All the World’s a Screen: Horror films are a paradox of attraction and repulsion

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

Why is horror so enticing? It’s quite the paradox to be drawn to something — a TV show, a book, a movie — that’s intended to make us look away. But we relish that. It’s part of the experience of watching a scary movie to look away, cover your eyes, ears or both. We want to be terrorized by serial killers, creepy clowns, clones of ourselves and the supernatural — from a safe distance, of course. 

When projected onto the silver screen, these threats are neutralized and subdued by a filmmaker who is playing off our deepest fears. We pay them $13.50 a ticket to do their worst on us, and usually it is their worst. 

Horror isn’t a historically respected genre; it’s just cheap thrills and jump scares to give an audience goosebumps, right? There are some movies, however, (and many that we’ve had lately) that surpass a cheap, schlocky aesthetic and frighten us precisely because they are so well-made. It’s kind of absurd to say a horror movie can be “realistic,” and they aren’t, but they represent fears that are — the better their execution, the more we’re duped into thinking it’s all real. 

Take “The Silence of the Lambs,” for example, the most awarded horror movie ever. Led by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, it’s one of only three movies to win the “Big Five” Oscars (Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Picture). So if we’re purely looking to awards to crown the best in the genre, “The Silence of the Lambs” is it. 

One of the most basic screenwriting rules is “show don’t tell.” Yet,  “Silence of the Lambs” does exactly the opposite: characters verbally expound Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s inhuman exploits, which we rarely see on screen. Director Jonathan Demme leaves us to our own imaginations, and naturally, we imagine the worst. Demme creates an environment where it’s okay to think taboo thoughts — despite being the scum of human morality, the magnetic Dr. Lecter is someone we love to hate.

Horror doesn’t always have to be an individual endeavor, however. “Get Out” — a modern spectacle that helped kick off the horror renaissance we’re living in today — capitalizes on our collective fears. We are terrified for our protagonist Chris immediately after his soon-to-be father-in-law Dean Armitage utters the words: “You know, I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term, if I could.” The Armitage clan represents a collective we know exists but we are afraid to fully confront; it’s terrifying (and intentionally absurd) to watch the Armitage family traumatize Chris with their diabolical ways — at the same time, it’s what we all want to see on the screen because only there can we watch from a safe distance.

These two films frighten us because they force us to acknowledge how vile humans can be. Granted, brain transplants and brain eating are extreme examples, but that’s the point: How can we be so intrigued by this? How can these terrible images be the iconography of a multi-billion dollar industry?

We step through the looking glass when we watch any movie, drifting further away from our reality into another. Horror works because it shows us what our reality could be. Terror comes when we ask ourselves, “What if?”

In one of Jordan Peele’s sketches with Keegan-Michael Key, two friends walk out of a horror movie making boisterous claims about how none of it was scary at all; yet, as they make their way to their cars, they carefully avoid puddles, trash cans and dogs just in case all the things in the film were real. This is precisely what horror films do to us — we can all remember watching something scary as kids and then running quickly through dark places in our homes to avoid being grabbed by the demon’s hand. 

Horror movies allow us to experiment with what we fear might be real, whether that fear manifests in monsters, killers or demons. Humans watch (and make) these movies to grapple with those fears. In the end, we like to be thrilled, but what we like even more is knowing that the hairy hand can’t really break through the screen to grab us. We like jumping out of our seats, but a silver screen of separation is as close for comfort as we’re willing to get. There’s pleasure in fear, but there’s more pleasure in being assured by movies that those fears are (probably) not real.

Isa Uggetti is a sophomore writing about film. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” runs every other Tuesday.