Next week, in keeping with the season, the latest incarnation of the horror movie Halloween will have its debut in theaters across America. I was a young adult when John Carpenter’s utterly terrifying 40-year-old movie masterpiece first came out. The original low-budget film successfully launched the film career of Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of actress Janet Leigh of Psycho fame. I must admit, it scared the bejeezus out of me. It also forever changed the course of horror cinema in our country, spawning a whole slew of imitators. The sound of its slender piano and synthesizer soundtrack still haunts me to this day, even when I hear it on a phone ringtone.
When I was young, scary movies were popular among my teenage friends in our hometown. When a horror movie was showing at the local movie theatre on Saturdays, I always went because my friends were going. Truth be told, I usually sat through the entire movie with my eyes clenched tight or covered by my hands. Of course, when the music would rise to its frightening crescendo, my curiosity would emerge and I’d peek through my splayed fingers. Even in those days, I dreaded being scared by horror movies. However, the alternative – being out of the loop with teenage friends – was a fate far worse, I concluded.
These days, Halloween brings out far fewer children than when I was young ringing doorbells and yelling, “Trick or Treat.” They tend to come in small groups, usually tightly accompanied by parents or older siblings and in the late afternoon, not at night. My observation, sadly, is that there has been a general erosion in trust across our society, causing parents to keep their kids close and hold their own Halloween parties in the safety of their backyard.
But it still begs the question about the underlying fascination we humans have – especially during the Halloween season– with the experience of viewing horrific images of violence in movies, and in thousands of haunted houses and scary amusement parks? Why do so many of us want to put ourselves in stressful, frightening situations? Why do we love a good ghost story, or pay to visit haunted houses that we know will leave us trembling with fear?
Research points to the fact that for some of us, the adrenaline rush that comes with fear can be stimulating. Our brains are flooded with endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, the same hormones that we experience during moments of joy or excitement. I’ll take the joy over fear anytime! I’m a timid sissy.
Some experts suggest that when we do something we’re afraid of, and live to tell the tale, we feel proud and brave and perhaps have a sense of accomplishment and reward for overcoming something that feels scary.
Perhaps in today’s complex world we face so many scary and real things in our personal lives that we feel catharsis from experiencing fear. We also find humor in watching our friends being scared. One of my favorite annual episodes of the Ellen DeGeneres Show is when she forces one of her producers to walk through Universal Studio’s Haunted House, followed by a camera crew.
It’s hilarious to watch. I must admit that my initial gut reaction is to cover my mouth to stifle my own screams or warn him or her in a loud voice to,” Go Back. Go the other way.” Oh my, no wonder I couldn’t sit through scary movies when I was a teenager.
I’d love to hear your own personal experiences of being frightened, and yet somehow finding the experience to be enjoyable.
© Tyra Manning, 2018