Monday, November 9, 2009

Scary Movies and The Unconscious

by Julia Buckley

I don't watch horror movies as a rule. I have no particular desire to be consciously afraid--at least any more afraid than I already am. I know I am in the minority in this, and that plenty of people love horror movies for the pure adrenaline rush that the fear brings them.

Still, I watched Paranormal Activity yesterday because all three of the men in my house assured me that it "wasn't that scary." And it wasn't, at the beginning. I watched the very normal-seeming young couple and their video diary with a sense of trepidation, of holding my breath. And like a coward, I continually asked, in whispered tones, what was going to happen in the next scene. (My husband and sons read spoilers).

So throughout the movie I was saying things like "Is that guy going to die?" and "Is she going to be okay?" and demanding that, in fact, they tell me the worst before I saw it. I was managing my fear by demanding information, and that's the only way you can drag me into a horror movie.

When the movie ended I was shaken, perhaps because I have a very good imagination, and much of horror is in what you don't see. A friend of mine dismissed the movie as "So boring! I fell asleep." I didn't find it boring. I tried to put it out of my mind, though, as we went home to watch Saturday Night Live and to indulge in the laughter and relaxation that is the opposite of fear.

My brave sons ended up sleeping on our floor last night; the elder said it was for his brother's sake, while the younger insisted that it was the elder who was "a little freaked out." They continued to assure me, though, that it hadn't been a scary movie.

So we all went to sleep.

I woke up at two in the morning in my darkened room. This is the setting for much of Paranormal Activity: a darkened bedroom, captured on video. I realized that I needed to go downstairs for an allergy pill; I also realized that I was too afraid to go, especially when I heard a noise coming from the other bedroom. Normally I would attribute any noise to our rambunctious cats and their nocturnal playground. This time, thanks to my horror template, the sounds seemed much more sinister.

I woke my husband, who had been snoring peacefully. "I need an allergy pill," I said. "But I'm afraid to go downstairs."

He started to get up without a word. "No," I said. "I have to go down anyway to use the bathroom. But I'm scared."

"I'll go with you," he said generously. "But then you have to wait for me."

Yes, even my husband, lover of all things horror, didn't want to go downstairs alone.

We made our way down the stairs, turning on lights as we went, and the normalcy of the scene, and the fact that our cats were, in fact, making all sorts of noise, allayed our fears.

Interestingly, I hadn't known that my fears were still there. I'd moved on to new thoughts by the time I went to bed. Waking in the darkness, though, brought up all that I'd stowed into my subconscious.

People who dismiss horror movies as "unscary" don't realize, perhaps, the way that those terrifying images embed themselves in the unconscious mind.


Sheila Connolly said...

I'm still trying to understand why people go to movies or watch shows or even read books which scare them or horrify them (gore, cruelty, etc.). Isn't there enough of that in the world without actively seeking it out? I'll acknowledge that seeing/reading these things can be an intense experience--but not a particularly pleasant one. Do we do it to make us feel better about our own calm, ordinary lives?

Having said that, I will admit to watching forensic shows and even those showing bodily trauma and autopsies, without blinking.

Sandra Parshall said...

Forensics, autopsies, etc., don't bother me, but nobody could ever get me to sit through a second viewing of The Exorcist!

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, there are some echoes of The Exorcist in this movie (although I never saw The Exorcist and never will!)

Sheila, I'm with you. I just have no interest in being scared.

signlady217 said...

I can still remember scenes from things I saw thirty years ago! I certainly don't want to add to the list. Didn't and don't plan to see the Exorcist. Did see The Shining(ick!). Blood and gore (historical fiction, forensics) I can handle, but I draw the line at horror.

Julia Buckley said...

Signlady, my mom once watched a tv movie called THE LAST OF SHEILA that had some scary scenes in it (although I was tiny, so they're probably really stupid and not scary)and I can STILL recall certain visuals from it.

Stuff like that just gets imprinted on the brain.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I, too, have too much of an imagination -- preventing me from watching horror movies (yuck) or even enjoying an outing with my then boyfriend now husband. We went into a rather easy underground cave on a tour. I never completely freaked out but my imagination went into overdrive coming up with earthquake scenarios, lights going out, etc. I'm definitely not a spelunker. Or skydiver or deep water diver or... I always imagine the worst possibilities.

Julia Buckley said...

PK, I think we're very similar. My list of phobias is extensive. :)

kathy d. said...

No scary movies, no horror, skip forensic descriptions in books about coroners, can't watch the forensic shows though I love mysteries. I hate blood, gore, hacking up dead bodies, even for science.

I want it all off the page or off the screen.

Where are the good old legal shows solving the mystery or other crime with barely any blood, but exercising one's mind and building suspense but without horror?

I just wonder sometimes with gratuitous violence in books if that's just a substitute for good writing, when the writing isn't good, just throw in blood and gore.

Great characters, yes, and good plots. Both together are the best.
And many writers do this. And it's like eating chocolate cake to savor those books.