Somehow, whenever October rolls around, I feel a definite shift in people’s attitudes. I think a lot of it has to do with Halloween coming at the end of the month. I also think the time change at the beginning of November has people thinking of the darker evenings. For some, it brings SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and for others, the shorter days can prove a great motivator to flee for warmer climes.
For some, Horror movies can be a sensitive subject. Depending on the story, the film can act as a portal for demon possession. Don’t ask me where I read that. I just did. I can’t blame anyone for thinking that. If you’ve seen The Exorcist, you would think there is more to that film than the simple possession of a little girl on screen. I saw it when I was ten years old. I couldn’t sleep for a week. Years later I read somewhere that two main characters connected with the film died unexpectedly shortly either before or after the premier. Reports surfaced that during the film’s run, certain members in the audience passed out in the aisles while watching the film. Stationed outside movie theaters were ambulances waiting for more and more victims. A few of the cast members once said they believed the set was haunted.
The Sixth Sense had a similar effect on audiences, but in a different way. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched that movie. I would consider the flick a perfect case study for writers who want to learn about plot, pacing, character development and escalating action. The film also sports an ending that few, if any, could have guessed. I know I didn’t have a clue.
I consider The Sixth Sense a Horror movie, but not in the way that others might consider it Horror. The escalating images of dead people with its eerie musical cues and scenes written in the Hitchcock style, makes this film more than an ordinary Horror film. It’s scary, not because of what you see, but because of what you don’t see.
The whole Horror genre nowadays has changed. More and more filmmakers attempt to outdo each other with graphic scenes of gore that would even make a serial killer take notice. As the audience desensitizes to yesterday’s splatter count, they also want more. Gone are the days when a filmmaker could get away with not showing the murder. In fact, if I may be so bold in saying, today crime films can fit into a category all on its own for being a cross between the Detective and Horror genres. Throw in a couple of demon possessions and there you’d have the perfect genre.
Nevertheless, knowing all this, I have a question for everyone—and I’m genuinely curious about your thoughts about this subject.
Where do I start? I understand you’ve taken over the media. I understand you’ve taken the spotlight from the vampires. I understand that. I remember not too long ago when you dragged your feet, moaned as if you had ingested the most wonderful meal in the world and possessed the most demonic eyes on the planet. I know, I’ve written about you in my Monday Mayhem series.
But that’s not why I’m writing. You see, I’ve noticed something—and I’m sure you can correct me with your indelible tabletop intelligence—you’ve changed. I don’t know how to explain it. I can describe it as a shift in your behavior. A modification in your genetic makeup. An alteration in your biological configuration. Whatever it is, I’m scared.
You have to understand, it takes a lot to scare me. I mean, I’ve seen The Exorcist umpteen times, The Omen and The Shining several other umpteen times, so I’m no slouch when it comes to the Horror genre. It takes quite a lot of to scare me. Granted, certain scenes in The Sixth Sense make me want to crawl under the sheets and suck my thumb like a little baby. So, yeah, you can say I get scared. But like I said, it takes a lot.
Also, you have to remember, I grew up watching Saturday Morning Cartoons where animators drew you as funny little characters with barely enough intellect to figure out where you belonged in the grand scheme of things. You don’t have to tell me about your history, I know it. Yes, even the voodoo incantations chanted in Haitian tribes to raise their dead. Talk about messed up.
Again, that doesn’t faze me. Not in the least.
You know what really scares me? You know what keeps me awake staring at the bedroom window in the darkness of my room? What compels me to look over my shoulder in a lonely parking lot? What drives me to speed my pace walking from Main Street to my house on a cold winter night?
The virus. Your virus. It chills my bones to the marrow to think I can become one of you, one of the horde, one of the crowd, simply by a single bite from your infected mouth. It churns my gut to know this.
You know what else? I don’t like the fact that you are fast. I don’t have a chance. Since when did you become so fast to the point where you can crash cars from their spaces and dive on to your victims? You’ve become undefeatable. Should you flock as I’ve seen you do in many of the modern movies—we have no means to defend ourselves other than to hide as mice would from a cat hunting its prey.
And that’s not fair.
At least give us a hint of what we can do to create an antidote for your condition. At least give us a chance. We can’t outrun you. We can try. But you will win.
The scariest part of a zombie movie is not when the audience sees a person eaten by a horde of the undead, but when the horde remains hidden until that very first glimpse. You know they’re coming. You know they will consume anyone in their path. The terror-inducing shivers felt hearing but not seeing an eater is enough to drive anyone to want to sport a chin guard in a padded room.
I tend to dedicate Monday Mayhem to all that is zombie. Today, I’d like to try something different. Today, let’s delve into what makes horror movies scary. In particular, let’s look at three movies that leave me lying in bed staring at the dark ceiling wondering if anything lives in my closet.
Alien—In 1979, when I was barely in my teens, director Ridley Scott presented his version of what an alien should look like. At the time, the trailers featuring an egg as the catalyst for a possible invasion drew critical acclaim. What audiences didn’t know is the flick is actually a horror movie dressed in sci-fi clothing. “In space no one can hear you scream” became the tagline for this original motion picture. When I first saw this movie, I couldn’t help notice how subsequent sightings of the creature throughout the film turned more graphic with every scene. It created an uneasiness I hadn’t ever experienced. It wasn’t until days later that I had appreciated how not seeing the alien terrified me more than if it had appeared earlier in the story.
The Exorcist—I had written about this 1973 film in my October tribute to Horror for my Women Who Wow Wednesday series. Directed by William Friedkin and starring Linda Blair as the child possessed, the big screen adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel went on to become one of the most successful horror movies of all time. How did it do this? We never see the real culprit at work. We see the effects and the aftermath of what happened. But why or by whom remains a mystery. What’s more? The progressive escalation of events increases the tension further by leaving the audience wondering what is causing the terror. I saw this movie in my teens when my parents went visiting relatives. I had nightmares for a week. Now, that’s a good horror flick.
The Shining—Can anyone deny the phrase, “Redrum. Redrum. REDRUM!” chills the bones? This 1980 Stephen King vehicle starring Jack Nicholson as a writer wanting a quiet place to work, showcases classic scenes one would come to expect in a horror picture. As with Alien and The Exorcist, The Shining also highlights an effective acceleration of plot points to a heart-stopping climax. Making this Stanley Kubrick film unique, the individual scenes watched as individual units confuses, if at best, mesmerizes. As a whole though, every scene builds on the last, layering an intricate design of terror, which, by all accounts, gives the viewer an immersive experience in regards to the events surrounding this foreboding tale of murder and supernatural bedlam.
Overall, the movies Alien, The Exorcist and The Shining underscore what true horror is all about. Not so much what you see, but what you don’t see that makes things scary.
I’m not going to lie. The Exorcist is a disturbing film. The mood, the images, the scenes—they all convey a sinister quality that few films, if any for that era, possessed. It doesn’t help knowing that nine people associated with the project died prior to release. This includes actors Jack MacGowran (Burke) and Vasiliki Maliaros (the priest’s mother) whose scripted characters coincidentally also died in the movie.
I can hear the question already. Whom have I chosen from The Exorcist to be part of my Women Who Wow Wednesday series for my month-long salute to Horror?
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress with a teenaged daughter who goes by the name of Regan (Linda Blair). Chris’s marriage is nonexistent. When that man forgets his daughter’s birthday, she looses it, cursing and swearing, taking God’s name in vain. Some have attributed her blasphemous nature to what happens later in the film.
But Chris is a mom first, actress second. Regan is her whole life. Whoever or whatever interferes with her daughter’s life would have to deal with her. She’s the all-encompassing protector who will sacrifice anything for her daughter’s survival.
One night Chris hears noises coming from the attic. The next day she refers the matter to her butler stating clearly, she thought she had heard rats. The butler dismisses her claim, yet she’s adamant he check the attic and set traps.
This is where I have to stop. If you haven’t seen The Exorcist, I suggest you skip to the last paragraph because I’m going to reveal a few plot points that may ruin your enjoyment of the film.
Okay. We’re safe.
Director William Friedkin planted a few specific clues in the movie to foreshadow a number of events. As I’d mentioned, Chris blasphemes God’s name, lending credence to the fact that she’s opening the door for demons to invade her home. As the movie continues forward, Chris finds that Regan’s been playing with an Ouija board, talking with an entity called Captain Howdy. We later find out Captain Howdy is more than who he says he is. During the bedroom scene where Chris tucks Regan into bed, Regan licks her lips a number of times in an obvious fashion. This is not important until we see what Regan looks like in later scenes.
Continuing with the story, early one morning before sunrise, Chris gets a call to show up on set. She finds Regan had slept with her all night claiming her bed was shaking. At that very moment, a noise once again emanates from the attic. Without thought, Chris heads to the source. She lowers the steps, flips the lights, but the lights don’t work. The lights have been flickering on and off for a while that week. It doesn’t bother her. She climbs the stairs into the attic and the noise gets louder. By candlelight she moves from one section to another noticing the rat traps empty. No rats. That’s when her candlestick bursts into a flame and her butler appears at the top of the stairs. See, he says, no rats. At the same time, Friedkin shows the audience his first shot of Regan possessed; suggesting hadn’t Chris gone to the attic she wouldn’t have released whatever was up there to take over her daughter. But in this instance, whatever was bothering Regan was already shaking her bed before Chris opened the attic door. So this was a red hearing
Moving along, after another incident of bed shaking Chris attempted to quell by diving on the mattress to control the vibrations, she takes her daughter to a doctor at the Barringer Clinic and Foundation, a top New England medical facility. This is where Chris begins to assert her motherly instinct in full force. She asks the doctors what’s wrong. All the doctors could come up with is a diagnosis of a lesion in the temporal lobe, which is causing the seizures. Remove the scar, remove the problem.
Chris reluctantly cedes to the doctors’ request for tests, and Regan undergoes a battery of EEG scans. The tests come back negative. Regan’s clean of the lesion.
By this time, Chris’ nerves are on the way out the door. When she brings her daughter back from the hospital, the doctors knock on her door as a follow-up visit. But when they get there, they get more than what they bargained for. Screams emanate from Regan’s room, prompting Chris to run to her rescue. In the room, the door spontaneously slams behind her. Regan then begins to shake back and forth, slamming on the bed over and over again. She then pulls out a crucifix and proceeds to use it for malevolent purposes, uttering vile obscenities at her mother as she pleasures herself with it.
Now, this is the part of the movie where I’m going to have to step out to tell you what went on in the theaters back in 1973.
In the UK, a number of town councils banned the movie from playing in their theaters prompting entrepreneurs to take advantage of an opportunity to bus folks to neighboring towns where the film screened.
Theater owners in America banned the trailer from screening because they deemed the film too frightening for the audience to absorb.
Paramedics rushed to various theaters due to people fainting, vomiting and flying into hysterics in the aisles. True story.
In the meantime, Linda Blair, who played Regan, needed a 24-hour guard for six months after release since religious zealots proclaimed the movie glorified Satan.
Back to the movie. When the head doctors of the medical clinic meet with Chris, who by now is a frazzled wreck, they offer a very scientific and clear-cut explanation. Regan is suffering from “Pathological states, which can induce abnormal strength and accelerated motor performance.”
Of course, Chris freaks. She explains the bed shook while she was on it. That thing on the bed was not her daughter. And she wants answers.
Another doctor adds his thoughts. He believes it’s “Somnambuliform possession. A conflict or guilt leading to delusions of bodily invasion.”
No way. Chris has had it. Eighty-eight doctors and they’re telling her that she ought to bring her daughter to a witch doctor?
Now, if you skipped the post and you are here, this is my point for featuring Chris MacNeil. Throughout her daughter’s ordeal, Chris keeps it together. Despite the circumstances, she manages to maintain her eyes on the goal—get her daughter help so she can be well again. It doesn’t matter how many times she falls to the ground, how many obscenities fly her way, or how many hits she takes, her daughter’s health is first and foremost her main concern. Chris is willing to give up everything for Regan. And isn’t that the point of being a mother, to love unconditionally regardless of what changes a son or daughter’s attitude to make them want to hate their parents?