Horror films scared the hell out of me as a kid yet I returned to them time and time again. Indeed, some of the genre’s finest works still terrify me today. So why do I enjoy watching them so much?
I was about seven years old when horror cinema entered my life. I had seen VHS copies of An American Werewolf in London and The Omen on the highest reaches of our bookshelf. My mum was a horror film fan but she had ensured her young son couldn’t get to her prized collection of video nasties.
But one day my older cousin was visiting and he wanted to watch John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London. Wanting to keep him happy, my mum allowed him to put it on and instructed me not to watch. Of course, for a seven-year old, anything mum says shouldn’t be done therefore becomes something that has to be done. So at first, from my position peeping at our old twenty-inch television from behind the sofa, I watched as two American travellers got the fright of their lives on Yorkshire’s moors. My position progressed from a seemingly safe level of distance to a place so close to the screen it is little wonder I was short-sighted by the age of thirteen. I was hooked – mesmerised by every second of it. This was the greatest thing I had ever seen. And the moment has never been forgotten.
I was hooked – mesmerised by every second of it. This was the greatest thing I had ever seen. And the moment has never been forgotten. – On watching An American Werewolf In London for the first time.
I suppose the reason I love horror films – similarly to most people who enjoy the genre – is the enjoyment of a safe kind of fear. It is exactly the same as going on a roller coaster. On a theme park ride you are thrust through the air at breakneck speed or dropped from great height – the fear is obvious but the level of danger is diminished by the harness and the stringent health and safety procedures. Horror film needs no such protective harness (despite the board of film classification’s ratings acting as the roller coaster’s equivalent of the height restriction) and whether you’re a three foot tall seven-year old or a five foot tall pensioner, anyone and everyone can example its unique ability to suspend your disbelief.
And that’s the crux of it for me. Film is, ultimately, a way for us to enter the make-believe. To get drawn into a world of fantasy that becomes believable and authentic for two-hours. Horror film does this like no other genre. Film draws an assortment of emotions out of us – the films that become our favourites live and breathe in us because of the emotions they have created within us. But fear is so primal and powerful that when horror film concocts such feelings amongst the audience it becomes tangible and all-encompassing. A horror film is therefore my go-to genre if I really want to get sucked into a make-believe world.
It is apt that I should have felt such emotion towards An American Werewolf in London when I first saw it as a child. I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s a part of me that would love to go back to childhood, to enjoy films in the way I enjoyed them then. As I have grown older I appreciate films more, I’ve grown to understand their importance as well as their ability to mirror real life in a way that enriches the human condition. But I lost that childlike belief that what happens on film is an actuality. No wonder horror films scare the hell out of us as children. Thank goodness I didn’t realise the American backpackers in Landis’ werewolf film were attacked on the Yorkshire moors – I grew up in West Yorkshire!
But fear is so primal and powerful that when horror film concocts such feelings amongst the audience it becomes tangible and all-encompassing.
But horror film’s great ability to conjure those emotions of fear, anxiety, tension and suspense, allows me to glimpse at what it felt like to be a kid watching Star Wars and being so enveloped by its adventure that I could gladly believe that Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon were out there somewhere. Films like The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, The Entity, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, Halloween, Alien, and most importantly, The Exorcist continue to send shivers down my spine. For them to achieve that there must be something within me that still believes (or maybe it is just my overactive imagination).