People start asking around, saying: “I’m having a few friends over for a Halloween party. What’s a good movie or two to watch?”
If they’re asking me, the first question I have is what their friends are like. If they like blood and gore, then I tell them I’m not the person to be asking.
I prefer my scares to be more cerebral. Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about scaring people, says, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion…” he writes in the book Danse Macabre (a great read, by the way), “and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”
In other words, as I usually explain to people, I want a movie to get me up here (pointing to my head) not down here (pointing to my stomach).
I’m not saying there isn’t craft to making a good gross-out movie, but it does often seem to me to be taking the easy way out.
As King explains elsewhere in Danse Macabre, radio was a much better way to present horror than TV or the movies. In all three media, you led people to a door and told them the most horrifying thing they could imagine was behind it.
In radio, you could leave it at that, and let the listener imagine what was behind that door. In TV and the movies, though, at some point you had to open the door.
And the listener may be horrified or terrorized for a second by what they saw, but then they would think, “it could have been worse.”
All that said, if you have some friends over for a Halloween party, and you want to give them nightmares for a few days, I would recommend a couple of black and white movies: Nosferatu, a silent movie from 1922 with a monster named Nosferatu to avoid trademark problems with Dracula, which the monster clearly was; and the original The Haunting, from 1963, based on an equally terrifying novella by Shirley Jackson.
In Nosferatu, the special effects may not look like much to our computer-jaded eyes, but for 1922, they were quite something. In The Haunting, the special effects are mainly sound-based. It’s what you’re not seeing that scares you the most.
If you watch one (or both) of these movies this Halloween, you may decide next year to watch a more modern gross-out movie.
It won’t be anywhere near as scary.