My formative horror experience was watching Tobe Hooper’s excellent made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” on Channel 56. I was 9.
I didn’t sleep for three nights, even with every light burning in my room. It wasn’t just the vampires’ creepy glowing eyes or Kurt Barlow’s Nosferatu-style makeup that frightened me. Ralphie Glick is stolen on his way home from a friend’s house. Then Ralphie, a child himself, murders his younger brother.
A cadre of Gothic literature doctoral students could offer a bunch of compelling reasons why horror is scary, but one of its chief characteristics is that it resists paraphrase, evades explanation. Good horror films offer vicarious thrills, of course, but the best function on the level of myth and symbol. They are both themselves and something else entirely. They offer arresting, inexplicable spectacle but still make contact, somehow, with daily life.
What follows is a small sampling of films that deserve your attention this Halloween, and beyond, for the ways in which they employ this weird apparatus of horror.
THE CHANGELING (1980)
Sordid pasts motivate a good deal of horror, but particularly haunted house stories (all ghost stories, really). “The Changeling” is the finest haunted house picture ever made.
Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) loses his wife and daughter in a car accident. For a fresh start, he moves from New York to Seattle and rents a rambling Victorian house. But the house has been the site of a barbarous cruelty. Russell unfurls the terrible and pathetic mystery attended by plenty of ghostly tantrums. There’s a rickety wheelchair that rolls of its own accord. There’s that horrible spectral pounding (the source of which turns out to be heartbreaking). And when that ball rolls down the stairs, it’s almost too much to bear.
SESSION 9 (2001)
Filmed at Danvers State Hospital, “Session 9” is a beautiful, carefully constructed movie that scares me to death. In it, a work crew is hired to remove asbestos from the shuttered asylum but the surroundings begin to have a sinister effect. Director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz lovingly linger on all the graffiti, the shattered glass, the blistered paint, and that orphan chair left out in the hall until the viewer feels stained with the long, lonely history of the tortured. Digital film gives events a crisp feverishness, and the whole movie is a paranoid, hallucinatory nightmare. This film also contains one of my favorite horror scenes, when a character with severe nyctophobia (fear of the dark) is left alone in a utility tunnel. The lights overhead flicker out, one by one, and he starts to sprint, trying to outrun the darkness before it swallows him whole.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)
One of the scariest scenes ever put on film (and on network television at that) was in “Twin Peaks,” when the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer, “Bob,” is revealed. That scene is so distressing, so incomprehensible and orgiastic, that I sometimes still YouTube it when I need a jolt. Maybe you’ve read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in high school or college. The ending of that short story detonates with a similar ecstatic scene of rage and insanity.
A forgotten slasher gem that operates in much the same way is “Sleepaway Camp.” After a traumatic childhood accident takes the lives of her father and brother, Angela (Fellisa Rose) is raised by an eccentric aunt. Angela is sent away to camp where, as a naive introvert, she proves to be an easy target for bullies. Then campers start dying in grotesque ways.
Here’s the thing: This is not a good movie. Except for the incongruously professional film score by Edward Bilous, you might suspect a bunch of high school kids made this film for a hundred bucks and change. But just as you start to take pleasure in the overacting and dated clothes, all that ironic distance gets ripped away. And then comes the twist that, whether or not you see it coming, culminates in a catastrophic shot so shocking and dreadful that the image seems to expand every time you see it. Which is why you should see it a lot.
THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS (2011)
Set in a squalid suburb of Adelaide, South Australia, this is the bleak and gruesome true story of gormless Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), who is sexually victimized by various household members. Affable, macho John (Daniel Henshall) appears as Jamie’s savior when he begins dating Jamie’s mother. But John slowly reveals a sadistic side.
Each frame of this film has been bled of color so that even the sunlight seems harsh and relentless. And the physical environs are so wild and desolate that the drama appears to unfold on the edge of the world.
I thought about “The Snowtown Murders” for days after I first saw it. Now I wonder if it even qualifies as horror. It’s more like an ordeal to be endured, if only to remind yourself that such monstrous depravity exists.
“The Strangers” is the more widely known film of the “mysterious visitor” horror sub-genre, but the French-Romanian film “Them” is the first and best.
A young couple goes home to enjoy the weekend in their country house outside Bucharest. A strange noise disturbs them in the middle of the night. About an hour of excruciating tension ensues for the audience.
The chase through the woods with flashlights is superb. The ratcheting of that New Year’s noisemaker still fills me with dread. If you want to sleep, it is a very good idea not to watch this movie alone or in a rural area.
The film is scary because it contends with the banality of evil and the events dramatized could (and did) actually happen. But it figuratively represents all the bad things that await us and the manner in which they arrive — an irregularly shaped mole on the back of our leg, a tractor-trailer with a shimmying wheel on the highway in front of us, a sudden tightness in our jaw and left arm after clearing the front walk of snow.
The best horror does not leave us where it found us. It invites interpretation but spurns tidy resolutions. It reflects reality but not exactly. It is, in almost all ways, superior to logic.
Ted Kehoe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.