Some psychologists will tell you that for some people, sitting through a scary movie or tying bungee-cords to their ankles and jumping off a bridge confirms that they’re alive. It’s a way to push the envelope, get the adrenalin flowing. It’s a sensory experience that can be addicting, hence the explosion in the popularity of extreme sports. Yet, for others, being scared is a rite of passage. And, for others, it’s entertaining because deep down, they know they’ll be okay in the end.
If you think about it, we were all weaned on scary stories. Little Red Riding Hood. Jack and the Beanstalk. Snow White. Many fairytales have frightening characters that either eat children, or poison them, or confine them to towers. Sure, it all works out in the end, but is that why we like it? Because there is a sense of good winning over evil? Maybe.
On-the-other-hand, perhaps we’re hard-wired to actually like that adrenalin rush. As humans, we’ve survived for millennia by escaping man-eating predators and other humans who just want to kill us. That’s where that “fight or flight” response kicks in. The adrenalin flows and we become super-charged human beings. Maybe we like that feeling. After all, it’s hard to imagine the proliferation of scary books, movies, television shows, and sports if we didn’t. Apparently fear sells.
But selling fear isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” back in 1886. And before that, Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” which was first published in 1818. So, the “fear” industry has been around a long time. Even Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without witches and goblins. It would just be a costume parade.
But if our love of being scared by reading a book or watching a movie is based on the reality of possibly being eaten alive, where do the lines between fantasy and reality get blurred? I’m reminded of my seventeen-year old daughter who loves zombie movies but makes me close the curtains at night because she’s afraid a zombie may actually come to the window and try to eat her. For me, it’s slasher movies. They’re just too realistic. I don’t like watching people get hacked to death. But give me a clever ghost story any time.
In books, as in film, scary moments rely on building the suspense beforehand. They set you up to be scared. Stephen King does it by incorporating the five senses. Film directors accomplish it through the use of music, camera angles, and lighting. They all warn you that something bad is about to happen.
Take the movie, “Wait Until Dark”, in which Katherine Hepburn plays a blind woman who is terrorized by three criminals looking for something she doesn’t have. This film has one of the most memorable scary moments in film history. Even the movie theaters were in on the ruse, because they agreed to dim their lights one by one in order to build the suspense before Alan Arkin, who we thought was incapacitated or dead, leapt from a darkened room to grab Audrey Hepburn’s ankle? It was a moment that took audiences completely by surprise and scared us “to death”. And yet we couldn’t wait to tell our friends to go see the movie. But here’s an interesting side note. Years later, I considered directing the play, written by Frederick Knott, on which the movie was based. Reading it for the first time, I assumed that the Alan Arkin moment was crafted by the film director. Not so. It’s written into the play and scared me all over again! So, good writing is just, well, good writing.
What scary moments stand out in your memory, in either books or movies?