For example, a gymnast earns a 9.5 from the Splatterville judge and star Jacqueline MacInnes Wood succumbs to laser surgery gone horribly wrong. It’s the kind of movie which makes audiences shout, “No, you didn’t!” and “Awwwwwwwwwwwww! I can never un-see that!” usually while laughing and having a gruesome good time.
This week I asked Wood why people would pay money to go see her movie.
“We’re all twisted,” she said. “That’s the answer.”
Others have different ideas. In his excellent book Shock Value author Jason Zinoman suggests that one of the pleasures of getting scared at the movies is “that it focuses the mind.” He uses the example of a baby being born. “Try to imagine the shock of one world running into another,” he writes. “Nothing is familiar and the slightest detail registers as shockingly new. Think of the futility of trying to process what is going on. No wonder they scream.
“Overwhelming terror,” he continues, “may be the closest we ever get to the feeling of being born.”
Whether it’s as deep seeded as that or not, there is no denying that terror is a primal feeling. Its part of our DNA but, counter intuitively, it isn’t horrible when experienced at the movies. As Eduardo Andrade and Joel B. Cohen said in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, “the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.”
A Saturday matinee screening of Paranormal Activity was the first and only time I ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre. I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror. But the woman didn’t run from the theatre. She stayed and enjoyed the rest of the film, so she must have liked the cathartic release of tension the scream gave her.
Alfred Hitchcock, knew how to scare the wits out of people. The shower scene in Psycho, for example, is a benchmark in cinematic fear. If he had any doubts about the effectiveness of that sequence they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from a father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in Les Diaboliques and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing Psycho. Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
The director was always quick with a line, but when it got down to the business of terrifying audiences he summed up the appeal of the scary movie in one brief sentence: “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”