Spirits of the Season: Fright or Hide

on Monday, October 30, 2006

What thrills you? Gets your adrenaline up, gives you a buzz that lights up your smile and your sense of general well being. In fact it makes you feel like superman. The scientists call it the “fight or flight” response; our bodies are being prepared to fight or to run for our lives. Either way, the adrenaline tones our muscles in anticipation, our blood rushes oxygen and we feel powerful. For some, they get this high from riding roller coasters and kamikaze rides. Not for me, I just become catatonic – completely rigid, neither capable of fight or flight, not even sound unless you count moans.

(Pennywise the Clown from Steven King's "It".)

However, since it is Halloween, let us consider my other favourite way of getting thrills which is to watch horror movies or read a scary book or listen to a campfire ghost story. I call this the “fright and hide” response. This is where once again the adrenaline courses through the body, getting the heart beat up and blood rushing but the muscles are not primed to run but to crawl under the blankets and hide. A really powerful invocation of the response is manifested by other symptoms like “tingling in the spine”, “goosebumps” and “chattering teeth”. I love it. I much prefer this than actually risking my life on a roller coaster. Horror stories is just safe entertainment with no real risk of being flung to your deaths from a roller coaster ride. After all, there are no such things as ghosts and monsters………… right? Er, right?

What makes a good horror story? I much prefer good story telling than an over reliance on mutilated bodies. Hence, I discount movies like Halloween and Scream and such slasher movies as body count movies. Most times, a couple of dead bodies can be scarier than a bus load.

Camp fire ghost stories are just great because it makes use of our imaginations which is usually far scarier that special effects. Although, I did not think that the Blair Witch Project was exceptional, it made use of simple things to great effect. Think of the sounds outside the tent, the strange arrangement of twigs, the disappearance of friends. You never see the horror but you get hints of it. Right at the end when you see the man at the corner with his feet not touching the ground; well, you knewthen you had it even though you still did not see the horror. But you could almost touch it. Or worse, it could touch you. Brrrrr.

Perversion of innocence is another scary tool. This is where you take something sweet and innocent and turn it into evil personified. This worked well in “It.” A clown is turned into a monster with pointed teeth but he still looks like a clown all the way down to his red nose and balloon animals. If you can’t trust a clown,……. Just imagine cuddlying up to Barney and then seeing him transformed into a velociraptor. Now that’s scary. It did not work with “Chucky” because that doll looked like bad news even before he showed his demonic side. Children are also meant to be innocent and that’s why they can be very scary. In “The Ring”, we are actually led to sympathize with the girl, Samara. Oh poor little girl, how she was mistreated by her parents. Later, when we realize that the parents were actually scared of her that we feel the full impact of her evilness. Yikes.

Removing our comfort zones. Some of us have no problems watching movies about old haunted mansions or about werewolves lose in the Everglades. Why? Because we know that nothing will ever drag us to go to a haunted mansion or camp in the Everglades. It is far away from our comfort zone. Movies on Vampires in Transylvania? No problem since the last I checked, there were no direct flights from the Kingdom of Darkness to our international airport. However, what if the horror came into our house? What if it visits in our dreams even though we are tucked in our own beds? That is the premise that made Nightmare on Elm Street so horrifying (the sequels degenerated to a body count movie). What if hell itself wanted to draw you in through the static of the TV screen as it did in Poltergeist? Yaaaaah!

I think Hollywood horror movies have lost their way of late and have acknowledged that by copying or reproducing some of the scarier movies from Asia. The Ring, Dark Water and The Grudge are some examples. Even in the case of The Grudge, I would still recommend the Japanese version despite the fact that I am a Sarah Michelle Geller fan.

A few more that I would recommend from Asia include;
a) Shutter (2004; Thailand; The moment the hero finally understands what was happening was truly chilling.)
b) A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, Korean; Is it real or is it imagined the evil that seems to appear?)
c) One Missed Call (2003, Japanese; Okay, not one of the top ones but I like how they use an everyday item like the handphone to rock us out of our comfort zone).

Happy halloween. Sleep well. Have pleasant dreams and watch out for your teddy bear.

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