Here’s Why Scary Movies Aren’t Actually As Scary As You Might Think


When I was 11, a childhood friend convinced me and my brother to watch The Ring with her and her sister. I sat petrified throughout the whole movie, which I probably viewed through spread fingers, my small hands covering my face. It was perhaps the first experience I had with a clever payout for an anxiety I classify as “easily startled”. I remember the worst part of the film being a sudden cut to the villain/ghost, Samara, in a closet, but the rest of the movie seems to escape me — except the end, and what happened to me afterwards.

The big reveal that Samara’s body has been at the bottom of a well the entire film, serving as the origin and meaning behind the “ring” symbolism (the sunlight shown through the cracks around the well cover), was surprising and meaningful. The realization that the true horror (a girl being murdered) lies in a terrible and somewhat more realistic outcome than what I had been imagining throughout the film (more startling other people while they opened closets) stuck with me. What also stuck with me was the fact that after the movie, when we had managed to calm ourselves down enough to go to bed, the carbon monoxide alarm went off at 3 a.m., and the fire department had to come and reassure us we weren’t all going to die in our sleep.

After this experience my track record with the horror genre did little to improve. There was a haunted house in middle school where I pushed my way past what I now realize to be a very civilized line for a slide (and at the time believed to be a demonic roadblock) out of sheer panic and terror. I then proceeded to get lost in a hallway of mirrors before having to ask a stranger to help me find my way out. Part of me is under the impression that I may have peed my pants a little during this memory, and the part of me that isn’t entirely sure is extremely grateful that repression is such a powerful coping mechanism.

In high school, I had friends talk me into watching The Orphanage, because as its original title implies (El Orfanato), it’s a Spanish language film, and thus my nerdy hobby was weaponized against me. Like The Ring, it was not the anxiety the film caused that stuck with me, but the ending. The knowledge that it was not a sinister burlap covered ghost that had stolen the protagonist’s adopted son from her, but her coincidental rearranging of the contents of a closet that had trapped him in a basement for the past six months subsequently leading to his death shook me. I had learned closets were not to be trusted in horror films, but once again, they’d gotten the best of me.

I stayed away from horror films for a long time after this. I found there were enough things in the real world that caused me to be “easily startled” that I felt it best to avoid them altogether: waitresses tapping me on the back in restaurants, an ex-fiance who hid scary Halloween dolls with light up eyes in the back seat of the car, my sister waking me up from a nap. I had an extreme sensitivity to anything that could be perceived as a surprise.

Cut to me at 25, living alone for the first time in my life. Every unknown noise in the night made my heart race. My parents gave me a clock with a chime — bad idea. I had endless nightmares about waking up in my bedroom, unable to move or scream, while a stranger walked towards me, and as I got more familiar with my surroundings, the dreams seemed more and more real. In an homage to Inception, I would find myself having dreams within a dream, each time having to subconsciously ask myself if I was actually in my bed this time or not.

About a year ago, my worst fear became a reality. I woke up to someone trying to open the door to my apartment. Two someones, actually, or at least that’s what I’m convinced of from what I was able to hear. Once I was fully conscious, I slipped out of my bed and into the hallway, shielded by a wall between me and the door. I realized whoever was trying to open it was fumbling with the keys, and I remember some laughing. I was so paralyzed with fear I was too afraid to come any closer or yell out, but I realized whoever it was was probably drunk and had gotten off from the elevator on the wrong floor and ended up at my apartment instead of theirs, so I tiptoed back to my bedroom, closed the door, called the police, and asked them to make sure that whoever it was trying to break into my apartment was okay. My would-be “assailants” eventually abandoned the mission, the police arrived, no one to be found on the scene, and I was told to go back to sleep. Which I did.

Which leads me to an important argument of this essay: Scary movies are actually not that scary.

I’m swiftly approaching my 30th birthday, and a person very close to me recently convinced me to revisit my relationship with horror films. We started with the original IT (the only thing more terrifying than the made-for-TV acting was Bill’s ponytail secured with a leather thong), rewatched The Orphanage (which I was told was the worst movie ever made), followed by Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis plays a serious student while her friends sleep around with less-than-deserving men) and Jeepers Creepers (Do I even recognize Justin Long without Zooey Deschanel? Oh wait, I confused him with Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

I sprinkled in Hocus Pocus and Sleepy Hollow for some innocent October fun and because I’m a sucker for a flowy shirt, but by this point I was really in the Halloween spirit, so I decided, of my own free will, to watch The Shining, a pop-cultural staple so worthy of recognition it made a cameo in Friends (when Joey and Rachel swap books and she spoils the ending of Little Women).

The Shining blew my mind. So much so that I Googled it afterward. The sign something is really going to stick with me these days is if I feel the need to read about it afterward. All the undertones felt relevant. References to Native American burial grounds (I am writing this days after Columbus Day), a man weighing his binding responsibility slash contract to an employer over his family obligations, abuse, generational violence, the brutal murder of a black man, the fragility of Jack’s mental state as he mentions the “white man’s burden”, the symbolic threat of a child with an acute perception of past atrocities — everything seemed to point to 2020 in flashing red lights. Redrum. Redrum.

But one of the earliest indications that The Shining and I were going to be “simpatico” was in the music. Something I described to a music teacher friend today as “staccato” and “kabuki-like” in style. The build-up and suspense was everything you’d expect in a horror film, and then the screen would cut to another scene and a new day of the week would be superimposed over the next image. The worst thing, the most sudden thing that could happen in this movie, was not the worst scenario my imagination could come up with. It was the passing of time — change.

By the second time this had occurred, the film had made a sort of pact with me, had made a nod to my “easily startled” nature and lovingly reassured me, “We’re not going to fuck with you like that. This is the worst it will get,” and I was able to watch the film in a different way than I was used to. Instead of focusing all my attention, all my anxiety, on what could happen, I was paying attention to what was happening. I was in the moment.

I have encountered my fair share of anxiety and change during the COVID pandemic. There were things that happened to me personally that I anticipated to turn out much worse than they actually did. Things I had overwhelming anxiety about before they even occurred. And then there have been other things, other realities on a screen, that have proven to be the true tragedies.

Our political climate is charged. That’s certainly no surprise; no ghoulish figure popping out of a closet, but something I am at times tempted to watch through spread fingers all the same. Today I streamed part of the confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and while I originally anticipated the worst based on reports she belonged to a “Handmaid’s Tale”-like cult, the stuff of horror films, by the time the interview had ended, I could not draw any other conclusion than she had professionally responded to the questions, and politicians are extremely talented at telling irrelevant and unentertaining anecdotes with little awareness of how corny or ill-timed they may be.

My biggest qualm with Judge Barrett’s direct responses lay in her advice to women (quotes below from The New York Times in italics):

“One thing I have often told my own daughters is that you should not let life just happen to you or lead you along,” Judge Barrett said. “You should identify where your objectives are and identify the type of person you want to be and make deliberate decisions to make that happen. My dad used to tell us not to make a decision is to make a decision.”’

“Make decisions. Be confident. Know what you want. And go get it,” she concluded.

While I agree that to have ambition and aspirations is worthy of praise, I am wary of her views on life. Whether it happens to us or not is not something we have in our power to control. I believe the COVID pandemic is a perfect example of that. There are things in life we cannot plan for. While the media may have reported a disbanding in 2018 of a pandemic task force created under the Obama presidency, the truth is that the average citizen could not have anticipated the current situation we find ourselves in. It may not have been a zombie apocalypse, as modern horror films and TV shows like to anxiously imagine modern pandemics, but maybe the reality is the true horror. What none of us were imagining. Change of this magnitude in our everyday lives with no real way to prepare.

We are also in the midst of a reckoning with race in this country. While I was fortunate to be safe and sound after the incident I described where someone tried to enter my apartment, Breonna Taylor was not. There are some things you cannot, and more importantly, should never have to plan for.

If she is confirmed, it’s my hope that Judge Barrett will use her position to combat racism in all forms, as she declared she was opposed to it both personally and professionally today. She made a point to speak to her children, to let them know specifically of her firm stance.

There are a lot of things that scare me this fall — a lot of hypotheticals and anxieties I could imagine occurring alongside a kabuki-like soundtrack, but if I’m grown up enough to tackle horror films, I can handle the news. There are enough actual atrocities occurring in our society to pay attention to, that imagining more seems counterproductive. I don’t mean to downplay any of these worries with this analogy, I simply mean to state that we cannot be too afraid to acknowledge the “real” and the “tragic” because we’re trying to avoid the discomfort caused by what could pop out of the closet. We can’t plan for everything in life, but we must deal with it as it happens to us. We have to move our hands from our eyes.