The Unsettling Allure of On-Screen Horror

a critical essay by Doctor Gaines

On his podcast, Bret Easton Ellis asked noted horror film directors Ti West (The Sacrament, The House of the Devil) and Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes remake) this question: What are the most unsettling or horrifying onscreen deaths you witnessed as a child, and what are some that you’ve seen more recently?

Ti West (child): the two little girls cut up in The Shining.

Ti West (adult): Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.

Alexandre Aja (child): the face-melting judgment for the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Alexandre Aja (adult): Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.

Now understand this: I was absolutely not allowed to watch scary movies as a kid. I had conservative parents who would deny me the rental of even some PG-rated films if the content seemed even slightly questionable or racy. I was six years old when Jurassic Park came out, and my mom still covered my eyes when the bloody goat leg drops onto the sunroof of the Jeep.

I fondly recall many a Friday night at Blockbuster, and while my family would be browsing for a more “tasteful” film that we could all watch with my little sisters, I would sneak off to the Horror/Sci-Fi section just to look at the vibrant VHS-box artwork and dream about what the movies might be like. The pictures were so grotesque and colorful; terrifying all by themselves, and mysterious.

Not knowing what was actually on those tapes made the movies seem all the more wild and intangible to my little-kid brain. Surely these films were too alarming for any person to look upon and come out the other side with their sanity intact.

My two friends down the street had the opposite experience. They were allowed to watch anything. I would listen in fascination as they described to me Michael Myers’ every kill in thrilling detail, Jason going to Hell, the way the Wishmaster would twist people’s desires into horrific torturous deaths, or the scariest of all—Chucky the orange-haired doll, whose face I could scarcely look at on a poster without having vivid nightmares.

The images my mind conjured were surely far more graphic, violent, and real than those films could have possibly been. Had I seen these movies at that age, I think I could have disconnected from them as playful and fake; just movies with people in costumes and make-up. But imagining Freddy Krueger slashing someone to ribbons in their bed was probably far scarier than actually seeing it on screen.

While the first time I saw the ending of Raiders was quite an experience (though I think I might have been peeking through my fingers), the first onscreen death that burned itself into my memory forever was that of Kathy Bates’ character in the 1990 film Misery. I must have been ten or eleven when I saw it for the first time, and I remember thinking that the struggle between Bates and James Caan in the closing sequence of the film felt very heavy. It is not gratuitously violent, but each of the blows feels very big. You feel it when Caan smashes a typewriter down on Bates’ head. Caan’s character later forces his thumbs into Kathy Bates’ eyeballs until they bleed, and I remember thinking that that was one of the most horrible things I could ever think of being done to a person. It had never before crossed my young mind that someone could have their eyeballs pushed in, and the thought made me shiver with discomfort and dread.

Also, that ankle-smashing scene… yeesh.

Fast-forward a couple of years to age sixteen when I saw the American version of The Ring. I’m not sure if that film’s scares still hold up today, and its bag of tricks is surely borrowed from earlier Japanese horror films, but at the time it seemed like the creepiest thing I had ever seen. It was a grittier, darker sort of horror than I had experienced thus far, and its subliminal imagery and “WTF?!?” moments were jarring and new. I’ve not seen the film in several years, but many of the scenes are still perfectly clear in my head, which I think is a testimony to The Ring’s quality as a movie. Like it or dislike it, it is a memorable piece of work that was a big step above the typical summer horror blockbuster of its time.

Around the same period, two friends and I rented what we thought would be just another corny 80’s horror film that we could watch with marginal interest and make fun of on a Friday night: Pet Sematary. Instead, we were absolutely gripped and watched the whole thing in fascinated silence. We jolted in unison at the first jump-scare with the demonic cat, and finished the film feeling deeply unnerved by the final sequence.

One thing Pet Sematary has going for it is that it takes what ought to be a ridiculous premise and presents it in such a disturbing way that the result is gut-churning and resonating. Turning a child into a resurrected murderer possessed with evil is such a taboo idea for a story, yet it makes the film all the more effective and truly scary.

Oh yes, and being a parent only elevates this story’s discomfort to a whole new level.

In late 2009, I moved out of a house full of roommates and into an apartment by myself. One evening I watched a movie that was getting a lot of buzz at the time: the original Paranormal Activity. I watched it by myself, alone on the couch, with the lights off. While I’m not particularly a fan of the film as I feel it suffers from many problems and isn’t even technically a “good” movie (I found myself fast-forwarding the lengthy, cleavage-ridden dialogue scenes to just get to the spooky parts), I appreciated the consistent tone of the movie and found its scares significantly jostling.

It was creepy in the sense that I couldn’t stop thinking about it once the credits had rolled, and it was particularly hard to fall asleep that night, and the next few after that. I was certain at any moment I would hear a terrible pounding on my closed bedroom door; an invisible demon tormenting me in a place that I once felt safe. I have no interest in the rest of the Paranormal series and probably wouldn’t watch this one again, but I still consider it to be one of the more unsettling movie experiences I have had.

Lastly, the film that has rattled me more than perhaps any other in my life has already been mentioned above: Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. This entire film has a heaviness to it that is hard to properly articulate, and carries a weight of actual evil that transcends the screen. Watching this film is an experience that is writhingly uncomfortable and emotionally caustic. It includes a few of the most disturbing images I’ve encountered in cinema. Throughout the film, I kept thinking things like, “I should probably turn this off,” or “I shouldn’t be watching this.” But of course, I finished it, for better or worse. It’s one of those weird pieces of media that I found incredibly effective, flawlessly done, hauntingly breathtaking, and yet: I don’t think I could ever sit through it again. I feel the same way about Antichrist as I do the novel American Psycho by the afforementioned Ellis: they are both amazingly crafted pieces of art that I would never recommend to anyone.

To close, here are just a few of the films that have had a lasting effect on me for some reason or another, many of which I return to again and again: Alien, Aliens, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Jaws, The Sixth Sense, Secret Window, The Shining, 28 Days Later, Signs, Misery, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

D.G.

Doctor Gaines (it’s a name, not a title) is an editor and contributing writer for Muzzleland Press. He is the author of “Hitching Post” in our Spooklights anthology, as well as “Clara’s Quilt” and “Michigan, Ten Cents”. His next project, The Shot, is about “[g]reen slime, A-list actors gone batty, hallucinations of starships and Jesus, the usual.” You can follow him on Twitter at @doctorgaines or visit his website at Doctor-Gaines.com. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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