Monsters in the Movies: What Scares YOU?

Oct. 31, 2011 Happy Halloween!

As one whose earliest childhood memory was getting spooked by my own reflection at age 3 in scary mini-witch regalia, it’s pretty clear I’m not cut out for the full tilt analysis of “Monsters in the Movies” media moments John Landis’ serves up in his new book with any kind of in-depth philosophical probing of “why we need” monsters in our human psyche, as part of the “rollercoaster of the soul”…

That said, I loved listening to Landis just now on NPR’s “Hour of Horror” interviewed about the evolution of 100 years of cinematic nightmares on “To The Best of Our Knowledge” as I dumped off a carload of teens at the Halloween Haunt at Great America excitedly gearing up to be petrified out of their wits. (Landis’ interview archived on mp3; and two minute trailer in his own words to give you a feel for some of the content after the jump) The radio show commentary hypothesized, “Our world is increasingly unthinkable.  It’s a world of tectonic shifts, strange weather and oil-drenched seascapes.  So maybe it makes sense to look to the horror genre to help us think about our unthinkable world.”

I dunno. It almost seems like a teen “developmental/pop culture” mindset to go see the scariest film goin’ (which I guess right now is supposed to be Paranormal Activity 3 judging from Facebook status lines…) so in some cases one could argue ’twas ever thus.

We’ve ALWAYS needed to make sense of ‘the unthinkable.’ Even though I HATE gore, slasher flicks, violent horror media and such, when scary previews run for supernatural thrillers laced with ethereal weirdness I immediately flashback to my own childhood where the haunting “Tubular Bells” soundtrack alone made me ansy and after watching the real Count Dracula I’d pull the covers up over my neck  ‘just in case’…(yah, I’m a scaredy cat)

I’m not sure why I don’t handle horror or eery plotlines well. I guess being a creative director for years, my vivid imagination replays certain scenes over and over again in my mental relay like a loop if it’s a particularly searing scene, so I have to be careful.

Just as we talk about with media literacy and older sibling spillage onto younger ones, my brother was hooked on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and sheer bravado made me clock my share of those shows to prove I could ‘do it.’ Of course, then I’d walk by mirrors and paintings and do double-takes to make sure those ‘inanimate objects weren’t coming alive.’ (a theme that tormented me relentlessly…especially when he’d mess with me and scare the crud out of me with sheer innuendo and ‘what if’ banter too, don’t even get me started about my grandmother’s basement—siblings can be ‘horrific’ n’est ce pas? 😉

Landis’ book evidently deep dives into all of these deep dark caverns of our childhood along with over 1000 films represented in photographic coffee table ‘living color’ (wow, there’s a retro sound nugget). I’d be interested in his au courant techno dissection of uber-cool computer generated imagery (CGI) and makeup effects (or Fx as we used to say in radio scripts) too, but the big draw appears to be his noteworthy conversations with legendary film greats that he’s on a first-name basis with…(he mentions this in his interview a lot too) Like any bigwig director with Hollywood backstory, he can tease out the ‘story within a story’ that makes for interesting copy, as Canada’s National Post reports:

“Over the years, Landis has made several classic entries into the monster movie cannon, most notably An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. As a result, he’s been admitted into horror’s inner sanctum and was able to fill his book with interviews with such monster movie veterans as David Cronenberg, Christopher Lee and legendary makeup artist Rick Baker…” Landis adds:

“They aren’t like normal interviews. I’ve known these guys too well and for a long time, so we will challenge one another. I think it’s the best interview Chris Lee ever did. He won’t normally talk about the Dracula stuff, but we’re friends so I made him.”

The interview on NPR touched upon the empathy and compassion issues of audience appeal in films where there was a ‘monster as victim’ dynamic in classics like Frankenstein and King Kong and Godzilla and werewolves who ‘couldn’t help’ changing into something…They segued into the whole sparkly-stalker-Twilight genre of today viewing the characters as almost having a ‘disease’ versus being a true ‘monster’…

I thought the National Post echoed this well in talking about metaphors, monsters, and the crucial elements of storytelling, citing Guillermo del Toro,

“I think it is part of our nature as myth-making mammals to tell stories of the dark and what lives in it,” writes the acclaimed director of Pan’s Labyrinth. “The earliest storytellers, seated around the campfire, were trying to make sense of the world. They needed to create angels and demons, and beauty and monsters.”

They continue to cite Landis’ book conversations about today’s hit blockbuster Twilight series deconstructing the ‘ineffectiveness’ of contemporary vampires, quoting Cronenberg,

“In the Twilight movies there comes a point where you treat them like the disabled or something. They’re humans, but they have this disease problem. In other words, I guess you can go too far with the empathy. There has to be that sense of danger for a monster to really be a serious monster.”

Guess it all depends on what kind of monsters we’re talking about.

For me, it’s less “monsters in movies” and more about when the boundaries move toward the real…The “suspension of disbelief” shifts me off guard despite being implausible if the movie flirts closer toward the edge of ‘what if’…It gives me the heebie jeebies more than kitsch monster stuff which means that includes pretty much all those supernatural thrillers or human mind/psychologically intense dramas.

Then there are those “real life monsters”…for instance, I can’t see films that put kids or animals in danger no matter how ‘good’ they are (which knocks out most of those one-word titles like Taken and Ransom and hostage/kidnap stuff, gah!) Ditto for anything involving cruelty/sadistic psychopath stuff just feels like there’s too much copycat monster madness out thereso I guess it all depends on what kind of media scares you.

As an over-arching statement, I think desensitization to drek scares me much more than monsters.

Whether it’s a Snookified culture of subhuman reality show ‘entertainment’ or virtual world slave trades/debased violence against women, or video game gore summed in this RHReality Check post about the ERB standards “Supreme Court declares violent video games are fine…unless someone’s naked I think I can safely say that “unshockability” scares me.

Hearing young adolescent boys talk about slasher flicks/women in film killed violently saying lines like “that didn’t even look real, it’s more real in GTA than THAT” (Grand Theft Auto video game) well…that scares me.

Halloween sexploitation of wee ones? Scary. Treating children as hipster props with adult innuendo, drug culture references and repackaging it as amusing? Scary. Privacy policies, stalking apps and facial recognition software media? (story to come) Some monster elements of scary…

What scares YOU? Dyin’ to find out…

More Halloween Posts by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Practical Tips to Combat Halloween Horrors of “Wicked Innocence”

Halloween Media: FREE Apps, Sendables, Playlists, Games

Telling Kids Creative Doesn’t Count? (Storebought Slam)

Packaging Boyhood: What About BOYS Halloween Costumes?

Halloween Beyond the Cliche (Part 2/Boys)

Halloween MakeUp Tips For Kids Costumes on the Fly

Halloween, Trend Tracking & a MoshPit of Parenting Styles

Reverse Trick or Treating: Isn’t That..Um..Marketing?

The Life Cycle of Media Madness & Parental Panic: When Annual Candy Scares Go Viral

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50 Psychological Thrillers/Films (by Only Good Movies)

Common Sense Media Halloween Movie List (not too scary)

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