The darkest holiday of the year is almost upon us.
No, not Thanksgiving, not unless you plan to battle zombie turkeys over a pit of flesh-eating cranberry sauce.
Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, All Souls Day, and Samhain are all part of a collection of festivals that acknowledged a turning of the year, and of the mingling of the worlds of the living and the dead. There are a few signs that the season is nigh â€“ pumpkins turn full and orange, frost covers the stubbled fields, and Netflix adds a whack of crappy slasher movies.
This season gets me thinking about what actually scares me.
What leaves me quaking in terror is very different now than when I was a little kid. When I was very young, footie-pajamas young, I remember being convinced that there were monsters living in my closet. None of those cute Pixar critters, but gigantic troll things that liked to eat children. I was scared of the dark in general. Like a lot of kids, I was freaked out by certain movies. Apparently The Wizard of Oz sent me to hide under a chair, although whether it was the witch or the flying monkeys that did it I canâ€™t remember.
I stayed scared of the dark longer than I stayed scared of movies.
In the past few years, horror â€“ and especially horror movies â€“ seems to have divided into two main streams.
The first is the one often derided as â€œtorture porn.â€ Iâ€™m not saying that movies with really graphic scenes of sustained violence canâ€™t be good â€“ Iâ€™m sure there are movies that use violence to make a point or tell a good story. But Iâ€™m not interested in wading through the rest of the schlocky exploitation movies covering the same ground to find a couple of good ones. Itâ€™s just not my thing.
The second trend is to lean on mysterious supernatural forces, with demons and ghosts the most popular. Re-makes of Japanese and Korean horror movies, found-footage films, and tons of novels of slow, creeping dread have been mining this vein in recent years.
This actually works pretty well at scaring me. And Iâ€™m curious as to why it works so much better than gore.
Technically, shouldnâ€™t I be more worried about a semi-realistic madman in a hockey mask than about a dark room with a creepy doll? Why do I reach for the popcorn and wonder how many people Jason is going to off for the former, but I can get genuinely engaged in the latter?
Remember all those TV specials and books that used to explain how â€œmovie magicâ€ works? Those were widespread when I was a kid, and I learned all about fake blood and latex skin by the time I was 10. After youâ€™ve absorbed a few of those, itâ€™s hard to be alarmed by buckets of gore. When I watch a movie like Friday the 13th, mostly what Iâ€™m thinking is â€œWow, how much of the budget did they spend on red corn syrup?â€
The stuff that still scares me is the unknown. Scary movies, or books, or tales told around the campfire work best when we donâ€™t know exactly whatâ€™s out there.
Whatâ€™s in the dark hallway lined with dust-coated mirrors? What made that noise in the basement, in the corner where the light from the faint bulb doesnâ€™t quite reach? Didnâ€™t you put all the knives away yesterday, and why is one missing from the rack right now?
I donâ€™t know why we celebrate fear, unless itâ€™s to make us feel a bit more alive. So as the skeletal shadows of the leafless trees clutch at you, let yourself shiver a little.
Then go inside, turn on the lights, and make yourself something hot to drink. Nestle into your bed, and donâ€™t worry â€“ Iâ€™m sure nothingâ€™s waiting quietly in the closet.