With Halloween coming up and this being the time of year I tend to start diving into horror (change of seasons, nights drawing in and Christmas is still far enough away that the jollity is yet to rear its head), I thought scares would be a good idea to write about. Plus, Daily Post has this interesting prompt.
I was out on a date with a fellow sci fi lover during the early part of this week and we got around to talking about the things that scare us in books and films. When I thought about it, I realised that there is so little that I find genuinely terrifying. Unnerving, yes but terrifying no… and often it is the concept behind the story I find unnerving. So, without further ado here is a list of films and TV episodes I find/found scary.
The Blair Witch Project
The only film ever to have given me a genuine scare as an adult and it started the trend of the home made footage type film and – perhaps leaving Cloverfield aside, it is the best example. About a group of student film makers who retreat into a New England woodlands to learn about the legend of the Blair Witch – the apparent haunting spirit of a woman murdered by a mob over 200 years before. Much more happened in the following two centuries – including missing children in the 1940s (where the killer confessed to the murders but said that he had been ordered to do it by the crazy old woman who lived in the woods), a missing child during the civil war sees the child turning up safe and well but the men who went to look for her turn up dead and their bodies ritually organised on “Coffin Rock”.
The students are never seen again and this film is supposedly their “lost footage”. Utterly terrifying, I couldn’t sleep properly for days and felt what could only be described as an adrenaline overload for the next week. The official website that started the viral marketing campaign is still up at Blair Witch Project
I’m not scared of these (so no I’m not hiding behind the sofa when they are on) but they are the scariest thing ever in Doctor Who (call me a philistine but they are scarier than Daleks. As kids during those years that our imaginations are in overdrive, out of the corner of our eye we often think we see something move but when we turn to look at it, there’s nothing there or whatever it was we thought we saw is actually perfectly still. For children, this is most common for statues or other models of people-like objects. So what would be scary, clearly, is a statue that does move when you are not looking at it but otherwise looks innocuous.
We first seem them in Tennant episode Blink (so-called because The Doctor advises Sally Sparrow never to do so because they move when you’re not looking at them) and we see them twice more (so far) throughout Smith’s tenure with one extra cameo in the episode The God Complex. In the two parter The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, there is a cave full of the blighters which ups the terror factor to 11. In their last appearance, they have acquired a New York hotel and are using it as a prison for people to “feed” on. They don’t actually kill their victims, but send them back in time in order to feed off their energy that the process creates.
There is something ultimately unnerving about the shambling, rotting hunks of flesh whose only instinct is to feed on the flesh of the living. It is a timeless concept and one that will never die (pardon the almost pun) so constant reinventions are inevitable for something that never seems to become boring. I’ve commented before on social commentary in zombie fiction and in the last five years zombie related fiction has exploded.
There have been attempts to reinvent the zombie concept – most notably with the utterly terrifying Not-Zombies created for the Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later (when is 28 Months Later coming?!) They are not zombies because they are not actually dead – it is shown at the end of the first film that they are starving to death. They also do not eat flesh though they are seen tearing people apart and displaying other zombie-like characteristics.
The zombie resurgence began around 10 years ago with the Resident Evil film adaptation. Love it or loath it (and I loved it and still do), it cannot be denied that the terrifying undead creatures of the last ten years probably have that film to thank. With the recent World War Z film, the thirst for the flesh of the undead has yet to be satiated.
Though I feel that some of the scariest vampires in fiction today exist in books rather than on screen (I will come to this when I do the second half of this subject), vampires on television and in film can still be scary. No, they needn’t be the Simpering Emo Vampires of Twilight and other such nonsense. If you don’t believe me, you should watch the film adaptations of 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend.
In the first, a group of vampires have invaded a small town in northerly Alaska – a town where it turns dark for a whole 30 days. See the problem here? There’s no respite for the humans from 720 hours of continual darkness. They cannot leave the town – even if they got away it is hundreds of miles to the nearest town in deadly cold conditions. At least in the town there is food and water and shelter… but also vampires determined to hunt them down.
In the latter, Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a research scientist trying to find a cure for the vampiric disease that resulted from a miracle cure for cancer. Again, these vampires are not dead/undead and they can be cured but they do have all the hallmarks of the vampire – aside from the stuff about garlic and crosses… these are plausible vampires. The theme is far less about one man’s isolation as it is in the book (though there is an element of that and it is perfectly handled when it does happen) as it is about the traps he might fall into in the decaying Manhattan that is his home.
I was terrified the first time I watched Salem’s Lot. At that age I was already a fan of Stephen King and though I hadn’t yet read the book, I watched film adaptation one late night. It’s pretty tame now but at the time seeing that boy floating outside the first storey window demanding to be let in was terrifying. Now you’ve got me thinking that this book could do with an Under the Dome style TV adaptation.
I See Dead People
Far scarier than vampires and zombies is the ghost. The disembodied spirit, the tortured soul of a deceased person unable to move on to the next world, or a remnant of some severe emotional response to a violent death. I find the ghost story not so much scary because of the ghosts, but as a concept. Even for a confirmed atheist like me there is something unnerving about not being able to move on after death.
This is why I feel that The Sixth Sense is one of the scariest films ever. Dialogue for sending a shiver down my spine doesn’t come any better than this:
Cole: You know the accident up there?
Cole: Someone got hurt.
Lynn: They did?
Cole: A lady. She died.
Lynn: Oh, my God. What, you can see her?
Lynn: Where is she?
Cole: Standing next to my window.
Though this ultimately isn’t supposed to scare (a common theme of M Night Shyamalan’s films is the shift of focus or using metaphors to get a point across), the film is full of terrifying imagery of spirits. However, they want Cole’s help and that is all. Similarly, the Spanish language film The Orphanage by the always incredible Guillermo Del Toro is about an old house haunted by ghostly children. Again, this shifts tack toward the end as you realise what the story is really about.
Though I personally did not find it scary (I found it too tame), Paranormal Activity is celebrated as one of the scariest ghost stories ever – and you never see a ghost. Certainly it has its fair share of jumps and it does so in the old-fashioned way of building up the scares through simple imagery such as a closing door, a swinging light, footsteps on the stairs etc. It is effective due to its timeless use of conventional methods of scaring the viewer – cheap and effective.
Not Quite Human
No, I don’t mean inbred rednecks, I mean creatures that were clearly once human but mutation and/or environmental adaptation means that they are no longer fully human. The perfect recent-ish example of this is the Neil Marshal directed film The Descent. Following the death of her husband and child, Sarah is on a girlie caving holiday with a group of friends. What at first promises to be something along the lines of a female “buddy pic” or Sex and the City Go Potholing, quickly becomes a horror as they enter an unexplored cave. Aside from the usual dangers of an unfamiliar cave system and their lack of experience, they encounter strange humanoid creatures that eventually kills all but the final girl (and her fate was dependent on whether you saw the European or North American version of the film). That was of course, until the sequel was released a couple of years ago and the one surviving girl returns to the cave system.
The less said about The Chernobyl Diaries the better, I think.
I would lump in something like Body Snatchers under this too. Though in each of those adaptations, they are aliens who take the form of humans or have assimilated our DNA, physical and mental forms, the fact that they appear human is what is the most terrifying – the mistrust that it creates. Purists would say that Heinlein’s original book The Puppet Masters trumps all of the film versions – I cannot comment as I have not read it but I would imagine that it does.
So it’s over to you… what films and TV series or concepts in visual media have terrified you? If anybody would like to comment on The Walking Dead graphic novels I would love to hear your thoughts.