Home > horror, movies, Pet Semetary, Stephen King, Terminator 2, The Exorcist > A Little Talk About Nothing at All

A Little Talk About Nothing at All

Bear with me.

I’ve seen a lot of scary things in movies, and read a lot of scary things in books.

The most flat-out terrifying scene I’ve ever seen though, is in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In the scene, Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor, leader of the resistance against the machines in the future, is having a dream about August 29, 1997, the supposed Judgement Day, when the war against the machines begins. She is on one side of a playground, watching children play, just outside the fence. Slowly, comprehension dawns on her that this is the day, THE day. She yells and screams at the children playing, but they are ambivalent; it’s likely they can’t hear her at all. Suddenly there’s a great flash, a mushroom cloud, and a wave of extreme heat ignites and chars everything in the wake of the explosion. It is followed by the shockwave, which rends Sarah’s flesh from her bones. All of this is done in exquisitely detailed slow motion. It is, simply put, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. I have to link it because the only decent clip of it I can find on Youtube is missing its embed code, so here it is. Please come back.

There are two close follow-ups, the first being the deleted “crabwalk” sequence from The Exorcist. The director pulled it because he felt it was “too much, too soon,” which I agree with completely. But that image scared the living shit out of me, and this is in a movie in which I was pretty scared througout the entire runtime of the film. See it here. Again, please come back.

The other is near the end of the movie version of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, in which the young son of the hero comes back from the dead. (Spoilers? The book’s been out for 25 years and the movie almost as long. I’m not calling spoilers here.) When I read the book I was initially pretty creeped out, but seeing and hearing the image on the screen was a whole different dimension. The whole scene is scary and tragic. It’s probably worse now that I have a child and can identify with it a little more. Unfortunately, I can’t find a short clip that does it justice, nor is in the proper spot to illustrate what I’m talking about exactly, so you’ll get no video on this one. Sorry.

An honorable mention goes out to the first reveal of an alien in Signs. A lot of it has to do with my own personal fears of aliens/abductions, but I think this particular Big Reveal is probably M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest moment in film. I’m not even going to embed it here because it creeps me out, personally, so much that I don’t want to go digging for it.

Here’s the thing though. A lot of these moments come when we’re already emotionally invested in a film. Once the T2 scene hits, we’ve already become involved in all of the characters, and—if we’ve seen the first Terminator—in Sarah Connor in particular. The Exorcist clip is, I think, only available as a special feature on the DVD, and we rarely watch special features without watching the movie first, so we’re pretty much prepared for anything… except that. The Pet Semetary clip comes after some pretty traumatic experiences for the hero (and us). At that point we’re prepared for weirdness, but nothing is really as frightening as a three-year-old come back from the dead with a murderous streak.

Aside: The exceedingly stylish video game Bioshock tries to use this effect in their “Little Sister” characters, but most reviewers at IGN.com felt worse incinerating their companion cubes in Portal than they did killing Little Sisters, which probably should tell you about how much empathy they feel towards Satanic little girls nowadays. End aside.

Now, all this leads me to the following: we haven’t had a good horror movie come out of Hollywood in years. I mean a really good, fills-you-with-dread, I’m-gonna-remember-this-for-the-rest-of-my-life horror movie. Signs was weakened by the bizarro morality play that it had going on within it. Most movies listed as “horror” nowadays are anything but: they are “slasher porn” or “torture porn” or whatever people are calling it these days, and there’s seemingly no end to them. The only movie I’ve seen in the past five years that actually made me react vicerally to it was Cloverfield, and most of that had to do with the vomit-inducing camerawork.

But the thing about Cloverfield is that, for being a Giant Monster Movie, it did a really good job of generating dread. It would, generally speaking, only tip its hand when necessary. Even one of the scariest scenes in the film, in the subway tunnels, relies on darkness and the unknown to instill terror within us. We know that the creatures are CG effects. Stephen King calls this knowledge “seeing the zipper down the back” in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre. We know these things aren’t real, we know they’re just SGI workstations pumping out pixels, but the pixels are only a tool to manipulate our own emotions. The reason it’s scary isn’t the creatures themselves, but the buildup to them, the things going bump in the night.

The reason it works, and the reason J.J. Abrams is fucking rich, is because it (and he) doesn’t tell you What’s In The Box. Abrams has a fantastic talk at TED about this very subject, but it’s used by authors and directors from David Fincher in Seven (with the literal “What’s in the box?” scene) to Roman Polanski to Alfred Hitchcock all the way back to H.P. Lovecraft. Rather than shock, or go for the jump scare, masters of horror foster an environment for us to create our own fears. The current trend in horror isn’t doing that, not by a long shot. Even King, in the blurb on the back of the edition of Danse Macabre I own says “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” So many movies these days seem so utterly incapable of doing the first two that they simply skip straight to the gross-out.

And this is where we come back to the three scenes I mentioned at the beginning. Terminator 2 prayed on the fear at the end of the Cold War: now that we didn’t have to worry about the Russians nuking us, we had to worry about anyone, everyone else nuking us… including ourselves. It produced a scene that—while on its face being a gross-out—played on our latent fears of nuclear annihilation and the emotional investment in the main character. The Exorcist and Pet Semetary both play on a) the innocence of a child, and b) the fear of the unknown and dabbling in (as King calls it) Things That Mankind Was Not Meant To Know. By bridging the fears we already have with the unknown with emotional investment in the characters in question, the simple gross-out leaps from horror to terror. We’re not scared of Linda Blair’s Regan because she’s a demon, we’re scared because inside that demon is a little girl. We’re not scared of little Gage in Pet Semetary because he’s a zombie, we’re scared because he’s a three-year-old boy with a scalpel and murder on his mind.

Too often Hollywood spends time on gore, on going for the simple gross-out. Even the goriest scene I’ve seen lately, near the end of Shaun of the Dead, in which antagonist David gets his comeuppance, is scary not because we see the entrails and hear the screaming, but because at some point, we actually kind of cared about him. (Although I still cheered in the theater when he got nabbed, and laughed maniacally when he got dismembered—it was a little silly, don’t you agree?)

A long while back, for Halloween one year, I rented Event Horizon and In the Mouth of Madness, both Sam Neill vehicles. While they are both similar in basic story (the aforementioned Things That Mankind Was Not Meant To Know), I think they are equally scary, even with Paul Anderson’s love affair with gore, because they are both takes on this feeling of dread and the unknown. By the time The Big Reveal rolls around in both films, we’re left feeling genuinely terrified. And it’s not because the same nameless stalker has been killing people off one by one in gruesome and bizarre ways. It’s because we don’t know who’s going to die, or if anyone’s going to die at all.

Too often, we’re not only shown what’s inside the box, but we can see the box from a mile away, and it’s got glass sides. If you want to scare someone, you don’t show them what’s in the box. At least, not right away. You tell them, “Maybe you know what’s in here, but maybe you don’t. How about this: I’ll set the box here, and you can try to guess what’s in it. I’ll give you a hint, though. It’s really, really bad, and it’s really, really scary.” And then you leave the viewer/reader to form their own opinions.

Because nothing scares us like ourselves.

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  1. libby walkup
    May 1, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I blame capitalism and laziness.

  2. Rick Cummings
    May 1, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    If I had to blame anything, it’s moviegoers that eat it up.

    It’s like in The Critic: “If the movie stinks, just don’t go.”

  3. libby walkup
    May 2, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Then I blame lack of culture (they just don’t realize it stinks) or curiosity (maybe the critics were wrong). Stupidity? However, if they didn’t make the movie in the first place, there would be no movie to go to. Or there would be a better movie to go to. Chicken/egg or supply/demand?

  4. Rick Cummings
    May 3, 2009 at 12:29 am

    Well, from the studios’ side, what you say is correct: they’ll only make what they think will make them money. I think the problem extends much further than simply the horror genre. I mean, the whole Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay school of gigantic movies that are entirely vapid and soulless can fuck right off as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, the reason these movies keep getting made is because there’s always been that element of Hollywood (or wherever) that just cranks out terrible B-movies, but there’s a distinct lack of good big-budget movies like Jaws or The Godfather or whatever. I mean, when was the last time you heard about a movie with a $100 million budget that wasn’t some special effects monster of a movie like Spiderman or Pearl Harbor? Fewer good movies are being made, I think, and it’s because the studios won’t take the chances they used to. So on that side, you’re correct.

    From the audience’s side, though, I don’t think it’s the fact that people are stupid so much as the people that go to theaters are people with a lot of disposable income and the patience to sit in a theater with a bunch of other noisy assholes. That is to say, teenagers and young adults are more likely to go to movies. I know you’ve been out of the country a while, but they were assholes and douchebags then, and they are still. And what do this kids want to see? Some high-brow think-piece like Watchmen was as a book, or a violent action-fest that Watchmen was as a movie?

    That’s not to say that good movies don’t come out nowadays, but it’s harder for them to be the blockbusters that they used to be. Even Jurassic Park had some really good characters and moments. And for a horror movie to be both scary and a good movie is just as, if not more, difficult to get made, let alone screened, marketed, etc.

    Really, I think it comes down to a lack of respect on both sides: studios not respecting the intelligence of the audience (why should they? People keep going to the same crap) and the audience not respecting the studios enough to act as a watchdog (why should they? They’re just going to keep making movies, so who cares what’s on the screen when you’re trying to score with your date?) I don’t think one necessarily causes the other, but the two are integrally linked. A fault in one necessarily causes the downfall of the other, and it doesn’t matter which side falters.

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