story.
9. The Descent 2005
I literally held my breath through much of this claustrophobic spelunking horror film. When this came out, it had been a while since a good, scary monster movie had been released, and I told everyone who would listen about this. The sequel holds up pretty well, too.
10. The X-Files, “Home” 1996
Most people just call this the “inbreeding” episode. After it aired, it had such a negative response that it rarely re-aired, and then only after 8pm. This, of course, guaranteed its cult status. It also guaranteed that the Johnny Mathis song “Wonderful! Wonderful!” will always raise the hair on the back of my neck.
*E.g., A Serbian Film—the only movie I knowingly refuse to watch.
**This list was discussed with and vetted by my sister in horror-arms, Autumn H.