What, are you scared?

Comic, Face, Fear, Fright, Horror, Man, Panic, Retro

Why do some people seem to get a kick out of scary stories? Whether on the page or screen, they stimulate that tingly feeling down your spine. The fact is a lot of us enjoy when our heart speeds up, and we can’t catch our breath… that rush of adrenaline, and all those lovely endorphins. Sounds kind of like falling in love doesn’t it.

 The writer Neil Gaiman said, “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open, and you will step out into the daylight once again.” That’s how I like to take my horror – in small doses. I prefer a controlled environment, and a horror movie’s a great example of that. 

 Scary films are generally about one and a half hours long. Buying a ticket, and armed with snacks, I settle into my seat. All those childhood fears of things that go bump in the night rush forward. If I’m out with someone, I find I can control my fear response better than when I’m on my own, especially if it’s a good film – otherwise, I have to do a lot more self-talk to keep myself in the seat. Hopefully, the filmmaker has tucked in a bit of comic relief that will diffuse the tension just enough for me to take a breath before the terror rushes back. 

 And, I’m not talking about being grossed out or repulsed either. Watching humans being tortured and hacked up isn’t my idea of a good time. Even if they were stupid enough to go inside that house when I told them not to…

 While I’m compulsively reaching for the popcorn, my brain’s busy checking out the perceived threat portrayed on the big screen. Intellectually, I know I’m in no real danger, but my amygdala needs some convincing. My heart’s pumping and my feet tap restlessly against the floor, as the tension runs through me. My stomach feels fluttery, it’s almost the same feeling I get when riding a roller coaster. As my brain recognizes the threat isn’t real – It drops a rush of hormones and chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin. This puts me into an elevated state – I feel happy and, surprisingly, less anxious – able to enjoy the thrill of the moment. The movie comes to an end. The credits roll – the lights come up – and the ride is over. I walk out of the theater, stimulated, excited, and, best of all, unscathed. 

 It’s very different when I’m reading, that’s where the scary gets to me. I don’t seem to have the same regulated emotional response that I have when watching a movie. Turning the pages of a novel, I stir the written words into my own overactive imagination. The story intensifies, and the pages turn faster as I race to the end of the book. I’m suddenly aware that the house is quiet – too quiet… the tension builds. My eyes dart uneasily at the shadows, my nerves have me starting at sudden noises. When the story becomes too intense, too scary, I put the book down. It’s getting dark, I turn on all the lights and switch on Hallmark or the Cooking Channel and hunt for the chocolate – only to settle my nerves. My body’s gone through the same flight or fight response as when I’ve watched a horror movie. It’s received that same flush of adrenaline, but, instead of feeling elated and less anxious – I’m still a little on edge and need to distract my brain. Only then will the frightening images fade. For some reason, when reading, my brain has greater difficulty dealing with the stress of being scared.

 Monsters are generally symbolic. Some psychologists say they reflect our fears or worries, whether we realize it or not. Freud asserted that monsters were created by our unconscious – for me, they have to live in my conscious mind, at least while I’m working on a novel. My writing group finds it amusing that sometimes I have to put a story away because I’ve creeped myself out. I realize that’s a bit perverse. However, as I read through my own work, I hope that readers will enjoy the thrills and chills that evolve in my stories, and want to come back for more. 

10 Movie Favorites for Halloween

There are lots of memorable horror movies out there. The Wolfman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Poltergeist, The Shining, It, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Alien, The Sixth Sense, Saw, Crimson Peak – to name a few. I love going to the movies, sitting in the dark with a couple of hundred other people, munching on popcorn, and holding my breath through the scary parts. Watching those movies on the small screen, well, they’re a little less scary. No matter – frightening or not, I enjoy the stories. 

The following are some of my favorites. Not necessarily big films or money makers, or even great movies – but something about them draws me back to them again and again. 

1) The Uninvited (1944)

 The 1940s were a heyday for scary movie monsters. The success of the 1930’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, etc. continued. Watching those creature features on the old black and white TV provided hours of thrills and chills for me while I was growing up. But of all the horror films produced during the ’40s, my very favorite is RKO’s, The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. This little gem is a sophisticated, well-written ghost story that never fails to put a shiver down my spine.  

2) The Other (1972)

This creepy thriller is the story of twin brothers, Holland and Niles Perry. The setting is a beautiful family farm in the 1930s. Holland’s a sweet and gentle little boy while his dead brother Niles likes to do “bad things,” getting Holland into trouble – He should never have played The Game

3) Ghost Story (1981)

I remember practically jumping out of my seat during the opening scenes of this dark tale of revenge. Between nightmares, ghost stories, and the undead, the Chowder Society, played by veteran actors Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Melvyn Douglas, are being stalked by a real terror… And it wants to take its vengeance on all of them.

4) The Lady in White (1988)

I didn’t realize when I put this list together how many of my faves were about spirits. This ghost story about innocence lost is based on the memories of the main character, Frankie Scarletti – a born storyteller who grows up to be an author. He retells via flashback his own experience with a ghost when he was just nine years old. The Lady in White gives the audience a peek at a simpler time, but not a happier one – A child killer lurks. 

5) Dead Alive (1992)

This is an oddity among my usual flick picks. I came across it one day while looking over Peter Jackson’s filmography. Dead Alive was on the list, and having never heard of it – I had to check it out. Listed as Spatter Horror – It is gross, funny, gory, stupid, violent, sick, and silly. I’m not a zombie fan but will make an exception for Dead Alive…  and Shawn of the Dead. I suppose the only way I can bear to watch zombies is if they’re stupidly funny. 

6) The Prophecy (1995)

I was tempted to see this movie simply because one of my favorite actors – Christopher Walken, starred in it. But a story about an ongoing war in heaven caught my interest. This dark fantasy peppered with sarcastic humor had me thinking it was right up my alley. When Viggo Mortensen appeared as the Devil, I was sure. Good, evil, and faith are questioned as angels, demons, and humans face the consequences if the war is not resolved.

7) The Relic (1997)

 Set in the Chicago Field Museum, this sci-fi, thriller – chiller has people losing their heads over the new exhibit – Superstition.  Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, and James Whitmore lead the cast in what I think is an underrated monster movie. It’s fun and creepy with plenty of decapitated bodies strewn about to keep you wondering who or what is killing all these people… and why? 

 The Relic introduced me to co-authors – Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, who wrote the book, and they quickly became favorites. Of course, the book’s better than the film. But now, as I read – whenever I come across LT. D’Agosta, I still imagine him looking like Tom Sizemore.

8) 1408 (2007)

  Based on a short story by Stephen King, 1408 is a showcase for actor John Cusack. (Who knew he was so versatile?) Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a gifted writer who’s lost his love of life after the death of his daughter. He’s settled on writing books about haunted and supernatural places (of which he doesn’t believe) to make a living. That is until an anonymous someone sends him a postcard from the old Dolphin Hotel on Lex. in New York City and a warning – “Don’t enter room 1408.” 

Researching the hotel, Enslin discovers there’ve been over fifty horrible deaths in that room since the hotel opened. Thinking it might make a good chapter in his next book, he’s determined to check it out for himself. Well, you know what they say…  Be careful what you wish for. Writer, Mike Enslin finds all of his nightmares coming true in 1408. 

9) Devil (2010)

 Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None is a classic. M. Night Shyamalan has taken a cue from the story and made it his own. Devil is only 80 minutes long, but the tension sets in early in this supernatural- horror film and runs all the way to the last minute.   

 A troubled police detective is on scene at a Philadelphia skyscraper investigating a suicide – the note talks about the Devil approaching. Meanwhile, in the same building, five strangers become stuck in an elevator between floors. Things start to get scary when the lights fail, and one of them’s attacked. Fear and suspicion build, and when the lights go out again, one of them is dead. Unable to gain access, the detective and security crew attempt to identify the individuals as they watch on a closed-circuit camera as events unfold. Ramirez, one of the security guards, thinks he sees an image of evil in the elevator. Recalling the tales his mother told him as a child about the Devil, he shares the story. As expected, no one gives any credence to the old fables.

 While the fire department attempts to cut through the walls and access the elevator, the detective confirms the identity of the unlikable occupants – except for one. It becomes a race against the clock to get the survivers out and stop the killer – but the Devil has other plans.

10) Cabin in the Woods (2012)

  I’m an admitted fan of Joss Whedon’s entertaining imagination. Having enjoyed Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly – I try not to miss anything he puts on the screen. When my daughter and I walked in to see Cabin in the Woods, we thought we’d walked into the wrong movie – couldn’t figure out who all the people in lab coats were. A few minutes later – we got it. I am not a fan of bloody, slasher movies. Still, this horror movie bends and twists all the rules about horror movies. I thoroughly enjoyed this particular ride by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon as they show just how twisted their little minds really are.

 As usual, there were lots of familiar faces – I love the way Whedon uses actors from past productions in current projects. And was happily surprised to also see Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, and Sigourney Weaver in this devilishly sick and twisted monster movie mash-up.