Halloween is bad enough, so why torture us with scary movies? | Emma Jean

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I spent the past week in the mountains of western North Carolina, where the seasonal color of tree-covered Appalachia provides a fiery backdrop to small-town life. You can’t beat this place for fall vibes, with apple pies and cider on sale at every store, gourds and pumpkins at every rest stop. And then there are the Halloween decorations. People take them seriously here, their windows, lawns and roofs are fantastically dressed in ways ranging from tastefully scary to shamelessly exhibitionist. My closest neighbors have a menagerie of inflatables – a werewolf, a skeleton, a zombie – that explode higher than their house.

The people I stay with, however, don’t build ghosts out of sheets and brooms or hang fake cobwebs on their porches. They have their own way of marking the season. For the whole month of October, my friends Andrew and Carrie are committed to watching a different horror movie every day. For some, it will look like psychological torture. But this is a couple who love the genre so much that the first thing you pass when entering their home is a floor-to-ceiling shelf of DVDs with names like hash mall and Slumber Party Massacre.

They’ve also created a home theater to watch them in – in the basement (where else?), down a creaky wooden staircase lit by a single eerie red light bulb. Two rows of shabby seats, salvaged when the local cinema was under renovation, are complemented by a state-of-the-art projector and a meaty sound system that can turn every jump into a potential heart-pounding event. This is the perfect place to scare you.

When I first visited their home five years ago, I was not only ambivalent about the horror, I actively avoided it. It wasn’t the thought of gore and splatter that bothered me – I had seen enough episodes of Emergency room having functional immunity to the sight of blood and entrails – as much as the whole principle. What was the point of such violently wicked stories? And why would you submit to such an unpleasant sensation as terror?

But Andrew and Carrie are two of my favorite people and when I came to live temporarily in their home it seemed disgraceful not to engage in their hobby, especially since they were keen to share it . Explaining that the horror was a big church, Andrew promised to calm me down gently, avoiding anything really unpleasant (human centipedes, cannibalism, dancing clowns). There were movies chosen to make me laugh – An American werewolf in London, Tucker and Dale vs Evil – and others to make me think – get out, They live — and I was allowed to watch them all hide behind a blanket and take big slugs of bourbon to help keep me from being scared.

I enjoyed old-school filmmaking and slowly developed my tolerance for the fear of being scared. It was a development I was grateful for when I returned home, where another close friend was struggling with the long and uncertain aftermath of cancer therapy. Faced with her own mortality in her early thirties, faced with a terror none of her peers had experienced, she immersed herself in horror films as an outlet for her fears and frustrations. Our weekly get-together to watch a horror movie together was a convenient way for me to be with her through her darkest times and it became a comfort to both of us.

Later, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, there was only one place I looked for relief. I immediately rented Hereditary and The Exorcist, the two films that I had previously been too chicken to contemplate. Putting my nervous system through the wringer was exactly what I needed; when the terrible shocks came, they matched the intensity of my anger and sorrow.

Watching horror once again has become a regular habit – sometimes with friends but just as often alone. I had no inclination for sad movies that might have brought me to tears and I certainly couldn’t stand comedies that would try to cheer me up. The high heart rate of an increasingly desperate situation, the intermittent light of a faulty torch in a dark tunnel, the sudden clash of disassembled body parts – these alone could provide the catharsis I needed.

Catharsis, of course, is the prize-winning outcome of Greek tragedy, an art form that has influenced millennia of European literature, firmly entrenched at the top of the cultural pyramid while celluloid horror has, for the most part of its existence, languished near the bottom. Aristotle wanted the public to “vibrate with fear and pity”; Sophocles and Euripides achieved this by having Oedipus stab his eyes and Medea slaughter her babies, plotting climaxes that wouldn’t be out of place in a wicked video.

These days there is a widespread critical appreciation of cinematic horror, its cultural significance and intentions, its vital role in reflecting contemporary societal anxieties (think night of the living dead, funny games, Rosemary’s baby). But there’s still a majority of people – even ardent moviegoers – who resist horror movies and ask the understandable question: yes, but why would I want to do this to myself?

For me, the answer lies in how horror connects us to our deepest fears and instincts. There are good reasons to reject it: some films can be unedifyingly violent or gratuitously cruel; they can also be just plain bad. But they show us humanity laid bare, driven only by our most basic need to survive. Yes, it can be hard to watch, but there are plenty of comedies far less relevant than horror movies (which is why it’s so hard to get past the first 20 minutes of Time travelling machine).

This Halloween, I’ll go down to the basement and lean into the night of fear. As living proof that you can learn to love horror, I can point out that there are plenty even for the beginner. So let me ask you this: have you seen Jaws?

Emma John is a freelance writer and author

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