The Attraction of Horror Cinema: Why I Love Scary Films

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.

an american werewolf in london, film, horror, scary movies, Top 10 Films,

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.

Why is The Exorcist the greatest horror film ever made? Ask me this question and my answer comes down to something very simple. My mum loved classic horror cinema, and she had a tidy collection of some 1970s and 1980s gems on VHS. Not allowing me to watch these horror classics as a child was her way of protecting a kid with an overactive imagination causing himself many sleepless nights. But of course, this only made me want to see these forbidden films even more. But the greatest horror film of them all, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, was not in mum’s collection. Not only would she not allow me to see this haunting film, she wouldn’t even allow herself to watch it again. The film scared her so much, she wouldn’t even have a copy of it in the house. My introduction to The Exorcist therefore began a long time before I actually saw it. And that legacy, as personal as it may be, has stayed with the film. Thank goodness this brilliant piece of work lived up to that hype.

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!

the exorcist, scariest film ever made,

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).

Written by Daniel Stephens

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Mette Reply

    I just wrote a similar post a few days ago and was planning on publishing it tomorrow, so I hope I don’t look like a copycat… ;). Anyhow, my explanation is quite different from yours, so I guess it won’t matter.
    The Exorcist is my favorite horror movie too, though.

  2. Dan Reply

    @Mette: Hi Mette, I’m interested to see your take on this subject. I’m glad The Exorcist is your favourite horror film too…it really is the finest example of the genre for me.

  3. Scott Reply

    I wish I could join you on this. Maybe I should write an article about why I hate horror movies so much

    heheh

  4. Dan Reply

    @Scott: Yes, you should. That would be interesting. And also good timing with the arrival of Halloween.

  5. Max Reply

    I can’t do horror films. Even a recent episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ was a little much for me. I tend to enjoy the classics though if only to remember when scares were delivered in more unique ways. I saw ‘Take Shelter’ over the weekend and that would be more along the lines of the type of suspense I enjoy.

  6. Daniel Reply

    The original “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was the first horror film I saw by myself. It was on TV the very first night I was allowed to
    stay home without a babysitter !!! Despite being rather dated, that film still scares me to this very day…

    Nice post, and as usual, well said !!!

    Happy Halloween 🙂

  7. FilmsrRuss Reply

    I remember watching American Werewolf in London when I was a kid and it scaring the hell out of me. Now I’m 35, and it still scares the hell out of me! I enjoy horror (though I don’t go out of my way to watch it), but AWIL is still one film I cannot watch.

    Actually in a post I did of The Thing a while ago (when I compared the gooey “real” effects of The Thing and AWIL with today’s “pretty” computer effects), I embedded a clip of AWIL and posted it assuming it was the scene I wanted. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, even on YouTube, it freaks me out that much!

    Great post though!

  8. Chris Reply

    phew..! I had to click away from that scary picture on your front page of the witch!

    I don’t watch a lot of horror films, now and again I like a good scare ( :

    Have you seen Rec? (the Spanish original is supposed to be the better movie, I haven’t seen the US version).

  9. Dan Reply

    @Max: I have to admit I prefer horror films that have an atmosphere that breeds tension and suspense over gore or graphic violence. But ultimately, if it is a good scary movie then it works for me.

    @Daniel: Thanks a lot Daniel. I didn’t see the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark until quite recently based on a friend’s recommendation that it scared him senseless as a kid. I agree it has dated and I don’t think it is as effective as it would have been had I seen it as a ten-year-old. But the concept is still damn creepy.

    @Russ: I know what you mean about An American Werewolf In London. But my advise is do what I did because I was once in the same boat. Re-watch the film a few times…you’ll desensitize yourself to the scares and be able to enjoy it. That’s how I got over my fear of The Exorcist – of course, I also spent some time institutionalised following multiple viewings of Friedkin’s classic but it was a small price to pay. 🙂

  10. Dan Reply

    @Chris: That proves the Witch is a good one for the scariest children’s film villains.

    I have seen Rec – love it, the sequel is good too.

  11. TheScarletSp1der Reply

    you’re right about scary movies though. sometimes we just like to be scared!

  12. Dirtywithclass Reply

    I also appreciate a good horror film.

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