A couple of weeks ago, a longtime friend of mine sent me a text message asking, “Wait, do you like horror movies now?” This was, I assumed, in response to my Letterboxd account diary being filled with horror movies over the last four weeks. Now, this friend has known me since college and I have never liked horror movies. I don’t enjoy being scared. It is not an emotion I enjoy experiencing. But, at the same time, it was hard to deny that, yes, I have been watching a lot of horror movies. Do I like them now? The answer didn’t feel like an easy yes or no. So I’ve really been giving this some thought and I think something is going on here, at least with those of us who, in the past, identified as people who do not like horror movies. I think, for people like us, and because of the pandemic, there’s been a bit of a reset with a lot of people and how they feel about horror movies, especially older horror movies.
The overwhelming majority of the horror movies I’ve been watching came out between 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and up to around 1990, around the time of Child’s Play 2. Some I had seen before. Or at least tried to watch as a kid before bailing out. I remember the first time I tried to watch the first Halloween when I was maybe around 10. That scene when Michael Myers is wearing the ghost sheet when he comes into the room with P.J. Soles? I honestly used to think that was the scariest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. I remember trying to watch the opening scene of the original When a Stranger Calls. Same thing. Just pure, real terror. Because growing up as an only child, this means there were many times I found myself alone in the house. And being alone and scared really stinks. I wanted no part of any of this. Also, I didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing, at least in respects of “going to church on a regular basis.” But I was born into Catholicism and the specter of a lot of the religious imagery in these movies being “real” freaked me out to no end. Again … no thank you. (The two exceptions to any of this was, first, Poltergeist. I always loved Poltergeist even though it very much frightened me. The second was, a few years later, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I think I figured any movie that featured a Dokken song couldn’t be a bad thing.)
Then I pretty much avoided horror the rest of my life. At least until I started doing what I do now for a living and I’d be forced to go to new horror movies as part of my job. And I had a weird reaction: I still did not like them, but the format seemed to be less focused on the eerie and more focused on jump scares. Now, look, I know a lot of people complain about jump scares. Or defend jump scares. I find jump scares effective, which is why I don’t like them. As a kid, what scared me was the idea that Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees was hiding upstairs in our empty house and was going to “get me.” Not just something popping out at me and a manufactured loud noise. Anyway, regardless of the changes, I still found horror movies unpleasant.
Something changed around the start of the pandemic. And it wasn’t just me. There sure seemed to be a lot of people who were not horror fans dipping their toes into the horror waters. Like a lot of people early on I watched The Thing, a movie that was on cable a lot when I was a kid and could never make it though because it was way too scary. I promised myself I would make it through, no matter how unpleasant I found the experience, just in a, “well, I’ve finally finished that,” kind of way. What I did not at all expect was how much I enjoyed the movie. There were moments I found myself applauding. It’s scary, but it’s also fun. And it’s not a movie where things are jumping out at you, it’s just a really well done story about isolation and a secret killer who may or may not be literally everyone around you. The same thing happened with The Exorcist, a movie I could NEVER make it through as a kid. Watching it now, it just felt like a great movie. At no point did I feel like I did not want to be watching it. And, now, if I find The Exorcist to be a good movie and not particularly scary or unpleasant, what else am I missing out on?
Last October, I watched a few more horror movies to see if I felt the same way. (It was October of 2020 when I first watched Halloween III: Season of the Witch and met Dr, Dan Challis. I remember a kid in elementary school trying to tell me about it. After hearing this description about masks that melt kids’ faces and turn them into bugs, there was no way I was going to be watching Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Smash cut to today and it’s one of my favorite movies for about 1000 reasons.) Anyway, I enjoyed the horror movie experience so much last October I wish I had watched more, so this October I’d cram in as many as I could. (As I type this, I’ve watched 33 in the last month [Update: 39]. Yes, I am now someone who has seen Killer Klowns from Outer Space.)
Part of me wants to give this a name. Like “The Great Horror Reset,” or something else dumb like that. Because there for sure something going on, especially with people like me who have never really watched horror movies before. But what I’m finding is the movies from this era (again, roughly 1968 until 1990) range from legitimately great movies (Night of the Living Dead) to fun, creepy and hilarious (the aforementioned Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and fun and stupid (pretty much every Friday the 13th movie). But the one thing they really aren’t are … scary.
When I interviewed John Carpenter recently I asked him about this. When horror movies got into the Hostel era, that’s when Carpenter basically checked out. The movies had lost their sense of fun. I presented him what I think is happening now, with all these non-horror fans watching older horror and enjoying it, and Carpenter responded, “That’s interesting. I hadn’t really paid much attention to that, but it’s much more fun than the torture movies. The only one of those that was any good, the only one of those that was fun, was the Saw movies, which were fun. But no, horror: there’s an edge. You don’t want to step over that edge. That’s not something that you should do.”
And that’s the thing: maybe I’d grown so accustomed to modern horror that uses jump scares (again, they are effective) that I kind of got reprogrammed to like older horror. I swear, when I watch a modern horror movie in a theater I can’t even look at the screen. I don’t want to jump out of my seat when the thing jumps out at me and the loud noise happens. (Keep in mind I am generalizing a bit here. But most mass-marketed studio horror movies do this.) But when I went back to watch these older movies, I couldn’t (and still can’t) get over how much fun they are. Some are downright hilarious. (Honestly, I think this is why I enjoyed Halloween Kills. It plays like a movie from 1982 and all the characters seem in on this idea. And I think my brain is currently wired for movies exactly like this. But, also, admittedly, I am in the minority on this opinion. But I have little doubt if Halloween III: Season of the Witch came out today in theaters, most people would hate it.)
There’s a kind of hilarious clip of Roger Ebert having a meltdown about Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter. Basically, Ebert hates this movie so much he thinks it will cause the downfall of civilization. So much so that Gene Siskel had to chime in and basically tell Ebert, look, I don’t like it either, but maybe let’s take it down a notch. And it’s funny because, now, that’s “the good one.”
I do love that before I watched Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter I was told, “oh, that’s the good one.” I finally kind of get how non-Star Wars fans feel when I try to explain how some of them are good and some are bad. Because most of these movies just feel like, “stab, stab. stab.” Then I’ll be told the next one subverts the formula and I’ll watch it and it’s still, “stab, stab. stab.” But I’m finding the whole, “stab, stab. stab,” of it all just kind of fun and stupid and, again, not at all scary. To the point I was at a bar over the weekend and got into an in-depth conversation about the history and mythos of Jason Voorhees and was saying things like, “Actually, of the first five movies, Jason himself only has his mask the whole movie in Part IV,” and dropping names like Shelly Finkelstein from Part III. To the point I had to stop a second and think, “Wait, who am I now?”
(Also, I’m looking forward to inevitably getting some sort of, “Um, you don’t understand horror at all,” response on Twitter. Which, yes, I suppose it’s fair to say I’m not an expert on something I’ve spent most my life avoiding. But that’s also the point.)
The truth is I haven’t quite figured this one out, but also something is happening because I’ve been talking to way too many people who feel the same way. But, with actual Halloween fast approaching, that’s a pretty hard deadline for this piece. (I do wonder if April Fool’s Day was at the end of April, would people spend the whole month watching comedies? I kind of wish that were the case.) But where I’m sort of leaning is, people like me are so accustomed to more modern horror, which went through its someone recent “torture porn” phase, and with a healthy dose of jump scares, and decided this is not for me. Then almost out of necessity for something to do, went back to the older horror movies and realized that, yeah, these might have been scary as a kid, but compared to modern horror, they are just a whole lot of fun. Oh, and I now casually drop references to Shelly Finkelstein.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.