When do horror movies stop being scary?

After my review of The Thing, a horror movie classic for many people, Michael over at Parlour of Horror took um-bridge with my claim that it wasn’t scary.  It had it’s moments but at no point did I really feel “horrified” or in any way scared by the events on-screen. After a small discussion we soon came to a slight consensus that the movie has lost it’s impact after twenty to thirty years… and it joins many others in that regard too.

Some of the movies which are considered classic horror only hold that title loosely. The Exorcist may have had people fainting in the seats back in seventies but struggles to raise an eyebrow today while Psycho is more interesting for some of it’s twists rather than any of it’s “scary” moments. As time has gone on, audiences have understandably become desensitised to violence and the thoughts of creepy monsters in the shadows and need something more to raise their blood pressure.

Classic horror movies lose their impact

This isn’t just the case for horror movies of the seventies, eighties or even nineties. This is a trend that is beginning to affect more recent horror movies and their production is beginning to be altered because of it. Where the mere thought of a serial killer, the affects of murder or demonic possession was enough, now we must see it in all it’s gory detail, just to get some sort of reaction out of audiences.

We also have the problem that horror movie makers are confusing screams with scares. Anyone can make a person jump by turning the sound down and then cranking it up sharply for a an effective “cattle-prod” scare but this isn’t real fear and leaves your horror movie feeling hollow. It seems if you want your horror film to stand the test of time, you need to affect people on the more psychological level.

Cattle-prod scares are not real horror

This is where we get the horror films I feel will be timeless. These are the simpler horror movies that don’t need effects or cattle-prod scares but intense and prolonged psychological horror. The thought of danger will always out-do the actual moments horror occurs.

Two key examples are quite different movies. The first is The Blair Witch Project. This seemed to confuse people, not because of the found footage “real-life” aspect, but because in a horror movie about being trapped in the woods with an evil spirit, not much actually happens. It meant people walked away thinking ” that wasn’t scary” but I bet it stayed with people a lot longer than the cattle-prod horror Annabelle or Insidious ever would. It was the effect on the characters and the prolonged, potential horror that made it so scary.

The psychological effects of movies like It Follows have a longer lasting impact

Along the same lines is It Follows. This horror film is another that has very little in the way of “scary moments” other than the fact that the “monster” is relentless and alters your whole life. The thought of the horror is much more effective than the actual moments when the creature catches up with the young cast. It means that you leave the cinema, troubled slightly and worrying what you would do in such a situation. That is the kind of effect which is timeless and ensures a horror movie remains scary.

The other aspect these to have in common is the lack of effects. Other than fashion, these films will not age badly. The Thing lost me on the practical effects slightly and you can say the same about aspects of The Exorcist as well. What was grotesque and horrific for an older generation will lose it’s effect on an audience who will gladly sit through the many gross, graphic instalments of The Saw franchise.

Even the first Saw seems quite tame now

Torture and pain is also not a substitute for horror either and will only desensitise audiences further, leading to even the Saw movies being considered tame for future audiences (you could argue the first one already is).

This has led to a new wave of creative horror movies. The films relying on cattle-prod scares and shock tactics begin to fail where more creative movies, like It Follows and The Babadook, become remembered for their alternative take on horror. One which is much more psychological.

Overall, horror movies stop becoming scary when audiences become desensitised to the images, ideas and effects on the screen. The best way to keep your horror movie scary and subsequently timeless is to leave it simple, suggesting the horror and crafting something much more psychologically terrifying, sticking with you long after the credits have rolled.

If you want timeless fear, keep it simple!
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11 comments

  1. Yeah, now that you mention it the first Saw seems quite tame now. It was on a week ago and I was watching it for a while and thought it was scarier when I had first seen it. I also like the distinction you make between the ‘jump scare’ and psychological horror. The ‘jump scare’ can only get you on the initial viewing. I’d also like to point out, because of my place in life, being married for many years and not having any other sexual partners besides my wife, ‘It Follows’ did not effect me at all. So, what is scary to a person in the first place is even subjective to their place in life. It’s quite interesting and I’m glad you set up this post. I hope we get more opinions.

    • Me too. I’m the same with you about It Follows. “Contracting” the monster didn’t bother me but how I’d deal with it if it ever did happen was something to consider. I always thought I’d just emigrate to Australia, wait it out….

  2. Reblogged this on parlor of horror and commented:
    Ben at Views from the Sofa has set up this post concerning what horror films are scary and if they become less scary over time. It is interesting to see the differences in what people find frightening. Check out this post and leave a comment, we’d love to get more opinions about ‘scary or not scary’ and why…

  3. Great post. You are right in saying that the ones that are scary from a psychological standpoint last a lot longer then the ones that just rely on jump scares. Good example of It Follows on here too.

  4. Well put. However, I feel the age of a movie has less to do with its effectiveness than the age of its viewer. A movie like Signs that basically traumatized me at twelve just wouldn’t affect me the same if were I to watch it today for the first time, not because it’s now tame by today’s standards (Hell, it was tame at the time its release), but because I was much more impressionable then.

    I agree with your sentiments except for the one about Insidious being forgettable cattle prod horror. In my opinion, it’s highly rememberable and will go down as one of the decade’s true classics. But yeah. Annabelle. Dime-a-dozen crap.

    • I also think that the age you watch it has a great effect on whether you find something scary. I did think Insidiuos was creepy but I think The Conjuring was even better. It had great suspense. Also I’m closer to the age when my wife and I took the kids and purchased a house, a fixer upper that we could afford. So I instantly felt empathetic with the characters.

      • Insidious is to Poltergeist as The Conjuring is to The Amityville Horror. Insidious is bigger and more fantastical, The Conjuring is more suspenseful. I enjoy them both. I watched The Conjuring for the first time in my baby daughter’s hospital room on the tail end of a week long stay with doctors and nurses coming in every twenty minutes, so the initial experience was kinda lost there, but like I said, I still enjoy it quite a bit.

  5. After a certain amount of time, if you’re going to remain a horror fan, you have to find something other than scares appealing in the genre. After decades of watching these types of movies, it’s nearly impossible to become unsettled. I don’t want to look at today’s younger audiences the way I felt older horror fans looked at me for digging 80s slashers though. To them, Friday the 13th and the such were nothing but bubble gum horror. They weren’t wrong, but those movies still resonated with me. I still love them now.

    For what it’s worth, the last time I was truly scared as an adult was when I saw Black Sabbath on DVD in the late 90s. That Drop of Water segment touched a nerve that I didn’t even know still existed. It was thrilling and still uncomfortable. I didn’t want to turn off the lights. I was an adult and afraid of the dark again. It’s been a long time, but I know it can still happen. I’ve seen some creepy images since then, but nothing that really reached inside of me like that.

    • Yeah, that dead old woman…there’s something there that gets under people’s skin. And you’re right. Now I look for good horror stories even though they are not necessarily frightening. A good story will make me like it. Examples are; Stir of Echoes, Identity, The Mist, all had excellent writing.

      • There is definitely something to that method. The scares are only part of a horror film’s effectiveness. If you don’t care about the characters or the story itself, there is very little chance of you being scared by the movie anyway.

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